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Plans to demolish church rectory have some upset
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Christ Episcopal Church is seeking permission from the Martinsville Architectural Review Board to tear down its former rectory (above) at 325 E. Church St. Some members of the church have said the structure has historical significance and should not be demolished. (Bulletin photo by Mike Wray)

Monday, September 1, 2014

By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer

Some members of a local church are upset over its plans to demolish a historic structure on its property in uptown Martinsville.

According to city officials, Christ Episcopal Church is seeking permission from the Martinsville Architectural Review Board to tear down its former rectory (pastor’s residence) at 325 E. Church St.

The board, which handles matters involving local historic properties, has not yet set a date to consider the church’s request. Susan McCulloch, the city’s community planner, said the church has not completed its application yet.

City documents show the two-story Rev. Charles C. Fishburne House, named after a former Christ Episcopal rector, dates to around 1940 and is a notable example of Colonial Revival architecture. McCulloch said the structure is on federal, state and local historic registers.

Senior officials with the church, including current rector Roy Pollina, could not be reached Friday.

A Sept. 30, 2013, letter that the church provided to parishioners explained the decision to pursue demolishing the house. It stated that “the building is a serious and significant health threat to its occupants.”

For example, the letter stated, the roof needed to be replaced, leaks had resulted in “significant damage” to interior finishes, and there was leaking heating/air-conditioning equipment and black mold inside.

Flooding caused by a broken sewer pipe had destroyed the basement, and exterior woodwork was in disrepair, such as with rotten surfaces, the letter said. It described the “old rectory” as a “rapidly deteriorating structure.”

Julia Hall rented parts of the house from the church for her counseling firm for many years before she was asked to leave last fall.

“A lot of the problems had been there for years,” Hall said. “I certainly didn’t think the house was uninhabitable.”

She mentioned, for instance, that mold had been present for more than 20 years and the church would clean it periodically. Virginia Tech had tested the mold and determined it was not harmful, she said.

“I would have bought the house and fixed it up,” said Hall, a member of Christ Episcopal.

However, the letter to parishioners stated that selling the property was not desirable. Among reasons it mentioned was that because the house is on the same lot as the church, selling it would require a separate lot to be surveyed and conveyed. Also, the church would lose control of the property, which it might eventually need for an expansion, the letter indicated.

The letter placed cost estimates for repairing the structure at $25,000 to $82,000.

That would be in addition to repairs needed for the church itself and the parish house, where the church has its offices, the letter indicated. Those repairs could cost as much as an estimated $395,000, the letter stated, describing the figures as “staggering.”

The letter questions why money should be spent to upgrade the former rectory when the church has no real use for it and “its best use would be rental property.”

As a church, “we should not be in the rental business and,” the letter stated, “is this a wise use of our limited resources when the needs of the buildings we do use for church purposes require even more money?”

According to the letter, most of the church’s vestry — which is similar to a board of directors — opted to tear down the house and preserve the land for future use. The estimated demolition cost would be $15,000 to $20,000.

The letter showed that the cost figures to repair the build were obtained from an out-of-town firm. Hall said she believes a local firm would charge less and that the church should preserve the former rectory.

“It’s a beautiful place,” she said.

Another church member, Jennie Blankenship, also opposes demolishing the house. She pledged to do “everything I can to stop it.”

Blankenship, who lives next door to the house, said it significantly contributes to the character of the historical district.

Tearing it down does not make sense when efforts are under way to revive Martinsville by trying to attract new residents by promoting the historical character of many of its structures, according to Blankenship.

Allowing a demolition “really defeats the purpose of (having) the historical district,” she said.

Ultimately, the house’s fate is up to the Architectural Review Board. If the panel determines there is a better option for the house than demolition, it would be hard-pressed to grant the necessary demolition permit, said Assistant City Manager/Community Development Director Wayne Knox.

“There seems to be a growing amount of opposition” to the demolition plan, Knox said.

The city sent a letter about the plan to owners of nearby properties. As of Friday, five official responses had been received and “all were opposed very strongly” to demolition, McCulloch said.

Two responses stated it was “short-sighted of the vestry” to plan a demolition without further exploring other options, she said.

She declined further comment because the church’s permit application has not yet been completed.

The city will accept comments on the church’s demolition request through Sept. 8. Comments can be sent to McCulloch at P.O. Box 1112, Martinsville, VA. 24114, or emailed to smcculloch@ci.martinsville.va.us.

All comments received will be mentioned when the review board meets to consider the request, McCulloch said.

 

 
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