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A roofless church is already a favorite of photographers. Soon it’ll be safe to visit

Farrah Anderson
St. Louis Public Radio
The ruins of the National Memorial Church of God in Christ, destroyed by a 2001 fire. The newly dubbed Spring Church in the Grand Center area of St. Louis is being renovated by the Pulitzer Arts Foundation, which plans to open the site in July.

For more than 20 years, a former church has been little more than a stone shell.

But it's been an informal neighborhood landmark — a favorite site for photographers, lunch hour strollers and even the occasional unsanctioned wedding.

Pulitzer Arts Foundation has begun rehabilitating the building at North Spring Street in the Grand Center area of St. Louis and plans to open it to the public in July, with the name Spring Church.

The Pulitzer will occasionally hold art events there, such as a weeklong series by multidisciplinary artist Jordan Webber that will include programs for formerly incarcerated people and the general public. The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s IN UNISON Chorus will perform there in October.

But the project’s chief goal is simply to make the site safe and accessible for the public.

“The idea was never to turn it into a gallery or anything of that nature. This is really about creating a community space,” said Pulitzer Arts Foundation Executive Director Cara Starke. ”It was not technically open before. It was private property that people weren’t really supposed to go into. But we certainly know people come out and spend a lot of time here.”

The project will include a safe gravel floor where once stood rubble and a gathering space on the adjacent lot, which had been empty. A steel frame will reinforce the structure, and lighting fixtures will be added.

The building had been home to multiple congregations. It was built for the Garrison Avenue Baptist Church in 1884, but its wealthy congregation later moved to an upscale neighborhood by Delmar and Pendleton Avenues, said architectural historian Michael Allen, a lecturer at Washington University who has worked with the Pulitzer on its rehab.

The National Memorial Church of God in Christ, a predominantly African American congregation, moved to the building in the 1950s, after its place of worship in Mill Creek Valley was destroyed to clear space for city-backed real estate developments. The congregation gathered there until a 2001 fire destroyed much of the building, including its roof.

Since then, the church ruins have remained a beguiling landmark.

“Its inherent mystery made it quite a common site for photography, picnicking, even weddings. There’ve been several illegal — or maybe, sometimes, sanctioned — weddings that have taken place there,” Allen said.

Farrah Anderson
St. Louis Public Radio
Cara Starke, the executive director of the Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St. Louis, points to the renovations being done to the remains of the Spring Church in the city's Grand Center Arts District. Starke wanted to reuse materials that were left of the church in the renovations.

Grand Center Inc. purchased the property in 2003 but did not proceed with its plans to create a sculpture garden.

Pulitzer Arts Center purchased the property in 2020; Starke declined to disclose the sale price or the cost of construction.

St. Louis-based firms Kiku Obata & Company and McNealy Engineering designed the project, which aims to upgrade the structure and make it safe for visitors while preserving its character as quiet ruins.

“It’s not often that you’re designing a space that has no roof. So it was a very interesting challenge of how we could add lighting and structure into the space while keeping it open,” said Obata, the firm’s founder. “The really wonderful part of this place is that you walk into this church, and then it’s completely open air once you’re inside.”

The work on Spring Church follows the Pulitzer’s revitalization of a previously empty lot across the street from its Grand Center building in 2019. Dubbed Park-Like, it includes walking paths, places for sitting and sometimes artwork.

Follow Jeremy on Twitter: @jeremydgoodwin

Jeremy is the arts & culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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