Historic First Baptist building needs saving

July 4, 2009

I never paid much attention to Lexington’s First Baptist Church, the Gothic limestone temple that overlooks West Main Street across from Rupp Arena.

Unil recently, I had never been inside. It has been a long time since many other people have, either.

When Pastor John C’deBaca gave me a tour, I was amazed. The 1,500-seat sanctuary has arched oak pews beneath a stunning vaulted ceiling of massive chestnut beams. There are four balconies, beautiful stained glass windows and a huge pipe organ.

There also are water-damaged walls and a stone front entrance that is closed and braced with wooden beams because city code enforcement officers fear it could collapse.

Rebuilding the entrance would cost about $75,000. Add another $24,500 for electrical work. And $14,000 for a new roof. Then there are the crumbling stairwells to the front balcony, water problems in the basement and worn masonry and exterior windows. The list seems endless.

What was once one of the South’s largest Baptist congregations has dwindled to about 50 people, many of whom are native Spanish-speakers. The congregation’s financial resources are no match for the urgent repairs their once-grand building needs.

“We’ve been working on it piecemeal as we can, but it’s a huge challenge,” said C’deBaca, who once taught building trades in Texas and now spends as much time ministering to his building as to his flock. “There’s a lot of potential in this building … if the community knew what was here.”

C’deBaca has been working with Tom Blues, the Urban County Council member, Bill Johnson of the Old Western Suburb neighborhood and others to come up with ideas to restore and perhaps find other uses for this 35,000-square-foot architectural gem.

So far, solutions have been elusive.

First Baptist Church’s history is as illustrious as its building. Founded as Town Branch Church in 1786, it was one of the first Baptist congregations west of the Allegheny Mountains. Its first pastor, John Gano, baptized George Washington.

The congregation met in a log cabin on the site, which also was Lexington’s pioneer cemetery. The church moved to Mill Street in 1819 but returned in 1859 and inhabited a succession of three buildings, two of which burned.

Most graves were moved to Lexington Cemetery in the mid-1800s. But when the last church building was demolished in 1913 to build the present one, the grave of John Bradford, publisher of Kentucky’s first newspaper, was found under the west wall. It was left there, according to state historical records.

First Baptist Church has suffered declining membership for decades. There were schisms and disputes, but location seems to have been the big factor.

There is little nearby parking, except for a small lot whose rental now provides income for the church. Some of the church’s 67 rooms are rented to Inner City Breakthrough Ministries.

What does the future hold?

“Ideally, I would like to see the congregation grow and prosper,” C’deBaca said. “But that hasn’t happened in the 11 years I’ve been here. We’re open to possibilities, and we need help.”

Perhaps the church could partner with other ministries, or turn the building into a religious conference center, Johnston suggested.

Or the church could sell the building, which would raise money to restart its ministry elsewhere. A developer could then turn the building into a concert hall, museum or exhibition space, a community center or even apartments, offices or restaurants.

One catch is that the building couldn’t be dramatically altered and still be eligible for historic tax credits that could help pay for its renovation.

Julie Good, executive director of the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation, did her master’s thesis on old churches that have been renovated for other uses. “There are so many examples of adaptive reuse of buildings like this,” she said.

“You have a great building that should be preserved at an important downtown location,” said Blues, the councilman, as we gazed up at the chestnut-beam ceiling.

“If this could be seen by people with good business sense and imagination, I’m sure we could figure out something.”