Not often do architects, builders and landscapers spend two years on a project with the goal of making it “feel like a ruin.”
Spring Church, a 19th century limestone building, was left a shell by an electrical fire in 2001. It’s still a shell — but one that has been made safe for photo shoots, art exhibits and public visits.
The mission was to make the damaged church “feel like we touched it as little as possible,” said designer Kiku Obata. “It should feel like a ruin.”
But now the church near Grand Center is structurally sound, she told reporters Wednesday as the Pulitzer Arts Foundation revealed the almost-finished project. The space will be free and open to the public from sunrise to sunset as it was before. However, “it won’t fall down on them,” Obata said.
The old church still doesn’t have a roof, adding to the sense for some that it’s a sacred space with a large opening to the sky, said Cara Starke, the Pulitzer executive director. But who knew that “four walls aren’t meant to stand up on their own?” she said, joking.
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So steel beams have been added to the church frame along with below-ground concrete supports. Underground, too, are drains for water. The exterior has been tuckpointed, and the inner walls were coated with a strengthening material, shotcrete. Workers were removing graffiti recently left on the shotcrete.
During the work, vines that had covered the ruins were torn away. On Wednesday, Virginia creeper was finding its way back up the walls and is expected to proliferate. The vines will give the old limestone the appealing background that has attracted wedding and graduation photographers (and may deter more graffiti).
Electricians were still adding wiring for energy-efficient night illumination, and a gravel path needs to be compressed. Starke said she hopes the 620 North Spring Avenue site will be completed in mid-July, in time for its first art installation.
Passers-by have often revealed their devotion to the old structure. “You’re not tearing that down, are you?” one asked Emily Pulitzer, founder of the Pulitzer Foundation. She said she reassured the onlooker that the goal was to make the church stronger.
In addition, a vacant lot next door has been beautified, while also revealing a bit of St. Louis history.
Theodore Link, who designed Union Station and other area buildings, erected his own three-apartment home on the lot about 1905. While landscaping the empty area, workers uncovered part of the foundation along with debris — including a kitchen sink.
Now part of the rectangular foundation acts almost as low walls of a lawn “living room” on the lot, as a curvy, gravel path leads to the church. Plants such as sweet bay and smoke tree are mixed with perennials in a natural design by Studio Land Arts of Granite City. Some plants, placed by a “guerilla gardener” when the lot was less manicured, have been moved and replanted, said Chris Carl of Studio Land Arts.
The Gothic-revival style church, which measures 53 feet by 37 feet, was originally built in 1884. Over its history, it was home to four congregations, including one that had been displaced from Mill Creek Valley, according to the foundation.
Its last congregation was the National Memorial Church of God in Christ. When an electrical fire burned the church in 2001, it was only insured for $40,000. It wasn’t enough to rebuild.
Grand Center Inc. paid for the site and by 2007, at least one onlooker complained the space was an “eyesore.”
In 2008, the Pulitzer Foundation presented “The Light Project,” a temporary exhibition of public art at the church and in the surrounding neighborhood, organized in collaboration with the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, the St. Louis Art Museum and White Flag Projects.
The foundation has dubbed the ruins Spring Church in honor of its location, history and the connotation of rebirth.
In 2020, the Pulitzer Foundation purchased the site. It will not reveal the purchase price or the money it spent on renovations, but says it will continue to maintain the space. Collaborators on the rehab project include Kiku Obata & Associates, McNealy Engineering Inc. and Owen Development.
The first installation in the renovated site will be by artist and activist Jordan Weber. Called “All Our Liberations,” the weeklong installation features a sculpture inspired by Japanese Zen gardens. Black obsidian will be placed throughout the garden, and events will serve as “a space for community learning, reflection and healing,” according to the foundation.
Two public events anchor the installation (July 16-24) and include poetry, music, remarks by Weber and collaborators, and a farmers market.
In October, the foundation plans a celebration for the renovation to include music by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra InUnison Chorus.