- Associated Press - Friday, May 8, 2015

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (AP) - Bethel AME Church had a demolition permit in one hand and the funds to do it in the other. The 1910 cottage located immediately north of the church had been home to pastors for decades until it fell into disrepair and went unrented for more than 15 years.

With the building’s fate a constant feature on the church administration’s docket since before the Rev. Dennis Laffoon’s arrival in 1996, Bethel AME finally decided to address the issue in the only way church funds would allow - demolition.

Several members of the Bloomington Historic Preservation Commission saw another way.

“Our vision for the parsonage was to demolish it and create more parking spaces that we could rent,” Laffoon said. “We found out that, because of zoning issues downtown, we were only going to gain about five parking spaces at most. That was a deal breaker. But at that time, we didn’t have the expertise or the personnel to walk us through how to restore that house, and we knew that it was going to cost more to restore it than to demolish it.”

The idea of preserving the home wasn’t a new concept within the pastoral administration; Laffoon had been a part of such deliberations as a member of the church, before he returned as pastor.

During the early demolition planning stage in 2000, the effort was estimated to cost up to $25,000. When developments stalled, and 2005 rolled around, the total cost for getting the building up to code was closer to $32,000. And in 2012, the original costs had almost doubled to $50,000. It seemed as though saving the house was an impossibility, and the only reasonable option was tearing it down.

“There were a lot of voices on the commission that thought it was important that the church be allowed to demolish,” said Doug Wissing, a volunteer in the restoration and a former member of the preservation commission. “It hadn’t been utilized in a long time, but it was the team effort of a group of individuals, church members and local companies to save this building and return it to a vibrant part of the Bloomington streetscape. This church and congregation really stretched themselves out to do this restoration.”

Preservation commission member Danielle Bachant-Bell elaborated on the home’s rich history and its relationship to historic Bloomington in a November 2014 article in The Herald-Times.

The house, originally built for a foreman at Nurre Glass, was one of many cottage-style abodes that lined North Rogers and North Morton streets. Workers for Nurre Glass, Showers Brothers furniture and other downtown industries resided in this live-work neighborhood.

Church pastors used the parsonage house until 1999, living in conditions Laffoon said that he, himself, wouldn’t live in.

“As an historic commission, we have people come before us all the time who want to tear something down because they don’t see its usefulness,” said consulting architect and current commission member Doug Bruce. “We put our money where our mouth is. We volunteered our time and experience because the group in front of us was a historic church that we sensed was overwhelmed, and they needed more income. Everybody had some skill they brought to the table.”

Bethel AME’s Iron Men group provided the muscle for pre-construction demolition, offering sweat equity to offset the costs the church was facing.

“I knew nothing about swinging a sledgehammer, but fortunately, I knew a couple of guys who did,” said Laffoon. “Where my expertise failed, somebody else’s picked up. I tease him a lot, but one of my (Iron Men) was going through some struggling times, and a sledgehammer was exactly what he needed. When purpose meets another greater purpose, it’s a win-win situation.”

The Iron Men group is a men’s fellowship group named after the Proverbs verse “iron sharpens iron, so should men sharpen men.” Members of the church and community come together for breakfast and delve into service projects, such as helping elderly members of the church or partnering with boys’ clubs.

Through the Iron Men’s efforts, and help from other volunteers, the demolition stage was finished in a weekend, as opposed to Laffoon’s projected three-week time frame.

As the demolition stage passed, construction and planning started to take shape. Bruce, of Tabor/Bruce Architecture, had experience with both antique and modern architecture, allowing him to provide for galvanized water pipes or the potential for broken clay sewage pipes while still updating a building to reflect the modern era.

“Construction 100 years ago was sometimes radically different,” Bruce said. “Sometimes, they used what they could find or what they could reuse; you never know. We used almost every existing wall they had in the house, and we just removed a couple of doors to create something with a better flow. It had been remodeled over time, but we put it back to something that was a rentable home.”

Volunteers, though a vital part of the renovation process, were not enough. Turning a squatter’s paradise into a suitable living space also takes funds. Indiana Landmarks, facilitated by Bloomington Restorations, gave Bethel AME an African-American Heritage grant totaling $2,500. When the church allotted the funds initially slotted for demolition to go toward restoration, Indiana Landmarks matched the contributions by issuing a low-interest loan.

Chris Cockerham, another commission member and a commercial manager for F.C. Tucker Realtors, helped prepare a pro forma estimate for the property and set an approachable budget.

“We looked at the property and what we needed. Based on the rent, we could budget about $60,000 and still generate a good return,” said Cockerham, estimating rent to be $1,100 to $1,200 for the two-bedroom, downtown property that will be available within the month. “We came close to that number. I think all they need to do is put a sign in the front yard, and they’re gonna find a tenant.”

Where before, there were piles of filthy carpet and dirty padding, now there are rich, dark wood floors. Squatter’s furniture and holes in the wall have been replaced by closets and updated appliances. The previous wall coverings were removed, as well as a hazardous mess of nails in the floorboards. The outside paint job was an intentional complement to Bethel AME Church’s limestone.

A large lean-to addition at the back of the house is gone now, and a porch with a view of the church, the iconic Johnson’s Creamery smokestack, the farmers’ market and the Showers Building has taken its place.

“When a house is there, and there’s nobody inside, it’s like the building knows that it’s not being used and it just gives up its life,” said Laffoon. “By the time we took it to the congregation, their first question was: ‘When do we get started?’ There was an overbearing tree taking over the front of the house, and I remember when we removed it, it was the first time you could tell something new was happening with that home. It was one of the biggest moments of progress, and we just continued from there.”

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Source: Bloomington Herald-Times, https://bit.ly/1GOlTd4

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Information from: The Herald Times, https://www.heraldtimesonline.com


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