Historic Preservation Commission meets to discuss planned demolition of historic church

Published: Sep. 22, 2021 at 9:27 PM CDT
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OTTUMWA, Iowa (KYOU) - Wednesday night heard a dialogue on the demolition of a familiar building in the Ottumwa City Skyline: the former Wesley United Methodist church. Ottumwa’s Historic Preservation Committee held a public meeting to discuss recent plans to demolish the church.

In early August, the Ottumwa Community School District Board approved plans to remove the church and renovate the lot into expanding parking for Ottumwa High School students. Frase Company Rentals, the current owner of the property, will demolish the building and prepare the site, turning it into what the school district’s CFO calls a “clean slab”. John Berg notes Frase’s preparation will include “asbestos abatement cost, demolition, and then filling and grading the site suitable.”

Then, the district will buy the property for $528,000 and begin renovations. The property purchase money comes from PPEL funds, with the parking lot renovations paid for by the sales tax fund. Superintendent Mike McGrory says the parking lot is a need for the high school.

The measure passed through the school board with a 6-1 vote.

Those plans brought Superintendent Mike McGrory in front of the Historic Preservation Commission. While the demolition is already planned to happen, some commission members expressed their regret in seeing a historic building come down. Chair Dennis Willhoit noted he would likely never “agree with this decision - ever - to raze the building.” He described the church as a “historic property, locally significant, [that] sits in a very prominent spot.” Member Cara Galloway asked property owner Jeremy Frase if he ever had plans to restore the church, “or did you buy it just to knock it over?”

However, Superintendent McGrory observed the building had been in decline for quite a while before the district eyed it for a parking lot. “It was for the most part, non-functioning, and it was...our concern that it was a building that would be come very dilapidated.”

The church was never nominated as an official historic property, like many historic buildings across Ottumwa. In that case, there’s nothing stopping the private owner - in this case Jeremy Frase - from renovating a historic building, or in this case, destroying it.

The commission chair Dennis Willhoit lamented the loss of historical buildings around Ottumwa, such as the building that once stood where the 2nd street parking garage stands now. He described historic sites as places that have unique stories for each member of the community. “We’ve lost a lot of those stories in Ottumwa. And that’s very unfortunate.”

“If this was deemed a historical property, then I think this would be a different situation,” Superintendent McGrory replied.

Frase says demolition of the church is planned to be finished by Christmas, with the parking lot to be ready by the beginning of the 2022 school year.

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