Historic Gary church set for wrecking ball

June 7, 2005

By Andy Grimm / Post-Tribune staff writer

GARY - Donald Housekeeper was in the choir when City Methodist Church opened in 1926, and he was on the church board that voted to close the aging building in the 1970s.

When the towering, gothic church is demolished later this month, Housekeeper, 90, said he will probably be at home in Merrillville with the woman he married at City Methodist in 1943.

"If they go ahead and knock it down, they're going to have a lot of work on their hands," he said. "It's solid as a rock. It's a cathedral."

Once a social and cultural hub for Garyites of all denominations, the spectre of the wrecking ball has dangled over the 79-year-old church on 6th and Washington for decades as the fortress-like building gradually crumbled.

A demolition contractor could start work as soon as next month.

"People have been talking about (saving) it, but no one has come to us with a plan and the dollars," said city spokeswoman Lalosa Burns. "It's been on and off the demolition list for years."

The City Methodist footprint will be paved into a parking lot for senior citizens in the neighboring Genesis Towers.

Across 6th from City Methodist, Gary Housing Authority crews are clearing the way for the $14 million Horace Mann development, a neighborhood where the crumbling church does not belong, said Joseph Shuldiner, the city's Hope VI consultant.

"For now it's still there, empty and foreboding," Shuldiner said. "We're building new housing and ... having a vacant abandoned building is not conducive to marketing."

City Methodist declined rapidly since it was damaged in a fire that swept through much of downtown in 1997.

While the stone walls were mostly unharmed by the flames, the roof has crumbled and trees sprout from the sanctuary floor through gaping holes in the shingles.

Pigeons and stray dogs take shelter within the church. The lone improvement since the 1970s came a few years ago, when the city installed a barbed wire fence around the building.

The building was featured in a photo book titled "Urban Ruins," said James Lane, a Gary historian and Indiana University Northwest professor.

"(The photographer) was using this as a symbol of a throw-away society," Lane said.

The church was built as a symbol of decency in the heart of a rowdy, irreligious Gary that was less than 20 years old.

Even in the 1920s, the neighborhood around the church wasn't ideal. In a letter soliciting money, one civic leader wrote of the adolescent steeltown: "Down here are saloons and dance halls and brothels where God is forgotten."

Lane's Gary history, "City of the Century" recalls city founder Elbert Gary's reaction U.S. Steel executives were asked for a donation to pay for the downtown church: "(Expletive), men, they want to build a church in our town."

U.S. Steel gave $365,000 of the $800,000 it cost to build the church. Judge Gary would personally donate an elaborately decorated organ to the church.

The church and adjoining Seaman Hall were centers of cultural life in Gary until the early 1970s, with Seaman Hall hosting plays, musicals and pageants open to all city residents.

The congregation peaked at around 2,000 members during the 1950s, Housekeeper recalls. The saloons and dance halls were faring about as well as the church, Lane said.

Seaman Hall housed an Indiana University branch campus that would become IUN, and students could see revelers headed to the Washington Street red light district.

"It got to be too dangerous. We had a wedding where the father of the bride's car was stolen during the ceremony," Housekeeper said.

"People were afraid to come down to anything but in the daytime and only in the middle of the daytime, so there was no evening programs," he said. "There used to be a lot of activity almost any hour of the day and most evenings."

By the late 1970s, City Methodist had fewer than 200 members, and offerings weren't enough to even pay the utility bills, much less repair the antique organ, leaking roof and failing boilers. Church leaders attempted to find a congregation interested in the structure, but no group wanted to take on the expense of maintaining the enormous church.

Housekeeper is not sure when the church was finally entirely abandoned.

Rehabilitating City Methodist would take millions, Shuldiner said. In its current state, the building would be an eyesore and a hazard for residents in the 123-unit housing development slated to begin construction later this month, he said.

"I can't think of a use for it that would justify the cost of rehabilitating it," he said. "We would like to see it demolished."

Housekeeper has attended church in Merrillville since City Methodist closed, and hasn't seen the building in years. He chooses to recall happier times, like nights at Seaman Hall plays or weddings of friends and family.

"That was one of the better places to get married," he said. "In my time that was what you wanted for a wedding, something grand."

Posted with the Permission of the Post-Tribune
All rights reserved.

City Methodist is discussed in detail in "The Protestant Experience in Gary, Indiana: 1906-1975" by James Lewis.
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