Wesley Heights church to be demolished

Wesley Heights church to be demolished

Wesley Heights church to be demolished

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by Karen Sullivan / Charlotte Observer

Charlotte Observer

Posted on June 2, 2010 at 11:24 AM

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The 1940s west Charlotte church building where believers once flocked by the thousands for salvation and healing is scheduled to be demolished by June 11.

Preservationists and neighbors of the nearly 70-year-old Cannon Cathedral building at 200 Wesley Heights Way say it's sad to see one more slice of the city's history lost.

Yet, in this case, most agree the building can't be saved.

"People are sorry to see it go because of the history, but they are happy to see it go because of what it's become," said Steve Thomas, president of the Wesley Heights Community Association. "It's dangerous."

To build the church during the Depression, Dr. Alfred Goodrich Garr bought the rubble that was left after the city demolished Charlotte Auditorium uptown, the first public assembly hall here.

Using one million bricks and steel salvaged for $2,500, Garr and his wife, Hannah, former missionaries and revivalists, gave a stately home to a congregation that had started in 1930 under a tent and later occupied a wooden building that sprawled with 2,500 seats.

Carpenters, bricklayers and others eager to make a wage labored for nominal fees and lunches to build the new sanctuary, first known as Garr Auditorium.

The congregation moved into the building in 1943, although the interior wasn't completed for three more years.

In an area that was largely farmland at the time, the "Jesus Saves" sign atop the church made it a landmark, said Alan Thomas, a member of Garr Memorial Church for two years.

"Part of the reason the sign was mounted on the roof was so that planes could see it," Thomas said. "They were propeller planes back then, and the church was in the flight path."

Garr's congregation moved in 1976 as Wesley Heights began to decline. The congregation is celebrating its 80th anniversary this year at its home off Independence Boulevard in east Charlotte.

Members hope to reclaim the Jesus Saves sign before the demolition and to refurbish it, said Diane Althouse of Historic Charlotte Inc.

Althouse also is pushing for a change in a city ordinance that would allow Garr's congregation and other owners of vintage signs to use them again.

The sign atop Garr's old building does not conform to today's regulations.

The condition of the building will make the job of removing the sign challenging, said Walter Abernethy, the city's code enforcement director. Even the demolition will require special expertise, he said.

The building has been empty since 1989, when Hurricane Hugo tore open the roof. A new congregation bought the building by then, calling it Cannon Cathedral, but was unable to make repairs.

It has continued to deteriorate. The floors are rotted, rodents are a problem, and asbestos must be removed before the building comes down, Abernethy said.

It is unsafe, he said. "It'll be a tricky demolition."

The city issued an order to demolish the building late last year. The current owner, New Bethel Church of God in Christ, filed an appeal in December 2009, requesting more time.

The church has until June 11 to begin demolition. If it does not, the city will move to demolish it, Abernethy said.

With revitalization well under way in Wesley Heights, residents say they hope the site will once again bring vitality to the area.

Residents would like to see a residential development with retail services built on the roughly 4-acre site, said community association president Thomas.

Similar projects were being discussed before the current recession slowed development throughout the city.

"It's a great piece of infill property that someone is going to want," said Chris Wannamaker, a commercial broker and president of the Morehead Business Association.

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