A historic Gothic Revival church in Norfolk has been deteriorating for years. Its new owner hopes to bring it back to life. – The Virginian-Pilot

NORFOLK – In the sanctuary of what was once Norfolk’s Christian temple, the pews are in pieces. The pendant lights are intact, but parts of the ceiling are missing and one corner has bird droppings on the floor.

Vandals, time, and the elements have not been kind to the 1920s Gothic Revival building, but its beauty still shines through the clutter.

The church has been vacant and deteriorating for about 15 years. But after a foreclosure last fall and sale in March, the historic Park Place community building has new owners, a group of five engineers and contractors who intend to restore it. They don’t have firm plans, but the church needs a lot of work before it can be used again.

RJ Gowda, owner of a contracting business in Norfolk and one of the buyers, is determined to do his best to save the church.

“This place must not be destroyed,” he said. “In the modern world, we can’t build something like that.”

When Gowda first seeing the building, he didn’t know he would buy it. But he heard that another potential buyer wanted to demolish the building. When that buyer backed out, Gowda, who thought the church was worth restoring, said the property fell on him.

His only immediate plans are to put a fence around the building and secure it. He then wants to restore the exterior as quickly as possible while keeping the appearance intact, although some of the original components may prove impossible to replicate.

Gowda and his group bought the property for $265,000 in March as Deccan Investment Properties.

Herring Bank, one of the lenders when another church bought the property in 2009, bought the building at a public auction in November after the church defaulted on its loan, according to a deed. The bank was the sole bidder and paid $691,900 for the property.

Before being abandoned and seized, the Christian temple had a vibrant congregation.

Kathy Freeman, 63, a retired preschool teacher and museum guide, runs a Facebook page at the church where she posts photos and articles from the congregation’s better days. Her grandparents were married there in 1924, her parents met and married there, and she and her husband were married in church on a hot July day in 1981.

Now, when she walks past the 1922 stone building, she says it looks “a bit sad”.

The Christian temple closed in 2006 after its aging congregation’s attendance dwindled for decades. For years it remained a white congregation as the neighborhood around it became predominantly black.

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At the time of its closure, only 13 to 20 people were members. Most were elderly and black, said Seko Varner, whose father was a church official at the time.

Varner, who handled the sale of the church, said he showed the property to contractors interested in turning it into condos, and the Virginia Symphony, which was interested in the building as a rehearsal space. At the time, the asking price was $1,275,000, according to a 2006 Pilot article.

A church moved in and put the property under contract, but couldn’t get the financing it was necessary. Then another church, the Apostolic Community International, bought it in 2009 but eventually defaulted on its loan.

Gowda said he hopes to get a grant for the restoration.

Julie Langan, director of the state Department of Historic Resources, said because the building is in the Park Place Historic District, it qualifies for historic tax credits.

But the cost of restoration could still be an issue. If it turns out the building will cost too much to restore, Gowda said he may have to demolish it. He hopes to avoid this. “I believe in structures,” he said.

Noble Brigham, [email protected]

Jerry B. Hatch