Presbyterian congregation votes to raze old church

The movement to save one of Merced's most well-known landmarks suffered a major setback Sunday when congregants at Central Presbyterian Church voted in favor of plans to demolish and replace the church's 92-year-old sanctuary.

A vote held after regular Sunday services tallied 266 ballots in favor of replacing the sanctuary and 75 opposed. But the vote doesn't mean the church will face the wrecking ball just yet. Central Presbyterian must first raise the money for the new building -- which could cost up to $10 million -- and pass environmental reviews and other hurdles.

In the meantime, parishioners who want to preserve the 1916-era Mission-style sanctuary at 20th and Canal streets say they aren't giving up their battle.

"It's a setback, not a defeat," said Linda Gilbreath, president of the preservation group Sanctuary Merced. "It's not over until the wrecking ball actually hits the church."

Gilbreath said she and other preservationists will now take their fight outside the walls of Central Presbyterian and into the community, where they'll collect signatures opposing the demolition.

They'll also fight to save the building on two other fronts. On Wednesday, they'll ask the city's Historic Preservation Commission to put the church on a list of local historic landmarks. That would mean demolishing the sanctuary would require a more rigorous approval process than usual, said Tralee Randolph, a church member in favor of saving the building.

Sanctuary Merced is also waging a legal battle to stop the demolition. In November, the group filed a lawsuit asking a judge to issue a temporary restraining order to stop church elders from demolishing any part of the church's sanctuary building.

Church elders asked for the complaint to be dismissed, but a judge ruled that Sanctuary Merced could amend its complaint, said Sanctuary Merced's attorney Kenneth R. Mackie. The lawsuit's amended version will be filed by Feb. 24, said Mackie.

Church president Ed Sowers called replacing the sanctuary building a necessary step in Central Presbyterian's growth.

With the congregation's ranks now at about 630, space is tight in the sanctuary, he said. Sunday's vote was held across the street at the church's Hoffmeister Center because the sanctuary was too small to accommodate the crowd, said Sowers.

"It's a 90-year-old building and it certainly has characteristics that are appealing to many people but it has limitations for its use," said Sowers.

A new building would expand the size of the sanctuary to make room for up to 500 congregants at a time, instead of the 325 it now houses, said Sowers. The new sanctuary would also have an elevator to help disabled and elderly worshipers reach the building's second floor.

Sowers said plans for the new building were designed with an eye toward preserving the historic details that have made the sanctuary a downtown landmark.

For example, the sanctuary's stained glass windows would be used in the new building.

"We understand and appreciate the historical aspects of the building and we're going to try to maintain as many of those aspects as possible, but at the same time provide a building that will be functional for our congregation," said Sowers.

Reporter Leslie Albrecht can be reached at 209 385-2484 or lalbrecht@mercedsun-star.com.