Historic Old Brooklyn church could be torn down to make way for apartments, retail

Once a masterpiece of red masonry, St. Luke’s Church in Old Brooklyn quickly fell into disrepair. Developers suggest tearing it down, but longtime residents wonder: What will we lose if St. Luke’s goes away completely?

St. Luke’s Church in Old Brooklyn. Photo courtesy Old Brooklyn CDC.

For all six of his years at Pearl Road United Methodist Church, Rev. Harlen Rife has been dealing with an elephant in the room. Or, more accurately, an elephant next door: the abandoned and nearly condemned St. Luke’s Church.

Once a masterpiece of red masonry, St. Luke’s quickly fell into disrepair. Lacking water or heat, its floors became hazardous. (A colleague of Rife’s once fell through the basement floor.) Homeless people broke in and camped out. Someone even stole the bell out of the belfry.

Four years into his ministry at PRUMC, Rife had had enough. He asked the church’s owners, the United Church of Christ, to donate the eyesore to his congregation.

That, though, wouldn’t have solved the problem. At the time, “Even…free wasn’t cheap enough,” Rife said of the possible acquisition. “We didn’t have the means to make that space safe, let alone habitable again.”

The dilapidated, 119-year-old protestant church at the corner of Memphis and Pearl Roads now stands as a roadblock in the way of Old Brooklyn’s revitalization. Since March 2020, when the neighborhood’s community development corporation acquired St. Luke’s by way of donation, local leaders and housing advocates have wrestled with the question of what to do with the structure.

Some, including development firm The NRP Group, have proposed simply demolishing the church and building a new 50-unit apartment building in its place. In this scenario, the cost would be footed in part by affordable housing state tax credits, and the finished building could open to occupants as soon as June 2023.

Others, though, especially longtime residents in the area, can’t help but wonder: What will we lose if St. Luke’s goes away completely?

In poor condition

The St. Luke’s project is part of an ongoing effort by Old Brooklyn CDC and the Brighton Corridor to attract new commercial development that helps revitalize the area. The church’s current owners point to the renovation of the Ariel Pearl Center—which was restored into a luxurious event space in 2019—and the 21-acre Brighton Park in 2021 as examples of how the neighborhood is growing and changing amid the pandemic.

“All experts deemed St. Luke’s in poor condition,” said Lucas Reeve, neighborhood development director for the Old Brooklyn Community Development Corporation, at a community meeting Jan. 25.

He also re-told Rife’s story about the crumbling floors in making a case against preservation, a project estimated to cost $4 to $5 million. “It would require significant investment with little return expected,” Reeve said.

Attended by Old Brooklyn power players, including Ward 13 Councilman Kris Harsh and Ward 12 Councilwoman Rebecca Maurer, the Jan. 25 meeting fostered both hope and concern for how the project could play out. At a Zoom meeting with 90 residents, Reeve presented four scenarios ranging from full preservation to full new construction.

Of those, the most well received was a housing project Reeve dubbed “Pearl & Memphis.” Designed by The NRP Group, the center would boast 50 units in four stories as well as fitness and business centers and 3,000 square feet of mixed-use space. It would be financed by leveraging hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax credits from the Ohio Housing Finance Agency (OHFA). The exact amount has not yet been disclosed.

In this scenario, Reeve said, “Pearl & Memphis” would incorporate elements from the original St. Luke’s and the adjacent Greenline building. Up to 120 residents would be housed in units ranging from one to four bedrooms, on a property that includes on-site parking.

Neighborhood resistance

Excited as many residents were at the thought of the neighborhood’s first large new construction project in decades, some were apprehensive.

Residents at the Old Brooklyn Community Development Corporation meeting on Jan. 24.

“I hope the builders could incorporate [or] save any part of that structure,” a resident named Dwight said. “It’s a bit of a soft spot for me. That building has history and has a spirit so that I would hate for it to go away.”

Others expressed concern the project might not materialize, or last long, echoing the sentiments of residents in the nearby Clark-Fulton and Detroit Shoreway neighborhoods.

“How can we be ensured that we don’t lose the structure and end up with a dollar store?” asked a woman named Edy.

For this, councilman Harsh had an answer. “Hear me loud, hear me clear: We will not build a dollar store at this location,” he said. If that happens, “I will be out chained to the building. We will throw our bodies on the gears of the machinery, and stop it.”

One thing about St. Luke’s is certain: It’s an historic property. Completed in 1853, the original church operated quietly through Civil War and Reconstruction. In 1903, a new building was built.

Over the subsequent years, it housed numerous other entities, including a Montessori school and the Old Brooklyn YMCA. Due to a dwindling congregation, the building sunk into neglect. Mold formed. Floors sagged. A year before Rife was assigned to PRUMC, St. Luke’s hosted its final service, on Easter Sunday, 2013.

UCC subsequently leases St. Luke’s at no charge to a religious group afterwards, but the group, UCC minister Nayiri Karijan said, which was tasked with upkeep and general maintenance of the building, “used [St. Luke’s] for a short while then abandoned the building.”

“The people in the parish, some of them have grown up in this their entire life,” Rife told the Old Brooklyn News in 2020. “It’s never been, in their lifetime, exclusively a church.”

Recent successes 

The cost of preserving St. Luke’s would indeed be considerable. In March 2020, a Sacred Landmarks report by the Cleveland Restoration Society labeled St. Luke’s in “very poor” condition. “The mechanical and electrical infrastructure [of] St. Luke’s is of an age and condition that is unusable,” the report stated, “and unrecoverable at a practical level of investment.” Jeffrey Verespej, executive director of the Old Brooklyn CDC, recalled an estimate of $1 million “just to stabilize the building.”

Margaret Lann, director of preservation services at the Cleveland Restoration Society, said that she recalls the report’s details: the $500,000 recommendation for mason work, the failing plaster. Her sentiment regarding St. Luke’s vitality is well in line with nostalgic Old Brooklyners: that, as a restoration specialist, it would be more worthwhile to see a century-old church restored to its historic glory.

“But,” Lann said, “it would take substantial investments to see that result.”

While CRS was involved with consulting projects for, Lann estimates, up to 50 churches in 2020 (with six full Sacred Landmark reports), she knows that a full revitalization isn’t always feasible. She points to recent successes in nearby Tremont—like the San Sofia Luxury Apartments, or St. Vladimir’s new office space—as tasteful new phases for churches and sacred structures.

“The best thing about our historic structures are when they’re continually used. But it doesn’t mean they have to be reused as a church,” Lann said. “We’re totally supportive of using it for condos, apartments. Heck, a bookstore—a brewery, even.”

As for replacing St. Luke’s with apartments, Verespej said he is cautiously in favor. He’s dismayed by the growing number of so-called “predatory investors” in the neighborhood rental market. (About 30 percent of Old Brooklyn consists of rental properties). In the scenario proposed by The NRP Group, in which rental units would cost $450 to $1,275 a month, Verespej said he’s confident the structure would be both attractive and respectful of architectural tradition.

He points to the larger issue of vacant properties in general — 7,000 in Cleveland — for context.

“This is the true issue facing our city,” Verespej said. “There’s no good plan for all these churches downtown that are vacant and abandoned.”

With church-based rehabilitation projects, the chance of success is “one in a thousand,” he said.

As for Rife, if the property is torn down, he sees encouraging signs of what the future could hold for the corner of Pearl and Memphis. It could become anything – a restaurant, perhaps. Maybe even, as Lann said, a brewery to add to Cleveland’s already-rich beer scene.

“I’m not one to sort of clutch the pearls at that sort of a thing,” Rife said. “I enjoy a nice brewery myself. Like a church, it’s a sort of center of gathering.”

This story originally erroneously stated the church was built in 1839 and added onto in 1903. It has been corrected.

Learn more about Old Brooklyn CDC and its plans for the corner of Pearl and Memphis, and how you can get involved, here: https://www.facebook.com/OBCDC/posts/the-beautiful-st-lukes-building-had-been-abandoned-for-quite-some-time-but-for-m/3950270935004013/

Mark Oprea is a Cleveland-based independent journalist who has written for National Public Radio, Pacific Standard, and many others.

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