Pastor: First Baptist will rise again this spring

February 22, 2008
By

DAVID TABER


Gazette Photo by John Swan
The appearance of the First Baptist Church property, ravaged by fire more than three years ago, is scheduled to undergo improvements this spring.

JP CENTER—More than three years after their 149-year-old church was decimated in a fire, the congregation of First Baptist Church plans to begin the first phase of rebuilding this spring.

Since the January 2005 fire, the burned-out shell of the church—its stone exterior walls and steeple are about all that has survived—has been standing at the corner of Myrtle and Centre streets. First Baptist congregants, as well as worshippers from a Haitian congregation, the Pierre Angulaire Baptist Church, a group of JP Quakers, and others who rent First Baptist space have been meeting in a trailer in the church’s front yard.

Recently, some neighbors have complained that the ruined building and the trailer, along with burnt timbers and AstroTurf laid on the church’s front lawn, are an eyesore and questioned if First Baptist has the wherewithal to rebuild on the site.

“We are moving along,” said Pastor Ashlee Wiest-Laird. “Right now we are at the last stages [of finalizing the design].”

The church got about $2.7 million in an insurance settlement after the fire, and, in the last few months, began a capital campaign to start raising the remaining $2.2 million it will take to complete the phase one of construction, Wiest-Laird said. To date, the campaign has raised close to $700,000, she said.

Phase one of construction will include shoring up the stone exterior walls of the church, which survived the fire, putting on a new roof, reinstalling utilities and finishing the ground floor of the church, Wiest-Laird said.

The ground floor will house the parish hall, as well as a kitchen, classrooms and office space. When phase one is complete, the congregation will move out of the trailer.

Phase two will involve reconstructing the second-floor church sanctuary. While there is no official estimate yet for how much it will cost, Wiest-Laird said she thinks it will be in the $2 million to $3 million ballpark.

But completing the first phase will “give us a really viable space,” she said. “We are just trying to do the best we can to get back into the space.”

The congregation currently stands at about 80 active members, up from 24, Wiest-Laird said, when she took over as pastor four-and a-half years ago, and up from 70 when the fire broke out in January 2006.

The small size of the congregation means it will likely have to roam far afield for funding to rebuild, Wiest-Laird said. A multi-phased capital campaign is being planned, starting with church members and “members of the extended church family,” including former congregants. Later appeals will be made to institutional sources, including other Baptist and interfaith organizations, she said.

The church’s budget for reconstruction is decidedly no-frills. Once construction is complete it will likely be moving its folding chairs in from the trailer, rather than purchasing new pews, she said.

The tight budget also means the congregation will not be able to restore the church to all its former grandeur, Wiest-Laird said.

Instead of being supported by mahogany columns, for example, the new plans call for the roof to be supported by steel girders, she said.

Gothic roof

Another way the congregation plans to save money, she said, is by not reinstalling a two-angled roof.

The church’s original roof, as Wiest-Laird described it, rose at a sharp angle from the church walls then angled in again, so the roof peaked at a wide, convex, angle. Replicating it would cost $250,000 more than installing a simple A-frame roof, she said.

The style of the roof is significant to the historical nature of the church building, said Mark Zanger, chair of the Jamaica Pond Association (JPA).

The church, he said, is a significant example of German Gothic architecture, harkening back to the mid- to late-1800s, when JP was home to a sizable German population.

“There is something about it always having looked that way and that specific style of Gothic. This particular thing looks a certain way that was common to JP at the time,” he said.

Because of the size of the project, reconstruction plans are subject to design review by the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA).

The JPA expressed concerns about the roof when First Baptist presented its original design plans last year.

The design the church is now proposing calls for an A-frame roof, but will include a facade that is suggestive of the roofs’ original design, Wiest-Laird said.

Wherewithal

Another member of the JPA, former chair John Iappini, said in a Gazette interview that he has strong concerns about whether the Church has the “financial ability and organizational ability to rebuild the church.”

Iappini stressed that he was not speaking for the JPA, but said he has talked to a number of church neighbors who share his concern.

“The space [where the church is located] is prominent on Centre Street. It’s part of the public realm, it’s historical in nature, and it needs to be reconstructed correctly,” Iappini said.

He suggested that the community and the church might be better served if the church looks for another location and sells the property to a commercial or residential developer.

The congregation is not considering that option at this time, Wiest-Laird said.

Iappini also said neighbors are upset about the upkeep of the property over the past two years.

“The neighbors have been faced with an eyesore—the timbers, the chain link fence, the AstroTurf. We’ve had to put up with it for a long time,” he said.

The burned out church is a visually prominent landmark on Centre Street, but Zanger said he thinks the church has the right to keep it that way.

“I personally would not put burnt timbers on the lawn, but we are getting into [free] speech areas,” he said, “It’s symbolic.”

When the Gazette asked Wiest-Laird about the state of the property, she said First Baptist is eager to get it cleaned up.

“We hope that it will happen this spring as we get the construction going. The trailer is going to be there until we get the construction done. But [the front yard] will go back to being green open space,” she said.

Wiest-Laird “has always been a good neighbor,” Zanger said.

While the JPA has very little jurisdiction over what the congregation does with its site, she has willingly met with the neighborhood association on a number of occasions, he said.

She was scheduled to meet with the JPA board in February, but was unable to attend and will be giving the board an update at its March meeting. [See JP Agenda.]

Steeple

As rebuilding plans move forward, First Baptist’s steeple will be illuminated through the night, thanks to a $7,000 grant from Historic Boston Incorporated, a non-profit that supports the preservation.

The grant was originally awarded in 2005, but plans to light the steeple “fell to the wayside” because there was so much else going on with the church, Historic Boston Executive Director Kathy Kottaridis said.

“The focus of the lighting project is to call attention to the structure. It’s an effort to call attention to the importance of this place on Centre Street,” Kottaridis said.

Historic Boston often provides fund-raising support for preservation projects, but in this case its involvement is limited to lighting the steeple and advising First Baptist’s fund-raising consultant, she said.