Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Lessons from the Fifth Church

A study in urban neglect - Fifth Church of Christ Scientist.

A few years ago, I had lunch at The Diner on Clifton with pianist Stephen Hough. (I’ve had a soft spot for this restaurant since I lived on the West Side, and as Hough is a diner enthusiast, it was a logical choice.) We had a few minutes afterward to walk off our lunch, and he marveled at the Fifth Church of Christ Scientist on the corner of Lake Avenue and West 117th. I gave him a rundown on the history of the building, which had been vacant since the 1980s, and excitedly told him of plans for renovation and use as a bookstore. Stephen spoke with some eloquence of a misguided period in England’s history, when historic structures were deemed outmoded, demolished, and replaced with modern cookie-cutter structures – which have since become outmoded themselves.

Sadly, the plans for renovating and converting Fifth Church have long fallen through. The triple body blow that the prevalence of online shopping, move toward portable reading devices, and Great Recession dealt to the bookstore industry has been pervasive: chain stores Barnes & Noble and Joseph-Beth are struggling, and Borders is out of business. Further, no independent store would have the means to renovate and use this structure.

The bookstore idea was but one of many plans for using this structure that have never come to fruition – others included a performing arts space and conversion into condominiums. The building has been abandoned for decades.  As you can see from these photos, the interior and structure of the building have deteriorated to the extent that it is now very unlikely it could ever be made useful. Who would have the resources to undertake the extensive renovations necessary? More to the point, who would be willing to do so? At this point, no one – at least no one with the necessary funds – although as always there are holdouts. It seems that, before long, all that will remain of this once magnificent structure will be few architectural elements which the developer of a nearby shopping area has expressed an interest in using. To see how this once magnificent building was allowed to deteriorate over a period of decades breaks one’s heart.

The Telling Mansion in South Euclid - will it suffer the same fate?

There are lessons to be learned from the Fifth Church fiasco, which can and should be applied toward the Telling Mansion. Despite the numerous letters written to the Plain Dealer and Sun Messenger, the hundreds (myself among them) who signed the petition opposing the move, the protests in front of the Library, the comments at board meetings heavily opposing the move, and the numerous comments at various online sites, the Library’s move to the Green Road site is going to happen. Even a desperate attempt to get Cuyahoga County Executive Ed Fitzgerald involved has been met with public silence.

It’s now time for those who opposed the library’s move – and I am among those who continue to believe the CCPL board handled this in a manner that showed a shocking lack of respect for the taxpayers who fund them – to accept the reality of the situation and move on to a more important goal that the Library’s location: saving the Telling Mansion.

The Telling Mansion, while an older building, does not present the challenges that Fifth Church does.  The building is more than just structurally sound, it's currently being used and has been mostly well maintained by the CCPL.  However, leaving the Telling Mansion in limbo for a prolonged period could lead to a deterioration of the site - as happened to Fifth Church. 

The Telling Site is usable now - with three challenges:

*Parking is limited - one of the reasons CCPL wants to move.
*Some work needs to be done to improve the grounds, particularly the stone wall that runs from the upper level parking lot to the lower lot.
*While the basement and first floor can be reached via wheelchairl, the building is not fully ADA compliant.  As an historic structure, the Telling Mansion is exempt from ADA regulations.

Several interesting possible uses for the Mansion have been proposed:
*Art Gallery
*Bed & Breakfast
*Performance space
*Mixed use including Weddings & Commitment ceremonies, and Bar Mitzvahs & Bat Mitzvahs.

Obviously, most feel the best use would be one that allows continued and unfettered access by the public. 

Those of us who care about the fate of the Telling Mansion now need to take a two pronged approach:

1. Help find an acceptable buyer.

I have no doubt that the CCPL would prefer to sell the Mansion to someone who will respect the building’s history and integrity. I also have no doubt that, when push comes to shove, they will sell to whomever submits an acceptable bid – using the excuse that a more suitable buyer “could not be found.”  It is not our duty to help CCPL sell the Telling Mansion. As taxpayers, we owe them nothing. As citizens and guardians of both history and posterity, we owe only our vigilance to protect the last noteworthy historic structure in South Euclid. Therefore, it is our duty to try and find someone who will make appropriate use of the building.

2. Discourage undesirable buyers/uses.

It is also our duty to discourage potential buyers who would not make appropriate use of the Telling Site – either by closing it to the public or worse, demolishing it. Therefore, it is incumbent upon the citizens of South Euclid to convince City Council to pass an ordinance restricting use of the building and forbidding its’ demolition. Passing such an ordinance would cost the city nothing, and there is existing case law affirming the rights of municipalities to protect historic buildings and areas over and beyond what the National Register of Historic Places does. While the CCPL board may be opposed to such and ordinance, it’s necessary to remember that City Council does not answer to the Library board any more than the board answers to local municipalities.

It’s time to get moving. Let’s not allow the Telling Mansion to suffer the same fate as the Fifth Church.

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