This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: May 30, 2008 - Internationally acclaimed artist Maya Lin is mulling over ideas for making what remains of a 124-year-old, burned-out stone church in Grand Center one of her next art projects. Should she take it on, it would be her first permanent art installation in Missouri.
Officials at the Grand Center arts and entertainment district confirmed this week that they've been talking with Lin, that she's visited the site and already has come up with some conceptual ideas.
The major new element would be a roof-like structure for the still-standing four walls of the old Gothic Revival church. The roof likely would be mainly glass, or some clear material. What was left of the original roof was removed after a fire there in 2001. Grand Center, which owns the property, had walls reinforced and two gabled ones at each end of the structure braced over the past year to keep them standing.
Ken Christian, the director of real estate development for Grand Center, said the roof structure being discussed with Lin would serve a dual purpose.
"It would be a really attractive piece of art, and it would be something functional that would keep the walls up and secure," he said, so that temporary braces could be removed.
Another part of the plan is to landscape property adjacent to the church structure and add lighting.
With the roof and other embellishments in place, Christian said the structure would be essentially architectural art in and of itself, and a place for limited public activities.
"We do not anticipate building utilities to make it a performance space," he said. "We want it to be a more peaceful space - more contemplative, rather than active - a contemplative space where the structure there itself is the art. But we think it still will be an attractive space for some things - maybe poetry reading, or maybe a reception, or an artistic installation."
So far, Lin has not signed a contract with Grand Center to take on the project as its Art and Architectural Designer. Grand Center officials said that is being talked about, along with the scope of the project and her fee.
We could not reach Lin for her comments.
But Christian said: "She is very enthusiastic about doing it, and actively pursuing the project. We would like to reach an agreement with Maya over the next several months. I could foresee that if things went really well, by next year, maybe in the second quarter, something could be happening there. But that will depend on the scope of the project, and the fundraising" to pay for it.
Lin's interest in incorporating the church's ruins into art came about last fall when she visited the area for the opening of her "Systematic Landscapes" exhibition at the Contemporary Art Museum in Grand Center, and for a sold-out lecture at Washington University. Lin works and lives in New York City. Her fame and celebrity status as an artist, architect, landscape architect and designer grew dramatically after she won a competition in 1981 to design the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Mall in Washington, D.C.
Paul Ha, director at the Contemporary, remembers giving Lin a tour of the area while she was in town - including the remains of the old Gothic Revival Church. She was, he said, smitten from the start.
"She had thousands of ideas the first time she saw it," Ha said.
Ha then introduced Lin to the folks at Grand Center.
"I knew they were interested in doing something with the church. She was interested in the church. So," Ha said, "I played matchmaker."
"I hope Grand Center and Maya can work something out," he added. "It would be nice to have a permanent Maya Lin piece in St. Louis. I'll do whatever I can to help."
The church dates back to 1884 when it was built for a Garrison Avenue Baptist congregation, according to research done by the Landmarks Association of St. Louis. Eight years later, that congregation reorganized and sold the church to the First Society of New Jerusalem, (also called the Swedenborgians), who used it until 1956. The church changed hands again after that, and was finally brought down, at least partly, by the fire in 2001. By then, the church at 620 Spring Avenue, was called Memorial Church of God in Christ, reflecting the name of its congregation.
Susan Wedemeyer, director of marketing and communications at Grand Center, said the church has a new name "now that it's not ruins anymore" and is poised to take on a new life. "We've renamed it the Spring Church, because it is on Spring Avenue," she said.
Carolyn Toft, executive director at Landmarks, said that the church is not designated historic, although "it still may be, but that would depend on the National Park Service's interpretation of its number of still-standing-walls rule."
Even without an official historic designation, Toft said, what remains is a treasure.
"Grand Center deserves a standing ovation for retaining what is left of the church for so many years," she said. "The decision to enhance what is already perceived as sculpture with the work of Maya Lin is simply brilliant."
Cindy Ott, an assistant professor in the American Studies Department at St. Louis University, is another supporter of keeping the church structure. Some of her students have been doing extensive research, even interviewing former church members. She plans to give their reports to Grand Center, the Contemporary and to Lin, as a kind of cultural history and documentation of the importance of the church structure over the years to the various waves of people who lived around it and used it.
The idea of enhancing what's left as a piece of art, she said, "will be great for the city, great for Grand Center, and great for the building. I just hope that in doing the design, somehow the voices and stories of people who lived in this building are communicated in some way."