ON ARCHITECTURE- Church sale: God's will or downtown parking issue?

If you've been browsing for properties near the Downtown Mall lately, you may have stumbled upon an unusual offering: a 110-year-old late Gothic Revival-style church, yours for only $2.8 million. 

The First Christian Church on Market Street has been a congregation for nearly 175 years, ever since its first leader, Rev. Reuben Lindsey, became inspired by the popular restorationist movement, which sought to restore the "ancient order" by advocating a stricter, more literal interpretation of the Bible. Lindsey decided to align himself with what was then referred to as the Reformed Baptist Church, and later the Church of Christ or Christian Church, the latter eventually branching off into the movement's more conservative, Southern wing. Many religious scholars believe it was one of America's first truly indigenous denominations.

In 1823, church trustees bought the plot of land on Market Street for $300 dollars. For two years, Rev. Lindsey and his flock met at the courthouse until the first sanctuary was built in 1837. In 1897, a church in the late Gothic Revival-style, built on the foundation of the old church, replaced it.

The "new" sanctuary constructed was built of brick with granite trim and characterized by pointed windows with thick mullions, splayed door reveals, a patterned slate roof, and two towers capped with pyramidal roofs. In 1930, the Bible school annex was built.

By the 1960s, according to Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society records, church membership had reached 698, the Bible School enrollment was 450, and the property was worth $150,000. Today, the church has about 175 members and is apparently worth close to $3 million, even if the City Assessor believes it's worth just $1.7 million.

According to the Church's website, this congregation still adheres to those literalist interpretations believing that one must be baptized to show "total adherence" to God's will and that God created everything in "six literal days."

Despite such long history in Charlottesville, elders of The First Christian Church on Market Street have decided to sell the property. But the question is why? Is it God's will? Well, yes and no.

"Well, the bottom line is there's no parking," says church elder Dave Legault. " We use the parking lot next door, but we've been given notice that we won't be able to use it anymore."

Legault is referring to developer Keith Woodard's proposed nine-story building. Dubbed First & Main, the building project was profiled in the Hook's June 1 cover story, "Are you Ready for Nine Stories?" The mega-development would occupy the parking lot adjacent to the church, where the congregation has long parked on Sundays.

"We've helped them for many years with parking," says Woodard, when told that the lack of it was the reason they were leaving. "It was my understanding they wanted to grow as church."

Indeed, a page on First Christian's website titled "Going Where God Leads" seems to support the God's will angle. The page shows proposed plans for a new church building on 15 acres of land at the corner of 250 and Keswick Road. However, according to Legault, nothing has been purchased, and the plans are merely a study.

"With great excitement and some sadness, we know it is God's will for us to move on," the website states. "In the summer of 2005 the congregation of First Christian Church voted to relocate our body to a new location that will better enable us to fulfill our purpose to "Know Him and make Him known."

Despite the congregation's apparent stoicism, accepting the move as God's will, it may be the will of the downtown real estate market driving them out. According to Legault, without the parking next door, there are few options.

"The funeral home across the street allows parking on Sundays," says Legault, " but other churches use those spaces as well. And they're only available if there isn't a funeral going on. Space is limited. We also have quite a few elderly people in our congregation, so parking farther away isn't really an option."

The Church's 9,340 square feet of buildings on a third of an acre of land, according to real estate agent Lane Bonner, who listed them about a month ago, have created considerable enthusiasm.

"Other churches have shown interest," says Bonner. "So have people thinking about turning it into a private school or a music venue. There's also the possibility that someone altruistic might buy it and give it back to the community."

After 175 years as a congregation, will the lack of downtown parking turn the First Christian Church into yet another downtown development project?

"It's a tough decision to leave this church," says Legault. "It's so beautiful. If someone came up with a parking option, we would stay."

The First Christian Church on Market Street appears in this rendering of the proposed First & Main project. The behemoth in the background would occupy the parking lot the church has enjoyed for years.