Demolitans of the First Presbyterian Church are concluded in Macon, GA

P&Z’s approval of the church’s master plan in 1991 and 1998 legally stands because the congregation never suspended work in the four-phase master plan

MACON, Ga. — First Presbyterian Church Members learned on Monday that they could proceed with plans to demolish two historic buildings on its campus, but still needed to review their design plans before receiving approval to build a new outdoor worship space.

Although the historic foundation of Macon rallied the opposition to shaving of the buildings at 862 Mulberry Street, this battle was already lost as approval by Planning and Zoning in 1991 and 1998 of the church’s master plan to demolish the buildings was still valid.

Macon-Bibb County Planning and Zoning Executive Director Jeff Ruggieri explained to The Macon Newsroom that those demolition approvals “are still good now because the church never gave up on the project after they started it.”

Since the church is still working on the final details of landscaping, sound and lighting, their certificate of suitability for the project could not be issued at Monday’s meeting. The project is expected to return to the board in early 2023.

During this November Design Review Board meeting, Ruggieri said he met with church leaders and reviewed documents showing the church has continued to pursue all four phases of its master plan for the past 31 years.

Historic Macon Foundation executive director Ethiel Garlington told the review panel he was appalled by plans to demolish the nearly century-old Romanesque Revival stucco administration building and the building one-story International Style designed in 1945 by pioneering architect Ellamae Ellis League. serve as his office.

“I don’t think I’m the only person in this room who thinks that’s ridiculous,” Garlington said. “The fact that we are making decisions in 2022 based on a decision that was made in 1991. I think our downtown has changed. … I don’t think anyone should be bound by a plan from over 30 years ago. Needless to say we were frustrated.

Ruggieri said the current code states that projects must begin within 6 months of approval, but provides no expiry date, as a building permit does.

“This is not a discontinued project and they still vest with the original 1991 approval which was then reconfirmed in 1991. … So the project is still ongoing, started on time and has not been abandoned. “, said Ruggieri.

Consequently, the demolitions have been removed of the design review committee agenda a few days before the meeting after P&Z’s legal counsel determined that previous decisions were still in effect.

Preserving the history of a pioneering architect

Architect Trey Wood, president of WM2A Architects, presented slides and graphic renderings of the plans which showed that the elaborate arched windows built in the Phase 1 Fellowship Hall expansion were designed to face the courtyard, not the rear of the administration building which was to be demolished.

In place of the SU office, which most recently housed the Campus Club, a colonnade will be built against the library ballroom building, which the church recently purchased for $1.25 million.

Architect Shannon Fickling has spoken out against the destruction of League’s one-story office.

“Nearly every architect I’ve worked for here in my 35-year career has worked for Ellamae in his office, and I think it would be myopia for the City of Macon to forgo a resource that represents such a pioneering woman and the impact she had on this city, a very positive impact,” Fickling said.

When Garlington realized that demolition was apparently imminent, he asked the Design Review Board to stipulate that the church allow Historic Macon access to both buildings to take photos, document history and recover all the architectural elements that can be saved.

Lauren Mauldin of the board agreed that it was important to document the significance of both buildings.

“You know, it pains me to see the Ellamae Ellis League office being torn down,” Mauldin said.

Remains of the Library Ballroom

The church’s offices in the administration building will be moved to the old library building, and its ballroom is expected to continue to be used as event space for the church.

Before the Library Ballroom became available for purchase this year, the church’s original master plan called for a new two-story office building to be constructed on the site of the SU office.

Now that they own the old library building to house offices, they have replaced the new office building with a covered hallway, or colonnade, in the plan currently under consideration for suitability.

Design Review Board Chairman Chris Clark said the blueprint change did not warrant a new hearing and would be allowed under the old P&Z approval.

“The commission hears when there is a cardinal change to these planned developments, there is an opportunity for public input,” Clark said. “And in my opinion, it has not been a cardinal change in the master plan.”

Pastor Chip Miller stressed that the church had never intended to buy the old library, nor to consider demolishing it as part of the master plan.

Now that the library building can house the offices of the church, the one-story colonnade will be built against the three-story side wall to hide the scars on the brickwork from the demolition and to tie other architectural elements on the campus.

Clark wanted it on record that it is the legal opinion of P&Z’s attorney, not that of this board, that the demolitions were approved as part of the master plan and “that they continued their master plan consistently within the time frame the improvements have been made.”

At the time of the DRB’s vote on the certificate of suitability for the outdoor worship center, the board learned that all design elements for lighting, speakers and landscaping were not final.

Ruggieri wanted the church to submit its final plans before the DRB votes. Plans will also need to be approved by the Planning and Zoning Commission. Wood said they should finalize the final proposal by the start of the year.

The delay will give Historic Macon or another entity time to document the buildings.

Pastor Miller said that upon completion of Phase 4 and thousands of dollars of work on the library ballroom building, the church will have invested $10.5 million in downtown after having decided not to move north to Macon in the 80s.

“I watched the sacrificial giving of so many of our congregation, many of whom are now dead, to see this master plan become a reality,” Miller said.

“In Charge of Our Destiny”

Architect Gene Dunwody Jr., whose lineage goes back eight generations to First Presbyterian Church, said he was in a ‘terrible position’ opposing his church family, but he has an emotional connection with the building that the younger members don’t have. His grandfather designed the administration building that initially housed the Sunday school, and his great-great-grandfather helped fund it.

Dunwody read a 1998 letter from his late father pleading with church leaders to save the old building, which now has structural problems due to shifting load-bearing walls, he said.

“It’s one thing for places of worship to be destroyed by conquerors, vandals or natural disasters, but intentionally destroying something that has played a significant role in the history of our church is against everything we taught me,” the late Gene said. Dunwody Sr. wrote.

Wood, who serves as an usher at First Presbyterian, said the pandemic has reinforced the need for outdoor space. The church has been meeting outdoors for months asking the county to close this part of Mulberry Street for Sunday services, which young Dunwody is embracing.

The outdoor Easter services drew the biggest crowd he had seen at the church, and Wood wants to be able to host hundreds of people in the future.

Garlington suggested the church continue to meet on the street and spare the buildings, but Wood stressed the need to close the streets.

“This project will allow us to be in charge of our own destiny and not need approval,” Wood said.

In January, the final plans should come back to the design review board for approval before being submitted to P&Z.

Although an early version of Monday’s P&Z agenda showed the First Presbyterian project and the demolitions had been postponed until next year, Ruggieri said the demolitions would not appear on any future agenda. On Thursday, those apps were removed from the website.

Senior Civic Journalism Researcher Liz Fabian covers government entities in Macon-Bibb County and can be reached at [email protected] 478-301-2976.

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