Saturday, March 07, 2015

Will UI Demolish Pentacrest Buildings?

March 7, 2015, 12:48 p.m. [If you are interested in -- and especially if you are offended by -- this blog essay, be sure to see "But Seriously Folks . . . Preservation Policy," March 9, 2015.]

Links to Contents

Revenue is Needed
My Unitarian Journey
Location, Location, Location
The Finality of Demolition
The Unitarians' Mission
The Price of Everything and the Value of Nothing
Selling the Pentacrest

Revenue is Needed
Once "revenue is needed" is the Polestar for a university's financial decisions, its moral compass begins to spin as if it was located on the North Pole.

-- Nicholas Johnson
Sadly, it has been necessary to repeat that "spinning moral compass" line a number of times in this blog during the past eight years or more.

"Revenue is needed" is why K-12 schools feel they have to sell sugar-laden drinks to their students. It's how the UI Athletic Department explained why it had to take money from the alcohol and gambling industries. It's why politicians explain they need to accept bribes from, and then vote for, special interests. It's why the Regents raise tuition (when they do).

It is, currently, the explanation offered by the local Unitarian-Universalist Society leadership for their hard-driving obsession to demolish their own church. (The hyphenated name is the consequence of an early 1960s merger; I'll often use the shorter "Unitarian" as that was the Iowa City Society's name for most of its 173-year history.)

Like the military's explanation in Viet Nam that "we had to destroy the village to save it," they've decided that they have to demolish the church to save it.

For a group that prays "to whom it may concern," that binds one another to follow "the Ten Suggestions," doesn't put steeples on its churches, and limits its terrorist acts to burning wooden question marks on lawns, I can understand and even admire their lack of religious dogmatism. But it never occurred to me that one of their community service projects would involve the demolition of their own church.

My Unitarian Journey

Although I have been a member of that Society since the 1940s, and still am, my status might best be described as that of "a fallen-away Unitarian" -- which is probably about as far from serious religiosity as one can get this side of Bill Maher and Ron Reagan (the younger).

As a young boy, upon discovering that many of my classmates and playmates had "a church," I asked my parents what church I should go to. They had their own childhood and adulthood preferences for themselves, but suggested I should visit a few and decide for myself. Thereafter, I visited something between many and most of Iowa City's churches.

For some religions, I discovered, like the coal miner who had wanted to be a judge in the Beyond the Fringe sketch, that "I didn't have the Latin for it." My church visits also revealed that while some churches would excommunicate me for visiting other churches, the Unitarians would give me extra points for doing so.

Because I've always enjoyed learning about and experiencing a variety of religions, theirs was the Membership Book (long since lost) I ended up signing.

The "induction" procedure was also attractive, as I had not yet even begun the study of French, yet alone Latin, and knew I could never master enough Hebrew for a bar mitzvah. It was a typically simple Unitarian procedure involving no memorization on my part, no ritual from the Minister, Evans Worthley, or anything remotely resembling water boarding. It was pretty much "sign your name here" and, like the coal miner I, too, "got 75 percent on that."

Location, Location, Location

A Unitarian Society in Iowa City is as old as the State of Iowa and the City of Iowa City. There was an Iowa City group in 1841. The Iowa State Historical Society has records for "First Unitarian Society of Iowa City, 1856-1962 plus." The current building, downtown at the corner of Iowa Avenue and Gilbert Street, was completed around 1907 or 1908.

But the local congregations have formerly always followed the capitalists' advice regarding the three most important rules of church building: "location, location, location." In Iowa City that has involved recognition of the necessity of a central location downtown -- until now.

The earlier church building, which I believe burned down (rather than being deliberately subjected to demolition by the Society's members), was only two or three blocks west of the present location -- I believe at the corner of Iowa Avenue and Dubuque, or possibly Clinton, Streets. My even fuzzier memory of a building before that one places it in the same general area. (Unless I've missed something, the details of the Iowa City Society buildings' 173-year history either never appeared, or have been removed from, its Web site.)

The current Society membership apparently has its eye on a distant parcel of land to the north and east of the present location, on the far north end of town, out by "99th and plowed ground," in or near a woods, with neither a current access road nor adequate parking.

Putting aside for the moment the adequacy and appropriateness of this particular parcel of land, let's consider "location, location, location."

Much of the rationale of previous congregations -- many others as well as Unitarian -- for building downtown is still valid: it is much more convenient for students and faculty, Iowa City residents living in the close-by, east side neighborhoods, or simply otherwise downtown of a Sunday morning. It is within walking distance for many more than will be within walking distance of their new woods.

Add to this the City-Council-University-Developer-Complex of which President Eisenhower warned us. This single most politically powerful local cabal is as committed to building the downtown upward to the sky as the Unitarians are committed to demolition. Taxpayers' money in the form of TIFs is being thrown around like necklaces at Mardi Gras.

Regardless of your feelings regarding this sky-and-money-grab effort, there are now far more humans (and therefore potential new Unitarians) occupying downtown dormitories, apartments, and high rise condo structures than ever before -- with even more to come. There are restaurants, theaters, hotels, small shops and bookstores -- and other reasons the residential population within walking distance of the Unitarians' current church will continue to increase.

Why assume that just because someone can afford a $1 million condo unit they would never attend a Unitarian Church? The membership is significantly more respectably attired than it was in the 1960s. And you certainly don't have to be a Democrat to be a Unitarian.

So why, oh why, would one choose this moment in history to abandon the rapid and increasing membership potential -- and opportunities for community service -- for a church located in the heart of this growth?

And even if one's actions are primarily driven by "revenue is needed," why would one choose this moment to toss away the potential future financial profit associated with a plot of land in the middle of this future population growth -- a plot already valued at $2.5 million, and growing?

The Finality of Demolition
"The Historical Society Report concludes that the church is sufficiently significant to be included on the National Register of Historic Places for its architecture and design, as well as for inclusion in a historic district or conservation area on Iowa Avenue. . ."

-- Jeffrey Cox, "Recognizing the historical significance of the Unitarian Universalist Church," Iowa City Press-Citizen, January 26, 2015.
Demolition seems, somehow, so final.

Visiting a patient in a psychiatric ward years ago, he explained to me why he had abandoned his suicidal plans. He had finally come to realize, he said, that "suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem."

And demolition is not only a final, permanent solution, it also seems to be endemic to some religions. ISIS demolition of non-ISIS artifacts is one of the most recent examples. Anne Barnard, "ISIS Attacks Nimrud, a Major Archaeological Site in Iraq," March 6, 2015, p. A14. This is a picture of the ancient Roman theater at Leptis Magna, about 80 miles east of Tripoli, built during the reign of the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus (193-211 A.D.). For reasons not clear, ISIS appears to hate any evidence of Romans -- and sufficiently so that, like Iowa City's Unitarian Church, this theater is now targeted for demolition. [Photo credit: David Gunn.]

Of course, local Unitarians are not planning to demolish their church, this religious and architectural icon, ancient by Iowa standards, because they hate all evidence of earlier Unitarians or architecture drawn from Virginia Episcopalians during the 1600s. (See, Jeffrey Cox, "Recognizing the historical significance of the Unitarian Universalist Church," Iowa City Press-Citizen, January 26, 2015 ("The unobtrusive brick buttresses are similar to those found on some Episcopalian churches built in Virginia in the 17th century").

They are demolishing it because "revenue is needed." But, then, "revenue is needed" is part of what drives ISIS' pillaging as well, as sales of antiquities as well as oil contribute to its ongoing cash flow.

The Unitarians' Mission

The Unitarians' Demolition Derby leadership explain that their own version of a "permanent solution to a temporary problem" -- the homicidal demolition of their church -- is necessitated by the Society's "mission." While "the mission" is often referred to in their explanations and news stories, it is not clear (a) what the details of that mission are, and (b) why those details require demolition of their church building.

The Demolition Derby leaders can better state their rationale than I can, but it appears that among their reasons are the need for a larger building for a larger congregation, and the cost of refurbishing the current church and making it wheelchair accessible.

Frankly, I think their first need will not be well served by building anything, of whatever size, so far from where humans are to be found -- including present members of the Society. Not only is it out of the way, but it is not easy to happen upon, or find. There are unlikely to be many folks wandering around in the woods who come upon it accidentally -- something that probably does happen with a downtown location.

As for the complexity and cost of refurbishing, I've continued to live by the old saying that got us through the Great Depression: "Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without."

I live in a house in an Iowa City west side residential area (within my walking distance from the church) that was built about the time of that church, and was first acquired by my father 75 years ago. When first lived in by the family that built it, light was provided by gas, water came from a cistern holding rain water, it had no insulation, and was otherwise easily distinguishable from Iowa City homes built in this Century -- as it still is.

Rather than demolish the house, sell the lot, and build a newer, shinier home in the woods, we have refrained from additions or other major expenses and simply refurbished it from time to time. It is regularly painted, wired for electricity, well insulated, with tight-fitting storm windows, indoor plumbing taking water from the City's water network, and other modern amenities. Some find the old Chambers kitchen gas range charming, others think it a monstrosity. In short, we find it fully adequate home in which to live.

Like the Unitarians, I too have a mission I cannot afford.

My mission is much more specific than theirs. My mission is to build an enormous warehouse-style structure in the back yard, where our lifetime accumulation of stuff, including thousands of books -- now in the attic, basement, garage, and throughout the house -- can be moved, properly sorted, shelved, labeled and indexed. My mission also includes the purchase of a top-of-the-line Tesla automobile, to enable my personal experience (as a former cyberlaw professor) with "the Internet of things" and the future of all-electric automobiles with reasonable mileage for trips out of town.

Rather than assuming my only option was to demolish the family home and sell the lot, I realized there was another choice: abandon or radically alter that mission. Applying the "use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without" philosophy, I substituted a $2000 investment in repairs to my old, 1999, rusty Mazda 626, for the $100,000 Tesla (or even a newer, $5000 used car). Given that I seldom drive a car more than 400 miles a year, that seemed an adequate, safe and more sensible choice. As for our "stuff," I decided to thin out the books, donate some things to Goodwill, and throw out others. Even though I really "needed" that enormous, shiny new warehouse, we seem to be managing without it.

Could a similar approach to mission creep work for the Unitarians? The near-unanimous vote of the congregation would seem to suggest, "No."

The Price of Everything and the Value of Nothing

A frustrated university president is said to have described his faculty as a group of folks "who know the value of everything and the price of nothing" -- a twist on the old line about those "who know the price of everything and the value of nothing."

The Unitarians' Demolition Derby leaders are at no risk of being charged with not knowing prices. I just don't share their values.

Can't figure out a way to keep the Society where it is? Try harder. My benefit-cost analysis leads me to conclude that giving up the present location (for the reasons already itemized) involves a far greater loss than any possible benefit. That should be the first choice. Maybe just fix-ups, like my 1999 Mazda. Maybe additions or major remodeling. Maybe some out-of-the-box thinking. One of the expressed problems is the expanding membership's need for more space. The way many churches solve that one is to have more services rather than demolishing their church building and building new elsewhere.

Even if one wants or needs to move anyway, make a real effort to preserve the building. Churches need not be demolished because they are unfit for any other use. Consider the old First Presbyterian Church, now the community resource called "Old Brick," or the former St. Thomas Moore church (that I occasionally attended) now the UI School of Music's Riverside Recital Hall. The former Christian Science Church was sold, but is now a place of worship for St. Raphael’s Orthodox Church.

In these circumstances I find particularly deplorable that the leadership is not only willing to make the move before they have found a suitable occupant or other way to preserve this very valuable bit of the Society's history and legacy, they are actively opposing the efforts of others to preserve the building. It is they who are taking the initiative to obtain, and use, the permit to demolish it.

My ethical evaluations of institutions' behavior are shaped in part by the nature of the institution. Immorality in religious institutions bothers me more than immorality in business, or politics. University administrators who stifle inquiry and free expression, or make stupid decisions, bother me more than stupidity in government or the military.

When I was living in Houston, one bank president got a demolition permit to destroy his relatively new and perfectly usable bank, and rebuilt it a few feet higher so it would be the tallest bank in town. This was of course in Texas, where as my late friend Mollie Ivins used to say, "More is better, and too much is not enough." What else would you expect from a Houston banker? I thought the decision silly, and financially harmful to shareholders. But it didn't otherwise bother me. The former bank was no great shakes architecturally, and the newer one no better. But I didn't see the decision as otherwise involving moral or civic values.

As clear by now, I view the demolition of cultural and religious structures in a different light -- whether done by vandals such as ISIS, but especially when done by the very owners of those structures, such as the Iowa City Unitarian-Universalist Society.

Let me be clear. I am the first to concede that the Society members and their leaders have both (a) the full legal right to work their will on their church and the land on which it stands, and (b) no obligation whatsoever to pay me any mind. Neither met with me, nor have I spoken with them. Although I am a member of, and modest contributor to, the Society (and presumably one of those with the longest continuous memberships), I have not been attending or otherwise active for some time. It was for that reason I thought it inappropriate to suddenly participate, as a member, in attempting to block, from within the congregation, a decision that was so nearly unanimously agreed upon, thereby contributing more to divisiveness than rational analysis.

Thus, I write here as a blogger, not as a Unitarian, about issues that go far beyond this single demolition by a single religious Society.

Selling the Pentacrest

All of which will ultimately bring us back to the Pentacrest buildings.

As I walked past the downtown Methodist and St. Mary's churches the other day, the Unitarians' move got me to thinking. Should we encourage the demolition and a move to the suburbs for other downtown churches? Presumably that would make their land more valuable. If they should move, why? If not, why not? If not for them, why for the Unitarians? The members of those two churches appear to be able to manage with something other than brand new, shinny modern churches.

Put aside the obligations of the Unitarians to preserve their own history. Put aside the values of National Historic Preservation. Just look at the profits of downtown commercial establishments and developers. Is it possible that the downtown area would be richer (literally and figuratively) with the current Unitarian Church right where it is than with yet one more apartment building in that spot?

If not, the University of Iowa, seemingly always in need of additional funding, should consider demolishing the Old Capitol and four Pentacrest buildings, selling the land, and rebuilding more modern structures somewhere on the edge of town.

The "revenue is needed" analysis of the Unitarian leaders asserts that their land, with the church (and the possibility there are wiser heads who will see to the church's preservation), results in the land and building only being worth $500,000. Whereas, once the building is demolished, their land alone will bring $2.5 million for their one-fifth acre.

The Pentacrest appears to be about 8.26 acres. At $2.5 million per one-fifth acre ($12.5 million per acre), that would make the Pentacrest worth (with the buildings demolished) about $103 million. That would be enough to make up for the loss from the Regents' new formula for over 8 years!

So I close as I began: "Once 'revenue is needed' is the Polestar for a university's financial decisions, its moral compass begins to spin as if it was located on the North Pole." The Academy's moral direction is important; for a religious organization it is essential.

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Unknown said...

Mr. Johnson,

I'm a fairly new member of UUSIC. We haven't met and I don't know when or why you "fell away" from the society, but apparently it wasn't because the location was inconvenient.

It's incredible how certain you are that a downtown location is critical to the society's mission. What about the other faith institutions in Iowa City that have moved further from downtown than we are proposing to move and yet are thriving? If you had been aware that most of our growth in membership has been coming not from the downtown core but rather throughout Johnson County, would this information have altered your conclusions?

I doubt that it would. When you go so far as to compare UU's to ISIS, well, that smacks not of writing that is innocently misinformed but rather a mean-spirited effort to be outrageous and clever at the expense of decency and rationality.

Would you provide a more respectful and thoughtful assessment of the perspective in this recent op-ed? Notice the included statements by members as tenured as you, with impeccable environmentalist credentials, no pro-development zeal, etc. Why would you care to write something so offensive to your fellow members? Is that really just about the loss of an old building? Or are you working something else out and flexing your wit (at the expense of your dignity)?

I am on the Board of Trustees but am responding to you here as an individual.

Adam Ingersoll

Unknown said...

And for some contrast, I'll leave you with a response yesterday from our minister to a member (one of 17, or 8%) who voted against leaving our downtown location. Its tone compared to yours speaks volumes.

"None of us are cheering or celebrating the probable fate of our building. Were money no object, I believe that we would work to preserve the current building along with creating a new facility. With limited financial resources, we have had to make some difficult decisions. Our decision was never about gaining maximum value in order to pave over Iowa farmland. Our motivation has always been to do what best serves the mission and vision of UUSIC and to provide a facility that is safe, accessible, large enough, and able to meet our needs both now and for the next 100 years, which is a reflection of our highest values. I studied architecture and love old buildings, but I also believe that buildings are made to serve people and not vice versa. To preserve the building at the expense of living out as fully as possible our mission and our vision does not serve our highest values. The building has served us well and our decision to sell the property offers it yet another opportunity to serve us. When our spiritual ancestors built the facility we now use, they made a decision to sell another building and to leave this building as a gift for us, a gift that in being sold for a (hopefully) substantial amount of money, enables us to leave a gift for future generations.

This has been a decision that has not been made lightly or quickly. This is the culmination of a discernment process that has been going on over 20 years, which indicates that our building has not served the needs of the congregation or its mission for a long time. In this current process, we have thoughtfully and thoroughly investigated all our options, beginning with renovation, and the Facilities Committee has worked long and hard to communicate clearly and transparently about the process, to provide many opportunities for the congregation to be listened to and their ideas, fears, dreams and hopes heard, and to make use of the democratic process by bringing our decisions to a vote by the congregation and setting the bar very high to make sure the results reflect the will of the majority. We recognize that not everyone agrees with the decision that has been made and we have done our best to honor your feelings, to make sure your voice has been heard, and to emphasize the importance of being a community held together by love even in the face of disagreement and we will continue to do so. We also recognize that even those of us who realize the decision to sell our building serves the greater good are grieving as you no doubt are and we will take time in the days and months to come to honor our feelings, to celebrate and to mourn this major passage in our lives and our history.

In that spirit, it is my hope that you did not join UUSIC because of the building but for the support, the community, the care, our message of love and hope, the many ways we serve each other and the world, and the companionship you've found in this challenging time of your own life's journey. I'm not asking you to change your mind, but to know your feelings are honored and to remain a part of this community as a voice that will challenge us and help guide us to continue making the best possible decisions, even though you may not agree with the outcome." - Steven Protzman, Minister

Nick said...

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-- Nick