Saving Grace – Endangered Historic Church in Marion, Iowa Gets a Helping Hand

Cedar Rapids Gazette – Gage Miskimen

MARION — The First Methodist Episcopal Church, a historic and iconic feature on Uptown Marion’s horizon, may be saved after all.

The church, at the corner of Eighth Avenue and 12th Street, most recently home of the Pentecostals of Greater Cedar Rapids, has been purchased to be saved and redeveloped.

The sale, an effort by the church, Marion’s mayor and members of Uptown Main Street and the Chamber of Commerce, came together in the “eleventh hour” as crews were already unloading for its scheduled demolition process.

Conlon Construction of Dubuque will take on the project of restoring the original sanctuary of the church, built in 1896. The future of the property is set to be determined by a visioning committee. It won’t be a church in the future, but it could be a restaurant, a boutique hotel, an events venue, housing or a mix of all of the above. The overall goal: to save the original sanctuary and the bell tower.

“You lose that building, you lose part of the soul of Marion,” Marion Mayor Nick AbouAssaly said. “It’s an iconic structure that helps identify Marion.”

The historic church served as a Methodist church until 2019, when it was purchased by the Pentecostal church. A year later, the building was heavily damaged during the August 2020 derecho. Parts of the roof are exposed, water damage is evident and the church’s bell fell from the tower all the way into the basement as winds rushed through Marion and battered the tall structure.

“I’ve lived in two war zones and I was on hand for Hurricane Katrina and the derecho was devastating for us,” Pastor Jared Staten said. “I remember walking into the sanctuary and seeing water cascading off the balcony like a waterfall. It was a disheartening experience.”

After months of fighting with insurance and working without success on moving the church to a new location in Cedar Rapids under a new name, Refuge City Church, the old building was set to be demolished this year.

But a determined AbouAssaly was set on finding a buyer.

“They (the church) weren’t landing on anyone interested,” AbouAssaly said. “It’s a complex project. All along we had been trying to come up with potential repurposing of that facility and finding an interested party. Since the derecho, we have been thinking about what to do. We didn’t want to lose it.”

Church nominated as one of most endangered buildings in Iowa

Uptown Main Street Director Brooke Prouty said she engaged with Main Street Iowa to do visioning for the site and got the building nominated as one of the most endangered buildings in Iowa.

Eventually, the process of looking for an interested party willing to take on a complicated renovation project of a historical, heavily-damaged building led to Matt Mulligan, president of Conlon Construction. Mulligan had just received the keys to the building two hours before talking to The Gazette.

“I had no interest in a church actually,” Mulligan said. “However, Nick and his group have a pretty large passion for it and what it means to the community. We know the investment that has been made in Uptown. It’s become a special, little spot. So to try and capture what that building was. … It means a lot to folks here.”

“It was a relief to get it sold instead,” Staten said. “The last thing we want to do is hurt people. We’re in the opposite business. There’s just a great amount of relief having it still standing. I believe the people who bought it are good people and I hope they have great success with it.”

The church was sold to Conlon for just under $100,000.

“I know we paid $650,000 for the property and almost $1 million to keep it running. And I sold it for $98,000,” Staten said. “I lost a huge chunk of money. Our church board was so gracious to be willing to make that happen. We could’ve leveled it and sold the property and got closer to at least breaking even.”

Mulligan said he doesn’t have a vision for the area. The first steps are to get fencing up and secure the property and get to work on the damage.

‘What’s going to make Marion that much better?’

“I don’t have a vision for that site, and it’s not going to be my vision, either,” Mulligan said. “We’re going to bring in a lot of folks in Marion who have invested in this community and ask them what this should be. What’s going to make Marion that much better? That will come in due time. Then we’re going to act on it.”

AbouAssaly, Prouty and Chamber President Jill Ackerman will put together a team of people in the community to help determine what the community wants and needs from the space.

“It’s a great model of public participation from a knowledge and passion base,” Mulligan said. “And it gives the private sector that motivation to invest in it as well.”

AbouAssaly said when Mulligan mentioned he wanted a collaborative visioning process for what becomes of the church, that was attractive to Marion.

“I’ve always felt that history should lead our economic development in this historic district,” AbouAssaly said. “Marion is the oldest town in Linn County and our history is what gives the community flavor.”

“So many people have stories about that church in this community,” Ackerman added. “Weddings, baptisms, there’s a whole group of kids from Marion Independent that went to junior high there when Vernon was being renovated. There’s over a century of stories.”

But again, the project is a complex one and it won’t be easy or cheap to take on, Mulligan said.

“I bet when all is said and done, it’s a $30 million investment,” Mulligan said. “I mean, the bell is sitting in the basement right now. That will be several thousands of dollars right there. It’s a really intimidating project for a lot of people. If you don’t do historic work, it will be a catastrophe for you. It takes the right group of people to understand that type of project.”

AbouAssaly added that the complexities of a project like this makes it important to be realistic as well.

“This is just the first step and it may still not work,” he said. “This opens up the potential pathway to see this church saved and restored in a way that contributes to the momentum and growth of this area. We don’t know exactly where it will lead and some of the newer portions of the facility won’t be saved. But the goal is to save the truly historic sanctuary and bell tower.”

As for what previous building owner Staten wants to see there?

“What they use for it doesn’t matter as much as the thought of driving through the city and being able to see that bell tower there,” he said. “That was our whole endeavor: to see that preserved.”