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City Eyes Future For Historic Downtown Church

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The city of Springfield, Massachusetts is continuing preservation efforts on one of the oldest church buildings in New England, while looking to find a place for the property in the plans for downtown urban renewal.

Bids are being solicited by the city of Springfield for repairs to historic Old First Church, a white wood framed building in Court Square in the heart of the city’s downtown.  Patrick Sullivan, the city’s director of buildings management, said it’s estimated the church needs $100,000 in work to repair damage caused by the 2011 tornado.

" We did receive FEMA money to replace some ceiling joists damaged by the tornado and plaster repairs."

The city has also begun a planning process for long-term improvements to the church, which was built in 1819 and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The city purchased the church and the attached brick parish house for $900,000 six years ago after the congregation, faced with dwindling membership and rising costs, voted to disband.  Then-mayor Charles Ryan said the city buying the church was the best option to preserve it.

" We felt the most logical protector and steward would be the city government"

City officials at the time of the purchase said the church would not stand empty and un-used.

But since then, the meeting house portion has been used only sporadically—averaging about 20 events a year-- and the parish house office space has  not  been used at all.    

Sullivan said overall the building is in good condition, but it needs to be brought up to modern building code standards and made handicap accessible.  Once that happens the building could be used as a performing arts venue, a place for business meetings, and conferences, according to Sullivan.

"There's a great mixed use for the property. We just need to make an investment in it. I think it going to be a great center for economic development and for the residents to use throughout the year."

The neighborhood around Old First Church is expected to undergo a dramatic transformation in the next few years.  An $800 million resort casino is planned just a few blocks away.  The city expects to see new buildings constructed and vacant buildings renovated throughout the downtown, according to chief development officer Kevin Kennedy.

" So where does this fit and how is it going to work out? We have to be a little patient about it. We can't  ignore it and we have to go forward with it at some point. We don't have any specific plans right now."

Old First Church was founded in 1637. The meeting house built in Springfield in 1819 was a stop on the Underground Railroad.  The statesman Daniel Webster and the abolitionist John Brown spoke there.

Paul Tuthill is WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief. He’s been covering news, everything from politics and government corruption to natural disasters and the arts, in western Massachusetts since 2007. Before joining WAMC, Paul was a reporter and anchor at WRKO in Boston. He was news director for more than a decade at WTAG in Worcester. Paul has won more than two dozen Associated Press Broadcast Awards. He won an Edward R. Murrow award for reporting on veterans’ healthcare for WAMC in 2011. Born and raised in western New York, Paul did his first radio reporting while he was a student at the University of Rochester.
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