Kalamazoo Churches Plan Demolitions After Historic Districts Turned Down

Apr 22, 2019

The interior of the former First Reformed Church at 302 Academy Street in Kalamazoo.
Credit Zoe Jackson / WMUK

A conflict between preservationists and churches came to a head in Kalamazoo recently. The likely demolition of two historic churches led to a proposal to protect them by making them part of historic districts. But earlier this month, City Commissioners took the unusual step of stopping the historic districts before they were even asked to vote on them.

The building at 302 Academy Street, the former First Reformed Church, was at the center of this conflict. Nathan Dannison is a pastor at First Congregational Church, which is on the same block and which has owned 302 Academy since 2016.

“It’s kind of heartbreaking when buildings like this, that have so much potential, end up spending 30 years, sort of caving in on themselves,” Dannison says.

The building dates to the 1850s, and it was a Reformed Church until the early 2000s.  From the outside the walls look like solid brick. But Dannison says that on the inside you can see that this is essentially a wooden structure. 

“And the reality is that this building was built, its wood beam construction, is similar to the way you’d raise a pole barn or something like that. In the same way barns need constant maintenance, this building does as well,” Dannison says.

The congregation added the brick veneer in 1910.  Dannison believes 302 Academy, which is currently empty, is too far gone to save. He shows me a spot where you can see how the church is beginning to cave in.

“You can see how the windows kind of slope outward at a pretty significant angle, it’s about 22 inches off center at the roofline there, that’s why the roof is dipping. It’s really unfortunate that it was allowed to reach this level of disrepair,” Dannison says.

Still, plans to tear down the building have met with controversy. And 302 Academy isn’t the only Kalamazoo church property that might disappear soon. Certain buildings at the former Nazareth College campus on Gull Road are likely to come down too. The nuns in the Congregation of the Sisters of Saint Joseph, who live on the property, say they’d rather invest their money in their work than in costly repairs to old buildings. Eileen Biehl is the congregation’s communications manager. When the Kalamazoo City Commission narrowly voted not to put a historic district around Nazareth or 302 Academy, Biehl celebrated.

“It’s a very big deal, we’ve had a lot of sisters that have had their heart and soul invested in the community, and this is how we operate,” Biehl says.

But in a city that has supported a number of historic preservation projects, and which is home to several historic districts, others were disappointed. Pam O’Connor is a Kalamazoo resident who has worked closely with the city’s Historic Preservation Commission. 

“I am of course, as a person who supports preservation, disappointed by the final vote tonight. I think there still exists a significant lack of understanding of the tool that historic preservation can be for great communities,” O’Connor says.

Before the vote, Historic Preservation Commission chairperson Joshua Koenig told City Commissioners that their support made previous historic districts possible.

“Halting, or recommending a halt to the current historic district process abruptly by resolution tonight, flies against the actions of seven previous city commissions. None of them chose to stop the study committee process before it had truly begun. The Historic Preservation Commission is concerned about the two threatened churches. It would be so easy to lose the character of the wall of historic buildings surrounding Bronson Park,” Koenig says.

But First Congregational’s Nathan Dannison says no developer has been willing to take on rebuilding the church at 302 Academy. And he adds that tearing it down will have advantages. For one thing, it will be easier to work on the First Baptist Church next door.

“The churches were constructed about 4 inches apart, so there’s this massive South wall that we can’t do any work on, because you just don’t know have access to it,” Dannison says.

Then there’s First Congregational’s plan to build a children’s nature park on the site, complete with trails and water features. Dannison says that’s in keeping with the spirit of the original church square. He says Kalamazoo founder Titus Bronson wanted the square to be for everyone.

“It’s a beautiful park and it’s gorgeous, but there isn’t anything that is truly for the kids… and we thought what if we could create a space for them that is bounded, safe, meaningful, where they can just have some free play space, creative exploration,” Dannison says.

Dannison says parts of 302 Academy will live on… just not in one piece.

“It’s kind of like an organ donor program, where we very carefully disassemble the building brick by brick, and stick by stick, and use those historic elements that could perhaps help heal another historic building of the same age. It is true that these bricks aren’t made anymore, and the wood beams that this structure was built out of don’t exist anymore. So we want to see them put to use to help preserve other buildings that are not blighted and that are not falling down,” Dannison says.

With the historic district issue settled, Dannison says First Congregational hopes to begin demolition as soon as next Spring. He hopes to cut the ribbon on the nature park the following year.