Their cross to bear
Appeal Staff Writer
For the religiously devout, struggle is a part of life. They struggle against their personal demons and work to hold themselves to the moral standards that are the cornerstone of their faith.
Now, First Presbyterian Church, where some turn for guidance, is facing a struggle of its own. Faced with increased membership and a building that is unsafe to use, the church must make a tough decision. Further muddying the water is the church’s connection to famous American author Mark Twain as well as its age, 141 years.
Therein lies the dilemma: Church elders say it will cost between $4 million and $5 million to restore the crumbling church. Not wanting to go into debt and with no means to raise that much, they say a new, less costly structure is the only alternative.
History and preservation advocates say tearing it down would destroy an essential part of the city and the nation’s history.
Both sides say a solution must benefit them both by allowing the church to serve its membership, 450 strong and growing, while not allowing a mainstay of Carson’s history to be destroyed.
A notable past
A congregation of Presbyterians formed in Carson City in 1861 but lacked an adequate place to meet. They began raising funds to build a church. Unable to generate the necessary funds to complete the building, in 1864, more than two years after the building project began, the structure sat unfinished.
Out of money and faced with a recession, church elders asked Orion Clemens, a member of the congregation, to convince his brother, Samuel Clemens, also known as Mark Twain, to help. Their idea was to charge admission to hear Twain give his third annual message to the Third House, an invented body where Twain and others satirized politics and law.
Twain obliged and raised $200 from his speech at the Ormsby County Courthouse in January 1864, allowing the congregation to complete its church. It was the first time Twain was paid for a public speech.
The church, a large two-story brick structure combines elements from Gothic Revival and Classical Revival architectural traditions, making it unique in the area for its style and structure. Since the initial building was completed, two major additions have been constructed.
The first was in 1896, when the bell tower and the current south wall of the building were added. The church was shut down for more than a decade from 1935 to 1948 because it lacked enough members to sustain use of the building. The congregation combined with the Methodist church, alternating pastors to serve both denominations.
Then, shortly after First Presbyterian opened its doors again, another addition was built that brought the church to its current dimensions.
While Mark Twain was not among the notable members of the congregation, other prominent residents have been. Over the years, members have included former Gov. Robert List, former state Sen. Ernie Adler and former Mayor Jim Robertson.
The congregation completed construction on a new education facility called the Family Life Center adjacent to the church in 1992. But a major problem remained. The historic building was designed to hold 185 people and membership had long surpassed that. To serve its members, the building must grow, said Rev. Bruce Kochsmeier, senior pastor.
A troubled present
Realization that the historic building was beginning to show its age began in 1967 when a structural engineer released a report that the church was deteriorating and would soon become structurally unsound. Over the next 30 years, two more reports from different firms came to the same conclusion.
“As early as 1967 we knew it wasn’t really structurally sound and between 1967 and 1996 we had three plans recommending that it wasn’t safe,” Kochsmeier said.
Faced with cramped quarters from a ballooning membership, the church began conducting large funerals in the gymnasium of the Family Life Center in the early ’90s and finally moved all services to the center in September 2001, according to Kochsmeier.
Since the last service held in the sanctuary on Sept. 9, 2001, the building has been unused. The numbers from the hymns sung that day still hang on the west wall.
In August of that year, the church made a request to the Historic Resources Commission to demolish the 4,385-square-foot church and build a 9,600 square-foot facility. However, a formal application was never filed, as church members instead chose to focus on retiring debt incurred building the Family Life Center.
After retiring the remaining debt from the Family Life Center project and receiving a $500,000 bequest from parishioners, the congregation decided it was time to address the problem.
A report from Hyytinen Engineering estimated a total cost of between $4 million and $5 million to restore the church, while an estimate for a new building from Shaheen-Beauchamp Builders was between $2.1 million and $2.2 million.
“We looked at several options involving saving two or three walls, but the practicality of that is that we would be left with a building that didn’t meet our needs,” said Ken Pearson, chairman of the church’s building committee.
Because the church is privately owned and used for religious purposes, sources of funding to help with restoration are limited, according to church officials.
Kochsmeier said, “To be able to meet our current and future needs, even if it could be done spatially, we can’t do it fiscally. We won’t ask our parishioners or this community to support a project that costs more than it has to. If we can replicate the structure in a way that is more safe and spatially accommodating, how can we ask the community to provide more support than that?”
The building committee decided to demolish the old building and erect a new church in the image of the historic one. Pearson said they plan to incorporate the current stained glass windows and use stone from the historic building in non-structural places in the new church.
But the congregation’s decision to demolish the building causes concern among historians and preservationists not wanting to see an anchor of the city’s history come under the wrecking ball.
“This is a national treasure. It’s part of Mark Twain’s national legacy and his legacy in Nevada. What is at risk is a building that is 140 years old. It’s a building that has value to the nation but not, apparently, to the church,” said Guy Rocha, a Carson City historian. “Tearing it down and starting over might be in the best interests of the Presbyterian Church, but it is not in the best interests of the American people.”
One of the issues of contention on both sides is the importance of the building as it relates to Twain.
“There’s a lot of connection being made to Mark Twain that really isn’t there. He made one speech to benefit the church, but never attended services here. It was his brother who was a founding member,” Kochsmeier said.
Local historians dispute the congregation’s attempt to downplay the connection to the famous author and his family.
“It’s arguably one of the oldest houses of worship in the state of Nevada. That means its important to the community. There is no question that it has been recognized as important by the National Register of Historic Places, by the state and by the community,” Bert Bedeau, board member of Preserve Nevada.
Pearson and Kochsmeier say that while they understand the historical importance of the building, it is just a building and the church will continue to be a presence even if the original structure is no longer there.
“We always say the church isn’t the building. It’s the body of Jesus Christ and it’s designed to serve his mission,” Kochsmeier said.
Rocha argued it is more than a building.
“By removing this building, it’s going to be a gaping hole. I would compare it to removal of V&T engine house. Now that’s an empty lot – a tremendous loss as an asset. Have we learned a lesson? Are we going to lose another asset as important as the V&T engine shop?” Rocha asked.
An uncertain future
Both sides hoped to have answers following the meeting of the Historic Resources Committee on Thursday night. Instead, they got more questions.
“We want to explore some common ground. I do feel there is a win-win situation that will have everyone’s best interests at heart, but it’s not going to be a simple fix,” said Walt Sullivan, Carson City’s planning and community development coordinator.
During the nearly three-hour meeting, advocates on both sides tried to make their case to the commission.
“Mark Twain was a great man. Jesus Christ was greater,” Church Elder Mary Sitts told the commission.
Advocates for saving the building, including Carson City residents and members of Preservation Nevada, offered to assist the church in a more widespread fundraising campaign.
“It shouldn’t be the burden of the church to save the building. It should be the burden of those who want to save the building to help the church,” Rocha said.
However, Kochsmeier said that because of the church’s mission they would be unable to accept any donations solicited to help restore the building because those donations could be used for people truly in need. Also, if the current building was restored, it still would not meet the needs of the growing congregation.
“Our mission is not to take the community revenue, but to give back and to serve the community,” Kochsmeier said.
Rocha said Western states face an uphill battle when trying to save historic structures such as the church.
“How would this play out in Charleston or Savannah or throughout the South? The building would be saved. But out West, the fight for historic preservation is harder. We are winning some and losing some, but out East and down South, they are winning more than losing,” Rocha said.
In the end, the commission put the application request on hold, wanting more exact figures on costs, and hoping to give more time for a compromise that would save at least part of the building.
“There is no answer to this to make everyone happy. I do believe the church has proven hardship,” said Robert Darney, commission member. “I don’t see the entire building being saved as it is.”
“You’re under the impression the entire building can be saved. Several of the walls can be incorporated” into a new building, Darney said.
The church building committee agreed to meet with the commission at a later date to continue to try to find a solution. For now, the members of the church will return to worshipping in the cramped quarters of the Family Life Center while their historic sanctuary sits unused.
If necessary, said Kochsmeier, “We’ll continue to worship in the Family Life Center until Jesus comes back.”
For those looking for a place to worship, theirs is a spiritual struggle still embroiled in a very earthly conflict.
n Staff writer Terri Harber contributed to this report. Contact reporter Jarid Shipley at firstname.lastname@example.org or 881-1217.