1998 To The Brooklyn Arts Center
As per their agreement, the City of Wilmington needed to re-pay Douglas Foster. His donated funds were meant to stabilize the walls and roof, not pay for the full renovation. In order to repay him, the city needed to find funds they did not have.
In 1996, Hurricanes Bertha and Fran had blown in the front wall of the church, causing the roof to cave-in completely. As a result of the damage caused by the hurricanes—to the church and to many other structures in Wilmington—the city applied for federal disaster relief funds. St. Andrew's could only receive a fraction of the larger sum awarded to Wilmington. (In the Brooklyn neighborhood, most of the money was spent repairing the sewer main.)
Another source of funds turned out to be the city's Community Development Block Grant Program (CDBG). The CDBG, one of the longest running programs of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, provides communities with annual grants to help address unique community development needs.
On April 9, 1998, the city council voted to use the CDBG funds to repay Foster and purchase the church—with the understanding they would have to refund the city coffers the amount of CDBG funds they spent, because there were many people who would have rather seen the money go to a cause directly influencing the homeless and more run-down areas in the neighborhood. The City of Wilmington claimed that St. Andrew's qualified for funding because the improvements benefited a dilapidated building in a targeted low-to moderate-income area. The persisting debate over the council's decision persuaded them to rescind the vote until they had discussed the matter extensively.
A few weeks later, in the spring of 1998, the city council voted again to go through with the purchase of St. Andrew's using the CDBG funds. As a result, protective covenants were placed on the structure to protect the landmark from future demolition. The city's main concern now was to pay back the funds used to buy the church. The Historic Wilmington Foundation agreed to handle the process of finding a group interested in purchasing the building. The Foundation released a mission statement in September 1998, explaining to prospective buyers (and the community) how St. Andrew's was to be used: “The building will be used to benefit the whole neighborhood, promote the cultural history and diversity of Wilmington and support the physical and economic revitalization of the North Fourth Street Area.”
By December 2001, days after the exterior supports—used to hold up the walls of the church for two years, and replaced by a steel superstructure—were taken down, the city had five proposals from groups interested in buying St. Andrew's. Three of the groups wanted to convert the church into a low-income housing development. A couple of the plans for their renovation included turning the sanctuary into a two-to-three-story apartment building.
The remaining two proposals wanted to utilize the church as an arts center. David Nathans, owner of Urban Building Corp., and Gene Merritt, former president of the North Fourth Street Partnership submitted the last of these proposals. Nathans and Merritt hoped to turn the church into a nonprofit, multi-purpose, arts and entertainment facility. They also wanted to publicly raise the money to renovate the building. On September 4, 2002, the city selected Nathans and Merritt's proposal to rehabilitate St. Andrew's. The deal included not just the church, but both the adjacent Manse and firehouse across Campbell Street.
The building will be used to benefit the whole neighborhood, promote the cultural history and diversity of Wilmington and support the physical and economic revitalization of the North Fourth Street Area.
Nathans would soon be alone at the head of the project, with Merritt deciding to step down and act as head of a board of directors that would help Nathans oversee the renovation. There were three planned phases for the project. The first phase was to renovate the old firehouse. Formerly a boxing center, the building was turned into a training center for the police department. The special investigations unit was also stationed there (before the police department had their new headquarters constructed in 2006). The second phase focused on the Manse. Using private financing, Nathans was able to create a duplex office complex while maintaining the house's historical integrity.
The third and final phase involved the church. Funds to renovate the church were extremely difficult to obtain. Nathans and the board of directors applied for grants and fundraiser, but there were many other projects the city was focused on: Thalian Hall, the new USO building, and the Children's Museum to mention a few.
Unable to raise the necessary funds, the board of directors grew disinterested and, by the summer of 2008, they disbanded. Nathans was forced to tell the city that he was unable to publicly raise the money and he withdrew from the project. The city allowed several former board members to take over the building after Nathans withdrew. This group also disbanded when it couldn't raise the money and appealed to the city to sell the building for the formation of a new arts council. The city agreed, and St. Andrew's was put on the market.
Located in the Manse, Nathans' office was next door to the property. St. Andrew's had been on the market for more than a year, with no prospective buyers. In search of a new project, Nathans went back to the city to make an offer. The city accepted, and, through private financing, Nathans was able to purchase the property and create the Brooklyn Arts Center at St. Andrew's.
“In 1888, when it was being built, it was a big deal. It was really well built, expensive, and exotic in terms of material content,” Nathans says. Sticking to his original proposal of turning St. Andrew's into an arts and entertainment center, Nathans and others worked to renovate the church, keeping it as close to its original appearance as possible. After decades of neglect and several hurricanes, the balcony above the sanctuary had caved-in. Using original measurements, Nathans and his team, including superintendent Arthur Seabury III, were able to restore the balcony to its original appearance, so much so that the original railings fit perfectly. “We didn't have any interest in changing anything,” Nathans said. “We kept it as intact as possible while allowing for our purposes as well.”
Two years of renovation was needed to complete the church's transformation, and, on March 25, 2011, the Brooklyn Arts Center was granted its certificate of occupancy. Under the direction of Executive Director, Richard Leder, the BAC uses the space for weddings, concerts, fundraisers, art shows, vintage flea markets, and other community-driven events. “I think it's a great thing for the neighborhood,” Nathans says. “Our neighbors are happy. They're thrilled someone finally did something about this building. And we're proud and honored to have helped give new life to this important and historic piece of Wilmington.”
The majestic, circa 1888 St. Andrew's Church is Wilmington’s finest example of the urban, neomedieval auditorium churches constructed across the country by long-standing evangelical Christian denominations in the last decades of the 19th century. St. Andrew’s Presbyterian’s integrity of location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling, and association mark it as a significant historical, architectural, and cultural icon for the neighborhood, the city, and the region.