First Presbyterian Church may be demolished
Appeal Staff Writer
Carson City may lose another historic building if the First Presbyterian Church moves forward with its plan to demolish the historic sanctuary and construct a newer, larger facility.
The structure, completed in 1864 at 110 N. Nevada St., is one of the oldest church buildings in the state. It is one of three historic church buildings situated downtown that rest only blocks apart. The other two are The First United Methodist Church at 412 W. Musser St. and St. Peter’s Episcopal Church at the corner of Division and Telegraph streets. Both were completed in the mid-to-late 1860s.
The Historic Resources Commission will consider the church’s demolition application during a meeting on Thursday evening.
First Presbyterian benefited from the oratory talents of Mark Twain, aka Samuel Clemens. The Carson City congregation formed in 1861 but had no place of its own to meet. A recession and the Civil War made it difficult to gather enough money to complete a 1862 church building project that remained unfinished at the beginning of 1864.
Twain’s brother, Orion, was a practicing Presbyterian. Church trustees wrote to Twain and asked if he would consider charging money for people to hear his Third Annual Message to the Third House, where “Governor Twain” and others satirized politics and the law.
Twain’s performance at the Ormsby County Courthouse in January 1864 raised about $200 and allowed the church members to complete their building. It also was the first time Twain was paid to speak before an audience, according to Guy Rocha, Nevada state archivist.
“It’s a community asset. Arguably, it’s a state asset and a national asset,” Rocha said.
Parishioners now meet in the Family Life Center, constructed in the 1990s. The center provides cramped quarters for the church’s 350-400 parishioners. Services haven’t been held in the church’s sanctuary since September 2001.
As church officials weighed whether to restore the sanctuary or demolish it, cost became the overriding factor. This is why the church chose to focus first on paying off money owed on the Family Life Center, said Ken Pearson, chairman of the church’s building committee.
Church members are “gun-shy of incurring further debt,” Pearson said.
At that time, the church owed $206,000 on the mortgage for the Family Life Center. Today they have budgeted roughly $1.7 million for a new sanctuary. This amount doesn’t include furnishings.
“We feel there’s a sense in the church that a lot of people are anxious to get in a new place, a more worshipful place,” Pearson said.
Even if the church had the ability and will to restore its sanctuary, “the arrangement and size of the existing structure wouldn’t fulfill our needs,” he emphasized.
It would cost more to restore the old building than to demolish it and build a new one, said Melvyn Green, of Melvyn Green and Associates, a structural engineering business in Torrance, Calif. He looked at the church building recently and has seen other old and historic buildings in Carson City.
The building is “not unsound,” Green said. “It needs earthquake strengthening. It’s doable.”
Price tags for preserving the old building have varied greatly, depending on how the project is designed. One estimate was as low as $2.1 million and others have been as high as $4 million or $5 million, according to the church.
Green wasn’t the only expert to look at the building. There have been a few over the years, said Carl Dahlen, another member of the church’s building committee. Additions to the building over time have compromised its integrity, he said.
“They did what they thought was needed,” he said of building additions made by cutting holes in the brick, in the 1890s and after World War II.
While the church is now focused on building a new sanctuary and narthex, feelings about tearing down the old church are “mixed.” They would like to try to use elements from the old buildings or, at least, try not to “ignore the history of the church,” Pearson said.
“The difficulty of raising funds in a congregation is always there. I encouraged them to save it, but they had to make up their own minds,” Green said. “The loss of churches and schools leave a deep hole in the community. It leaves a emptiness that can’t be filled.”
“Are we going to lose another asset as important as the V&T engine shop? They community has to ask that. Are we going to be comfortable with seeing the wrecking ball take that building out? Maybe we need some extraordinary efforts,” Rocha said.
— Contact reporter Terri Harber at tharber @nevadaappeal.com or 882-2111, ext. 215.
If you go
What: Historic Resources Commission meeting
When: 5:30 p.m. Thursday
Where: Sierra Room, Community Center, 851 E William St.