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03.24.2014
Born Again
Destroyed by fire, St. Louis church finds new life as an art park.
The site could become part of the Grand Center arts and culture district.
Courtesy Gluckman Mayner

In 2001, an electrical fire ravaged St. Louis’ National Memorial Church of God in Christ, destroying all of the historic structure except for its perimeter walls. Rebuilding the interior from scratch was not possible. Instead, as part of a broader plan to revitalize the Grand Center neighborhood, a local nonprofit hired New York–based Gluckman Mayner Architects with Michael Van Valkenburgh to help local architects John C. Guenther and Powers Bowersox resurrect the ruins.

The congregation sold the Spring Avenue property to the nonprofit Grand Center. Since the fire, the church has played host to a series of installations. German artists Rainer Kehres and Sebastian Hungerer stitched together pieces of old lamps donated by neighbors, constructing a scaffold that served as a roof for the Spring Avenue church. They named the piece “CHORUS.”

 

With a bit of restoration work, Gluckman Mayner Principal Richard Gluckman said the church could become a permanent space for public art and recreation. They plan to touch up some of the stone, and replace the structure’s wide flange shoring with something “more detailed and less intrusive,” said Gluckman. But the design team is not going to replace the roof or restore any interiors. “It’s intended to be a ruin, basically. A restructured ruin,” he added. “It’s memorializing a moment in time, and providing a public amenity.”

Temporary diagonal bracing holds up the walls now, but the plan is to replace that with a cantilevered structural steel frame that could also serve as a trellis for climbing vines and other plants. The design lowers the threshold of the original church windows along the north wall to meet the new ground plane of stone and gravel.

 

More park and public art gallery than building, the church could become part of the infrastructure of the Grand Center arts and culture district. “It’s sort of a tabula rasa for clever art installations,” said Gluckman. One such installation is an acoustic work by Ann Hamilton that emits “music that once filled the site” through 36 in-ground speakers.

A historic and predominantly African-American neighborhood in midtown St. Louis, Grand Center is rife with vacant land, but also theaters and a vibrant art scene. The Spring Avenue church project is a soft-spoken addition to the larger cultural district, intended to support chance meetings and creative installations. “It’s this unusual combo of landscape architecture, architectural fragment, and artwork,” said Gluckman. “In some ways it’s more accessible because it’s un-programmed space.”

Most of the site is an open lawn. Monitored cameras and minimal architectural lighting could provide security for the 24-hour park, but the designers are wary of overloading the space. They have not determined if the church itself will remain open at night. The project won an AIA St. Louis Award of Merit last year. Still seeking funds both public and private, the team hopes to start construction this year.

Chris Bentley