One of the first impressions one gains when walking by the remains of the one-time City Methodist Church in downtown Gary is that the structure has been heavily vandalized and tagged with graffiti.
Yet an official with The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago suggested that the city, in its efforts to turn the remains at 6th Avenue and Washington Street into a viable tourist attraction, might well be able to use the idea of graffiti to its advantage.
Mario Longoni, an urban research manager for the Field Museum, took part in a workshop March 22 coordinated by the Gary Redevelopment Commission to get public suggestions on what should become of the building, which opened Oct. 3, 1926, and at its peak in 1952 was the largest Methodist congregation in the Midwestern U.S. with 3,185 parishioners, officials said.
It closed as a church on Oct. 5, 1975, with a congregation that had shrunk to 320 people.
A 1997 fire and vandals throughout the years have left the building in ruins. Yet Longoni suggested other industrial sites around the world that have been converted into public places, including one in Berlin where he said that redevelopers set aside a wall where graffiti is encouraged.
"Rather than have the whole structure covered in graffiti, it encourages people to think of it more as a public art display," Longoni said.
Longoni oversaw a display during the workshop where people were asked to draw pictures on a floorplan of the building remains offering ideas what they thought should become of the display.
City officials have suggested the building could become an urban ruins garden, based off of the heavy layers of ivy that cover the outer walls during the summer months.
Redevelopment Executive Director Joseph Van Dyk said, "we're hoping to get ideas, and we will offer other opportunities in the future for the public to make suggestions to us for the space."
Longoni said all of the drawings and ideas they're collecting for people will become the Redevelopment Commission's property, and they will have final say in what becomes of the site.
Longoni said the Field Museum's interest in City Methodist lies in their desire to see the National Parks Service create a Calumet National Heritage Area out of the region stretching from 79th Street and the lakefront in Chicago east to the Indiana/Michigan border.
"There are so many sites in that area that could be attractions for people to come visit," Longoni said, citing the old U.S. Steel South Works plant and the mural at the Our Lady of Guadalupe parish in Chicago that pays tribute to Vietnam War veterans from the South Chicago neighborhood. He said a revamped City Methodist church could be added to the list.
Before any long-range plans can be made for the use of the church, city officials will have to do some structural work to reinforce the remains so that they would be safe for people to enter and walk through.
Robin Edward Whitehurst, a principal architect with the Chicago-based architectural firm of Bailey Edward, said the portions that used to be a gymnasium and a theater will need to be demolished. But the remainder that served as the sanctuary and as administrative offices are salvageable.
"We're talking about a steel-and-concrete frame that is very strong," Whitehurst said. "It's some of the brick that would need to be replaced because it is the part that has been exposed to the elements all these years."
He also said the plan being considered by Gary Redevelopment officials is one that will be stretched out for several years, with the speed of the project relying on Gary's ability to raise the funds to do the work.
While Zachary Clark, an architect for the project, said work could be stretched out over a six-year time period, although there were certain elements where people would see work occurring in the next couple of years.
Sam Salvesen, a staffer with the Redevelopment Commission who has devoted much of his time toward the City Methodist restoration, said he thinks the building is worth saving in some form because he thinks its story is so tied in with that of Gary, the city.
"It went from being the largest Methodist church in the Midwest to closing its doors within two decades," he said. "It's tied in with deindustrialization, urban decay and white flight, it's the story of urban America."