A once-stately church that has become a crumbling eyesore on the edge of downtown Minneapolis is testing whether historic preservation rules can save a building that some believe is beyond repair.

The vines and graffiti covering its brick facade hint at some of the problems at the former First Church of Christ, Scientist at 614 E. 15th St. Water seeping through the roof has taken a steeper toll on the structure itself, which has stood in the Elliot Park neighborhood for more than 120 years.

The grand sanctuary occupied by Minnesota's first Christian Science congregation now presents a nightmarish scene of broken windows, eroded plaster and walls tagged with spray paint. It has been vacant for 15 years.

The developer of an adjacent apartment building bought the church several years ago. While the developer initially thought restoration might be possible, the company later asked the city for permission to demolish it. But the City Council rejected that proposal last month, leaving the property's future in limbo.

The situation illustrates the quandary cities face when a historic property languishes until it requires repairs so monumental that converting it to a new use may never recoup the costs.

"We did not allow the building to deteriorate to the point it couldn't be renovated," said Dan Hunt, who represents the owners, Weidner Apartment Homes. "That's how we bought it — even though we didn't know it."

The church enjoys special status as one of just 179 locally designated historic landmarks in the city, which gives it special protections from demolition. Only six such properties have ever been demolished, the city says, and one of those had already suffered a major fire. The church is also on the National Register of Historic Places.

The city's citizen-led Heritage Preservation Commission rejected the proposed demolition in December, a vote that was later affirmed by the City Council. The panel rejected it partly on the basis that it would reward what some commissioners dubbed "demolition by neglect."

"To just let things deteriorate to a point where it is potentially a danger, I'm worried that we're setting a precedent that that's a good way to go about getting approval for a demolition permit," said Commissioner Kimberly Sandbulte.

The building will cost $4.2 million to repair, according to the most recent estimates. Alternatively, owners propose keeping the facade and leveling the rest of the building to create a dog park for people living in the apartments next door.

Is it salvageable?

The city's planning department has sent mixed messages on how dangerous the vacant building is today.

After a visual inspection, a city building official wrote to the owners in 2019 that it is in "imminent danger of collapse" and ordered them to fix it. More recently, city staff wrote that the owner's latest structural engineering report leaves it "unclear" if the building is about to fall down.

"Statements regarding its unsafe or dangerous condition were made over a year ago, but the building is still standing today," city planners wrote in a staff report. "Further stabilization and rehabilitation efforts are possible."

The owners erected scaffold-like supports in the sanctuary several years ago to prop up deteriorating structural beams. But neighbor Jim Hirst, who walks by the property regularly, notes that the owners have not protected the roof and open windows from the elements — and animal intruders. "If I would have witnessed some good-faith efforts to try to at least truly stabilize it, I would have been more receptive to their thoughts," Hirst said.

Hunt said efforts such as putting plywood over windows would have meant spending additional money that would never be recouped.

"If it's in tough shape and you can salvage it, then you move to protect it," Hunt said. "But if it's not salvageable, why spend money protecting it?"

Council Member Lisa Goodman, who represents the area, said the predicament over the property is one reason why she is trying to change city ordinances to grant historic buildings flexibility in licensing rules. That could open the door to uses not allowed under current rules, such as a bed-and-breakfast.

"If we're not going to be able to put money into these structures, we need to make it economically feasible for individuals to come in and have very little red tape and few barriers to economic reuse," Goodman said.

She said other historical buildings in very rough shape have been revived, including the Mill City Museum, the North Star Woolen Mill building, and the Oaklands Apartments. The Oaklands, thought to be downtown's first apartment building, was severely damaged by a fire that left the roof in a shambles for several years — until rehabbers stepped up to save it.

Goodman, who chairs a council committee focused on development, has been trying to identify someone willing to take on the church project. Among them is development consultant Tom Nordyke, who recently toured the building at Goodman's request.

Nordyke said the building could potentially be transformed into a bed-and-breakfast or "micro" apartments. That would be possible in part because the interior sanctuary has now deteriorated so much that it likely wouldn't need to be preserved, he said. But the renovation would require some public subsidy, he added, such as national historic tax credits or a state grant.

'Could have been an easy fix'

The building was designed by London-born architect Septimus Bowler, who also designed a home at Lake of the Isles currently proposed for demolition. The church's front entrance is considered a rare example of Greek Doric order architecture in Minneapolis — the other being Burton Hall at the University of Minnesota.

"As the first church to be built by this faith in the west, its dedication has attracted considerable notice outside Minnesota, and a number of visitors will come in from a distance for the express purpose of witnessing the consecrating services," the Minneapolis Journal reported when the building opened in 1898.

The growing congregation moved to another church, which is still standing at 24th Street and Nicollet Avenue, in 1911.

The large stone front staircase had been removed by the 1980s, when a National Register application described the building's appearance as "dilapidated." The Margolis Brown Adaptors theater company rented out the space in the late 1990s, but co-artistic director Kari Margolis said the sanctuary was already too far gone to use regularly.

Water damage was causing extensive mold — destroying most of the draperies — and rodents were scuttling above the ceiling. The theater company occupied an addition in the back of the building. The company researched transforming the sanctuary into a performance space but ultimately couldn't make the numbers work.

Had the roof been replaced several years earlier, Margolis said, the building would have been in decent shape.

"It could have been an easy fix at some point," she said.

Eric Roper • 612-673-1732

Twitter: @StribRoper