A historic church property that has been vacant since 2006 and was damaged in a fire three years ago may finally get new life as a center for emerging technologies.
It would be a tribute to the inventor who commissioned the original building’s design, as well as the architect who designed it, said developer Tony Troppe, who submitted a winning bid to purchase the former St. Paul’s Episcopal Church from the University of Akron.
“We recognize the need to be good stewards of the past so we can incite new energy for the location in the future,” Troppe said. “We are considering several ideas for adaptive reuse of the property so that we can make the structure relevant for a whole new generation of knowledge workers.”
The University of Akron announced Wednesday that it has accepted a bid to purchase the property, consisting of two buildings at 354 E. Market St. on the north side of the campus. The university said Troppe’s bid was $100,001.99, while the other bidder, Progress Through Preservation Inc., submitted what the organization called “a nominal bid” of $3,500.
Progress Through Preservation is a nonprofit organization that promotes and encourages the preservation and adaptive reuse of historic buildings in Summit County. The group has fought to ensure the St. Paul’s property did not fall victim to demolition. Representatives could not immediately be reached for comment.
The church was built in 1885 at an East Market Street lot that was later to become part of Akron’s Millionaire’s Row. A second building was built in 1907. The University of Akron purchased the property in 1952 and dedicated it as the Firestone Conservatory of Music. The property become the university’s Ballet Center in 1976, which moved 30 years later to another part of campus. The buildings have since been vacant, and the 1885 building was struck by fire in 2018.
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Troppe says he intends to preserve the two buildings out of appreciation for their historical significance to the Greater Akron community, giving special credit to the industrialist who commissioned their design.
“That would be Lewis Miller – it would be appropriate to be creating the Lewis Miller Center for New Technology,” he said.
Miller is credited by the National Inventors Hall of Fame for his invention of the Buckeye Mower and Reaper, the prototype for the modern mower. He co-founded the Chautauqua Institution, in Chautauqua, New York, in 1874.
The initial church building was an innovative design by the architect Miller hired, Jacob Snyder, who is credited with creating the “Akron Plan” of church design. The Akron Plan facilitated Sunday school instruction by placing small instructional rooms around a main, semicircular room.
“It was a plan that was different from your straight-on church pews; it was almost a theater-in-the-round, where you have a central podium, and you had rooms on the outskirts that were incorporated into the space, but you could also break out into different classes for different ages,” Troppe said, adding the architectural style was popular from the 1870s to the 1920s.
Plans for the future
Troppe said a renovation plan should be completed by the end of the year, and it may take another two years after that to complete all the work.
As yet, there is no estimate of how much the renovation will cost.
“I’ll tell you when I know,” he said, laughing. “It was important to save the building. We’re on a mission … we’ve got to save each of these buildings because they are so important to saving our legacy.
“We’re saving the past so we can impact the future,” he added.
One challenge will be to deal with the original building damaged by the fire. Although Troppe said 75% of the work needed to preserve the structure has previously been done, the interior remains open to the elements.
Troppe said several ideas for who would occupy the buildings are under consideration.
“We’re creating a place that’s going to focus on a variety of technologies, such as sustainable technologies including biomimicry … medicinal products, power generation, carbon capture, semiconductors,” he said.
Innovative ideas are also being considered to seal the roof.
“Our plan is to create a translucent, solar collector, photovoltaic roof system with some advanced materials that allow us to pursue essentially horticultural technologies inside the building,” he said. “It’s not just a house of the Lord, but a greenhouse of the Lord.”
Struck by fire
Demolition of the historic church property had been on the university’s list of proposed capital projects for 2016.
However, the fate of the building was in limbo after the university was unable to get state money for the demolition.
In April 2018, the Akron Fire Department received an 11:30 p.m. report of smoke and flames coming from 1885 building. The fire escalated and crews were still on the scene the next day. The cause of the fire was not determined.
In 2019, in a precautionary measure, the university attached steel scaffold-like supports to the building’s exterior to keep the walls from falling outward.
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The sale of the building was conducted via a public sealed bid auction through the state’s Department of Administrative Services. The university has accepted the bid and the contract is now being finalized.
“We are very pleased with the sale and that the developer intends to preserve the building’s rich history,” said Dallas Grundy, UA’s senior vice president and chief financial officer. “We think the end result will benefit both the university and the Akron community.”
Eric Marotta can be reached at 330-541-9433, or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @MarottaEric.