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Preservationists fighting to save Holy Corners church in St. Louis

Preservationists fighting to save Holy Corners church in St. Louis

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ST. LOUIS — History buffs and architecture aficionados in St. Louis are familiar with Holy Corners.

The northern section of the Central West End — along North Kingshighway Boulevard at its intersections with McPherson and Washington avenues — once was home to four stately churches built around the time of the 1904 World’s Fair.

But most are probably not familiar with the man who can be seen pacing the district, religiously checking on buildings and stopping and stooping to pick up litter.

That’s William Seibert.

For more than 45 years, the retired archivist and historian has been devoted to the preservation of Holy Corners.

In 1974 he wrote the proposal that led to the area being designated as an official St. Louis Landmark, and then later being included on the National Register of Historic Places.

“It’s simply magnificent,” Seibert said of the importance of Holy Corners, which includes five buildings other than the churches.

“It’s the finest collection of ecclesiastical architecture you could ever want to find,” he said.

But as any doting parent would, Seibert frets about the one site that seems to be getting left behind: the old Second Baptist Church, at 500 North Kingshighway.

“It’s just a disgrace what’s happening to that building,” Seibert said.

The deteriorating state of the church, built in 1907, has been recognized by the Missouri Alliance for Historic Preservation, which placed the site on its “Places in Peril” list in 2019.

Seibert rapidly listed the site’s woes.

“Break-ins, windows broken, roof tiles stolen, much of the copper gone, decorative hardware stripped off doors, pipes stolen from the pipe organ, graffiti on the walls.

“We eventually got some fencing put up. But vandals started cutting through that so we had to install razor wire in places to keep people out,” he said.

The property is owned by Dr. Gurpreet Padda, a pain-relief doctor and former developer of several restaurants, most notably Cafe Ventana, Sanctuaria and Hendricks BBQ.

In 2012, Padda told city officials that he planned to renovate the 40,000-square-foot church to open it as a Cathedral Square microbrewery and restaurant.

But according to Seibert and several other CWE residents, Padda has done little toward turning that plan into reality.

St. Louis Alderman Heather Navarro, D-28th Ward, said she has contacted Padda about the problems.

“There are a number of (building) code violations against it,” Navarro said, adding that the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed any action by the city’s housing court.

Navarro said Padda “is well-aware of the situation and that something needs to be done about the violations and to secure the building.”

She said if Padda is incapable of making the changes, city development officials “will work with him to find a buyer.”

Seibert concurred. “It needs to get into the hands of someone who’ll care for it, restore it and put it to good use,” he said.

Multiple attempts to reach Padda for comment were not successful.

Second Baptist

The Second Baptist Church is one of the oldest Protestant congregations in the St. Louis region.

Founded in 1818 by missionary John Mason Peck and James Walsh as the First Baptist Church, it began in downtown St. Louis and opened its services to not only white members but also Black slaves and freedmen.

A strident abolitionist, Peck worked with freedman John Berry Meachum, also a Baptist minister, to open a Sunday School for people of color. In 1828, the congregation helped those members form their own congregation, and Meachum became the pastor.

Soon after, in 1833, the original First Baptist congregation had to disband because of financial problems and dwindling membership, due in part to St. Louis’ cholera epidemic. It soon reorganized, but as the Second Baptist Church.

The congregation moved to Holy Corners in 1907, into a new Italian Gothic Revival building designed by Mauran, Russell & Garden, a leading local architectural firm that designed several other Holy Corners buildings.

“Over one million bricks were used to build it, and they graduate from dark to light bricks as it ascends,” Seibert said. “It is one of the most spectacular examples of masonry you can find.”

The congregation moved in 1957 to its present site in Richmond Heights.

After that, the building was home to several nondenominational churches until about 2010, and it has remained vacant since.

Seibert said the erosion of Second Baptist is especially striking in light of the success in keeping the historic district’s other main buildings in good shape.

“St. John’s Methodist (1901) is now an auction house and gallery; First Church of Christ, Scientist (1903) is still a Christian Science church; the old Temple Israel (1907) is being used by a nondenominational church; and the Tuscan Temple (1908) is still a Masonic Hall,” Seibert said.

“Second Baptist is the only one of the churches not being used in any productive way,” Seibert said.

Non-church buildings

The four other structures encompassed by the historic district are the old Temple Israel community center, now a business office; the old Washington Hotel, now an apartment building; the still-active Racquet Club; and the vacant Castles-Wilson Buick showroom, which was last operated as Reliance Automotive.

Navarro said the Reliant site, across McPherson from Second Baptist, would benefit from development of the church.

“I think if something got going in Second Baptist, the chances of Reliant being developed would go up,” she said.

Navarro said keeping the historic district, which extends up to Delmar Boulevard, in good shape also will help efforts to develop areas along the “Delmar Divide.”

“It’s like a gateway between the two areas,” she said.

Shari Coplen, a CWE resident for 25 years, has been helping Seibert with his Holy Corners quest.

She said Second Baptist is “an example of gorgeous architecture” and that keeping Holy Corners a vital intersection can only benefit the Delmar area.

“It doesn’t help anyone to let things get run down,” she said.

Bill Hart, executive director of the nonprofit Missouri Alliance for Historic Preservation, said the church was included on last year’s endangered list because it is “a poster-child for a problem common to historic structures everywhere — demolition by neglect.”

But making the list is just the first round of the fight.

“We can only do so much after putting the sites on the list. What we need is for people in the neighborhoods, in the community, to get involved,” Hart said.

“I’m glad that some local citizens there are taking the bull by the horns.”

This is the video of our exploration of the Second Baptist Church in Saint Louis MO. The church was constructed in 1907.

See my full write-up and photos here: http://sublunarphotography.blogspot.com/2015/08/baptist-church.html

Joe Holleman • 314-340-8254 @stlsherpa on Twitter jholleman@post-dispatch.com

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the names of Castles-Wilson Buick dealership and Reliance Automotive. 

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