Performance space for former church?

The pews lie empty. There are no books in the Reading Room. The First Church of Christ Scientist has left the building.

The elegant structure on the corner of 16th Avenue East and East Denny Way, which had served as a church since 1906, held its final service last week. Sold to a private developer in late September, the church is slated to be converted into condominiums. But an 11th-hour effort may alter that use into a community performance space.

The sale came about from a variety of factors. The building needs numerous repairs, from plumbing and electrical updating to replacing the roof; the latter project would cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $250,000. Additionally, the building wasn't really serving the church's needs. According to Debbie Gotchef, the church's office manager, it was too large and formal for the contemporary congregation.

"Our decision to move had a lot to do with our congregation not fitting this space anymore. It's a formal space, and our congregation is quite informal. We aren't as large as we used to be. Perhaps 100 people attend a Sunday service," she said. The chapel has a capacity of roughly 1,300 people. "We just didn't need all this space."

Gotchef said that the vast majority of the congregation was in favor of the sale. The church is now renting space at 402 Cedar Street. It will remain there for two or three years until a suitable permanent space can be found.

There isn't a question regarding the building's survival. The church has been designated a city landmark; its exterior appearance, including the original stained glass windows, will not become wrecking ball targets. Sold in September to Bellevue-based Real Estate Advisory Services (REAS), the group's intent is to convert the church interior into roughly 18 condominiums. Townhouses would be developed in the parking lot immediately south of the church building, as well as in the property immediately east of the church.

But the church's future use as a place of high-priced residences may be premature. An effort is underway to buy back the church and convert it to performance space.

Dan Fievez is hoping for a different outcome. A friend of his who used to be a member of the congregation told him about the pending sale in mid-August. Since then he's been working to buy the church back from the developer. The building would then be converted to a performance space, one he's calling the Capitol Hill Performing Arts Center. (The parking lot and adjacent property would not be part of that sale and would be developed into townhouses as originally planned.)

Fievez, with a lifelong interest in music as well as historic preservation, sees the church as a place where classical music education would be available to people of all ages, especially children. He's established the National Institute of Music, a nonprofit organization that works to promote music education for children. His approach is inspired by a model of greater civic and community support for arts and arts education, as is the case throughout Europe.

If the church can be saved as a community performance space it would be funded through rental and use fees, among other revenue streams. Such money would fund music instruction as well as opportunities for musicians of all ages and abilities to have a chance to learn as well as perform.

"There is a real dearth of classical music training for our youth," said Fievez, who sits on the board of the Seattle Lyric Opera. "The opportunities here are tremendous. The hope is to bring a concert hall and children together. To use a baseball analogy, this space could be a kind of minor league for classical music."

The church, he said, is a unique place for this kind of venture. It has near perfect acoustics, space for a stage and orchestra pit, as well as backstage areas, studio spaces and, courtesy of the old coat room at the church's entrance, even a place to take tickets.

"There is no other space in Seattle, apart from McCaw Hall, that has this set of features, and McCaw Hall is only available to professional musicians. This performance space would be made available to everyone," he said. He noted that Town Hall at the western edge of First Hill, itself a former Christian Science Church, serves as an example of a similar if larger approach.

There is enthusiasm for the idea, but time is unquestionably of the essence. REAS is amenable to selling back the church. Interior demolition is scheduled to begin on Monday, Oct. 30. Fievez said his group is working to secure several hundred thousand dollars of needed earnest money required by the developer to stop the demolition. As of Friday, Oct. 20, roughly $50,000 had been raised. If those efforts are successful, the earnest money would allow for enough time to raise the money necessary to buy the church building back. That figure would be in the neighborhood of $8 million.

"We came into this very late in the game," said Fievez. "The developer is serious about selling to us, but he has his own timeline, which is understandable. I am optimistic but it is unfortunate we didn't know about this earlier."

Mary Sanford, who teaches at Olympic Community College in Bremerton and has been coming to the Capitol Hill church for 10 years, admitted she was more melancholy than most of the congregation's members about the sale. But she's enthusiastic and hopeful that the efforts aimed at turning the building into a performance space will prove successful. If they are, the converted performance space would be in keeping with the church's traditions.

"I believe when we come together with music it is an act of healing. Music is universal. It unites across generations and promotes peace," she said.

She pointed out that if the Capitol Hill Center for the Performing Arts is created, a substantially larger number of people will be able to enjoy the building than if it's converted into fewer than 20 high-end condominiums.

"This building is simply a treasure," said Sanford. I feel terrible that we're leaving. But I am excited at the artistic possibilities here for the city and for Capitol Hill. This church could still be an amazing place."

Doug Schwartz is the editor of the Capitol Hill Times. He can be reached at or 461-1308.

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