Holy Trinity Church
1964- 1997

In 1965, the remaining church members were still struggling to manage the deteriorating condition of the building, which had occurred over tenures of the Presbyterian and Pentecostal churches. In 1972, after seven years and two pastors, the city of Wilmington listed the property at the corner of Fourth and Campbell streets as vacant. Holy Trinity and its followers were still worshiping, but not in the sanctuary. Because of extensive roof damage, the members retreated into the Annex behind the church.


The bishop of the United Holy Church in Los Angeles sent a new reverend, R.M. Coley, to try and stabilize St. Andrew's, the building, and Holy Trinity, the congregation. Coley got to work right away, reaching out to the city for donations to help restore the church. Unfortunately for Coley and his flock, the donations didn't arrive as hoped. By 1981, the church had hired a contractor, a personal friend to the group, who offered to do the job at a discount. His hiring proved to be a costly mistake. The original slate roof was taken off all at once. Without the funds to build a completely new roof, only small sections could be replaced. This left a large hole in the roof, exposing the sanctuary to the elements outside. Months later, the contractor filed for bankruptcy, leaving Holy Trinity a bigger problem than they started with.

Three years later, in 1984, the congregation was still meeting in the Annex, as there was still no money to fund the renovations. As a result, the main sanctuary fell victim to vandalism. Several of the stained-glass windows decorating the sanctuary's walls were stolen, as well as were many other objects in the sanctuary that could be carried away. Dolores Halsey, then-financial manager of Holy Trinity, said at the time, “It's just really a shame. It was a beautiful place, and it's going to take a lot of time and effort to repair.” In 1985, a local antique dealer helped police recover two stolen 7-foot-by-3-foot stained-glass windows as well as an altar and some chairs.

The congregation decided they would still try and renovate the Annex. Reverend Charles Dingle, the minister of Holy Trinity at this time, began the renovations. Half of the renovation funds came from a loan by the Small Business Administration. Plans for the “new section” included a dining room, kitchen, and new bathrooms. They rewired the two-story section and replaced the plaster walls with drywall. Dingle hoped to eventually convert the space into a soup kitchen for the area's less fortunate.

St. Andrew's condition did not go unnoticed for much longer. At the same time Holy Trinity was trying to salvage the Annex, Edward Turberg, noted historian and then chairman of the Wilmington Historic District Commission, and Angela Barnett, then director of the Historic Wilmington Foundation, raised interest in preserving and restoring St. Andrew's. Eleanor Haskett, a former member of the Presbyterian congregation that occupied the church from 1889-1944, commented on the church's appearance in the mid-80s: “It looked like a holocaust. It looked like it had been devastated by bombs—like England in WWII.”

By 1993, the final renovations of the Annex were abandoned. Holy Trinity's congregation had dwindled. With their numbers and church funds fading, the congregation agreed to join local and state officials in an effort to save the building.

Photo Courtesy New Hanover County Public Libary

Photo Courtesy New Hanover County Public Libary

Gene Merritt, the director of the North Fourth Street Partnership (NFSP), a nonprofit group aimed at funding projects in the Fourth Street area, attempted to make an offer to purchase the church. The partnership's offer included a promise to lease back the Annex to Holy Trinity—who had been worshipping there for 20 years (1974-1994). Switching the title of the property from religious to secular would allow government and private funding to help with renovations without violating constitutional law separating church and state. Merritt and the NFSP were the first to propose converting the church into an arts center.

On June 9, 1995, plans to rebuild were put on hold. During a severe thunderstorm, lightning struck St. Andrew's, gashing one of the brick walls. A windstorm several days later turned the gash into a large hole that reached the roof. Due to the increasingly poor conditions, city officials deemed the structure unsound. The congregation of Holy Trinity was forced out and started worshiping at Virgo Middle School. Before officially condemning the building, the city gave the congregation several months to bring the church up to code. Rejecting the NFSP's initial offer, Holy Trinity told the nonprofit group they would rather trade St. Andrew's for a plot of land on which they could build a new church. Merritt and the Partnership gave another price for the building and were turned down again by Holy Trinity.

The city had to barricade the sidewalk on the Campbell Street side to protect local residents from falling brick. Prospective buyers with new ideas began coming to the city, hoping to make a deal for the church. On June 4, 1996, representatives from Wilmington Housing and Finance Development, F.A. Johnson Consulting Group, the Holy Trinity Church, and the NFSP met to bring an offer to the city council. The council members had delayed voting on the condemnation two months prior and had voted to a draw in May. Mounting interest in the church brought hope to the city that something significant could be done for St. Andrew's. The groups proposed an idea to convert the entire church into housing, which they believed to be the easiest to fund—thanks to federal housing grants and tax credits. The plan was to renovate the sanctuary into two stories of housing with a central open courtyard, and an elevator that would run in the bell tower.

Photo Courtesy New Hanover County Public Libary

Photo Courtesy New Hanover County Public Libary

The groups planning to renovate the building sent surveyors from the City of Wilmington to assess renovation costs. After the lightning strike, Hurricane Fran (which blew in the front wall and destroyed the roof in 1996), and decades of exposure to the elements, the church's full renovation was estimated at more than $1.4 million. The city council decided the price was too high to repair the building, and, on August 8, 1996, they planned to hear offers for contractors to demolish the church. An offer to immediately stabilize St. Andrew's was the only alternative.

Help finally arrived a month later in the form of W. Douglas Foster, a businessman from Charlotte, NC. Foster offered to put up the funds to stabilize the walls and roof, bringing the building code up to standard with the city's requirements. His offer required the city to use the funds slated for demolition to help with renovation of St. Andrew's, and the city agreed. Two days after Foster's donation, the St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church was put on the National Register of Historic Places.

Photo Courtesy New Hanover County Public Library

Photo Courtesy New Hanover County Public Library

In the fall of 1996, the Downtown Area Revitalization Effort (DARE), North Fourth Street Partnership (NFSP), the Historic Wilmington Foundation, and city government came together to review proposals for the property. Good Shepherd Ministries, a local nonprofit committed to helping the poor and homeless of Wilmington, offered a proposal to convert the church into a homeless shelter. The committee ultimately turned that proposal down after protests from many Fourth Street business owners who believed an arts center, not a homeless shelter, would be the boost to revitalization the neighborhood needed. Additionally, Good Shepherd Ministries couldn't match the funds required for renovations.

Even without Good Shepherd, the homeless community in the Wilmington area played a part in the renovation. Many were hired on as part of the construction crew for the stabilization, a project that helped these men gain valuable craft experience in brickwork, repairing stained glass, and refinishing woodwork.

Holy Trinity's ownership of the church ended in 1997, after 35 years of occupancy, when Foster bought out the congregation. Foster's donated funds helped save St. Andrew's from destruction and gave local organization's new hope in converting the church into an arts center the community could be proud of.



1998 The Brooklyn Arts Center