Town Hall: A Case Study
By Reuben McKnight

In 1998, a group of private investors assembled by former Seattle Weekly publisher David Brewster purchased the historic Fourth Church of Christ, Scientist, for the purpose of creating a public performance and meeting venue. The venue, now known as Town Hall, is maintained and operated by the non-profit group Town Hall Association, and has been undergoing a multi-year process of upgrades and rehabilitation. Although the building is likely eligible for a variety of preservation incentives, so far the project has not applied for or received any preservation funding.

These days, Seattle's historic churches are faced with many challenges. In a time when land values in the city are high, and urban churches are faced with dwindling congregations and escalating costs of maintenance, Town Hall is an important example of a religious property that has avoided demolition and has been returned to the use of the community. Although the Church of Christ, Scientist is no longer holding services in the building, the building will continue to be a part of the community and will hopefully serve as an anchor for the future of development in the historic First Hill neighborhood.

The Building

The Town Hall Building is located on 8th Avenue and Seneca Street, immediately to the east of Interstate 5, in Seattle's First Hill neighborhood.

The Town Hall building was built in the Roman Revival style, reflecting the aesthetic leanings of the founder of the Christian Science Church. Its exterior is clad in glazed terra cotta, and a two-story portico, with a pediment supported by six classical columns, forms the grand entrance. The layout of the building is nearly square, with a large dome at the center of the roof.

There are three internal levels. The basement is a medium sized open space that daylights on Seneca Street, where there is a side entrance. The first floor, which meets grade at the main entrance on 8th Avenue, historically served as the lobby of the building. Unlike most lobbies, however, Town Hall's occupies the entire floor, giving it a generous 1000-person assembly capacity and a 300 person seating capacity, allowing the space to be used for gatherings such as conferences or banquets.

The floor retains much of its original detail, including its original Tiffany-style light fixtures. Above the lobby, on the second floor, is the 900-seat Great Hall. The room is configured in a gently sloped amphitheater layout, with the original curved wooden pews, built onsite, forming a semi-circle around the front of the room.

The philosophical history of the Christian Scientist Church is reflected by the democratic layout of the room. The seating of the Great Hall is separated into two halves by a central staircase that descends to the first floor. The dome, with an oculus at its apex, sits atop a structure of vaulted ceilings and flattened arches, based on the classical circle within a square concept. There are four rooms behind the stage area, originally backstage rooms for the organist, soloist and first and second readers of the bible, which are still used as dressing rooms.

A Respectable Neighborhood

Just blocks outside of the downtown commercial core, First Hill was one of Seattle's original neighborhoods, and at the turn of the century was dominated by opulent residences occupied by some of Seattle's most prominent families. With affluent families came great churches, including the traditional English-style Trinity Episcopal Church on 8th Avenue, the Italianate St. James Cathedral on 9th Avenue, and the Neoclassical Fourth Church of Christ, Scientist, in which Town Hall now makes its home.

As the commercial district grew and First Hill became accessible via public transit, its collection of mansions began to give way to a short period of hotel and mid-rise residential development, as streets like Madison became retail and service corridors. In the first decade of the 20th century, First Hill received its first of many hospitals, when Swedish Medical Center was constructed in 1907. Today, First Hill is dominated by health care-related development and high-density residential buildings.

Town Hall was built between 1916 and 1922 for the congregation of the Fourth Church of Christ, Scientist. The building was designed by Portland architect George Dunham Foote, who also designed the Christian Science Church in Seattle's University District. The building was owned and operated continuously for 80 years by the church, until a dwindling congregation and mounting expenses compelled the church administration to explore the possibility of selling the property in 1990. In 1998, the Fourth Church of Christ, Scientist was sold to a group of private investors, led by David Brewster, for reuse as a community and performing arts center.

An Idea

The Town Hall Project differs from many projects involving historic buildings, in that it does not represent an optimal reuse of a building chosen by a developer from among a series of competing development options. Rather than being an historic building in search of a use, the Town Hall Project began with a use in search of an appropriate building. The Fourth Church of Christ, Scientist thus was acquired specifically for use as a performance venue.

David Brewster had long been exploring the possibility of converting an older building, such as a church, into a music performance venue and cultural center. In 1988 Mr. Brewster, actively involved with several music performance groups and organizations in Seattle, became aware of the proposed demolition of the Temple De Hirsch at East Union Street and 18th Avenue on Capitol Hill. The 550-seat sanctuary had been abandoned for a decade, and, although a city landmark, was in a serious state of disrepair.

The Temple's administration had a demolition proposal in the works, but as a last-ditch effort appealed to the community for feasible proposals to reuse the building. Mr. Brewster, after attending a meeting concerning the historic building, decided that he would attempt to assemble a consortium of arts interests and members of the Jewish community to acquire the building and reuse it as an arts venue. Upon further exploration, it became clear that the building did not suit the proposed use. The location, the seating layout, and its small capacity were all less than ideal. Unfortunately, due to these physical constraints and a lack of community consensus, the idea was temporarily abandoned.

Aware of his efforts with the Temple De Hirsch, the congregation at the Fourth Church of Christ, Scientist contacted Mr. Brewster two years later to explore the feasibility of transferring their property for a similar use. In response, he quickly formed a similar group of backers to buy the property. Six offers were made through the 1990s, all of which were rejected.

Facing competition from other bidders, Mr. Brewster contacted Historic Seattle to assist with the negotiation process. Historic Seattle convened a group of possible users to examine the potential of the project as a performance venue, and in 1997 pursued and successfully negotiated a purchase and sale agreement for the property.

Historic Seattle's offer was chosen over other development proposals, including a plan to demolish the structure and create a surface parking lot, partly because the congregation liked the proposal for adaptive reuse. Members were interested in the preservation of their building, they liked the proposed use as a community center, music hall and performing arts venue, and the Christian Scientist Church, as an organization, is interested in public affairs. The purchase agreement included a contingency period pending the results of a feasibility study and building assessment.

The King County Arts Commission and Landmarks and Heritage Commission approved $75,000 in emergency funding for the feasibility analysis from Hotel Motel Funds. This was the first project jointly funded by both commissions. The feasibility analysis examined the physical condition of the building, the constraints and opportunities presented by the project, and its suitability as a performance venue. In addition, more than 200 potential user groups were surveyed to assess the market for such a cultural center.

The analysis took longer than expected and required an extension of the agreement, to which the church agreed for an additional sum. Following the study, however, Historic Seattle concluded that it would not be able to raise the funding necessary to assure the long term preservation of the structure. Rehabilitation of the Fourth Church of Christ, Scientist would have consumed all of Historic Seattle's resources for several years as support was assembled, precluding the organization from pursuing other important preservation efforts in Seattle.

Although beyond Historic Seattle's capacity at the time, the project itself was feasible. What was needed was an organization that could fulfill the ownership role and successfully undertake such a project. Historic Seattle agreed to transfer the purchase agreement and the results of its extensive feasibility analysis to an investor group led by David Brewster. The transfer included some restrictions, such as a three year moratorium against demolition of the structure. The deal closed in April 1998.

Town Hall LLC is the entity controlling the property, formed for the purpose of acquiring the building, and is composed of individuals interested in doing public good and providing facilities for public use. To operate the venue and maintain the building, Town Hall Association, a non-profit organization, was created. Thus, the owner group and the non-profit are philosophically "in tune" with one another.

The Perfect Home

The Fourth Church of Christ, Scientist was an ideal facility for the Town Hall Project for several reasons. The congregation had experienced a long, gradual decline in attendance, which resulted in a reasonably well-maintained but essentially unaltered building. The only significant structural alteration is an elevator added during the 1960s. As a Christian Scientist church, the building is physically well matched to Town Hall's needs.

For instance, Christian Scientist churches lack religious symbolism and stylistically tend to resemble public administrative buildings. In addition, Christian Scientist churches tend to have very good downtown locations to generate street traffic for their reading rooms. Because of the shallow dome design and thick masonry walls, the Town Hall building also has wonderful acoustics for music performances.

Due to these factors, thus far it has not been necessary to make major structural changes to the building. As an emerging non-profit community association, Town Hall is undertaking the renovation of its facilities gradually as the budget allows and experience is gained. "It's learn as you go," says David Brewster. "Gradual and organic is a good pace for historic buildings." The operating ethic is to respect the building's historical integrity, but also to maintain flexibility. According to Brewster, the first criterion for decision making for the Town Hall project is whether or not it is useful and functional.

Conversely, the organization is discovering that the more time people are spending in the building, the less people seem willing to make significant changes. For example, initially there was discussion favoring the removal of the auditorium's curved pew in favor of theater seating, but now the majority opinion has changed.

Most of the changes to date have involved upgrades and the addition of systems required for the operation of a performance venue. For instance, the electrical system was upgraded to handle additional load.

In the Great Hall, sound and lighting were added, including lighting mounted near the apex of the dome. In addition, a stage was constructed at the fore of the auditorium. The wooden pews remain in place, and it currently seems unlikely that a large number will be removed. In the main lobby curtains were added to divide the area into sections, as for events and banquets, and the lobby was painted in historic, Jeffersonian-inspired 18th century colors. In the basement, which has received the most renovation, a kitchen was added on the west side of the building, carpeting and ADA access was added, and several rooms were enclosed for storage space.

Challenges for Churches

Two attractive aspects of historic churches as preservation projects, generally, is that they are often very well designed and built, and change ownership infrequently.

However, churches also face unique challenges. The mission of churches leads congregations into community service, which although expensive, is often supported by a fragile funding structure. Religious organizations thus fulfill an important community role, to the detriment of other needs, such as funding for facilities. In the urban setting, where historic churches may experience declining attendance but an increased need for social services, the financial situation often represents a profound challenge.

Preserving the historic integrity and meeting the basic maintenance needs of religious facilities can be expensive, which often results in low-cost renovations and emergency maintenance solutions. Thus, older church buildings are often found in a state of serious disrepair, and over the years may have been subject to several renovations of varying quality. This can affect both the congregation's financial ability to retain the building, and the building's potential for future reuse.

From the developer's point of view, churches can present several challenges. The relocation of a congregation and loss of a building can be an emotional and divisive situation for a congregation, and as a result a situation may develop in which different groups within the congregation are at odds with one another regarding the future of their facilities. The minister and other officials find themselves in the undesirable position of being caught in the middle, and one result is that the process takes more time than most private developers would prefer.

In addition, many urban churches sit on extremely valuable land, which often generates interest from several potential buyers. This can create a situation in which the building on the lot, the historic church, is a liability if the selling price is too high. The ability and motivation of the selling congregation to work with a preservation developer is an important factor.

As a practical matter historic city churches also lack adequate parking facilities. This was an issue for the Town Hall project, which had to commission a parking study. In this case, good transit connections, in addition to an abundance of public parking and the off-hours availability of hospital and commuter parking, satisfied the city's parking requirements.

For the Town Hall Project, it is important to recognize that many factors facing historic churches were mitigated. Major repair or renovation was not required to convert the building to its new use, and the selling party was motivated by and supportive of Historic Seattle's redevelopment proposal. Because of this, the project saved time and money.

Strategy

David Brewster decided early in the process to use a for-profit group to acquire the building instead of a non-profit. If the project were to fail, a non-profit stewardship organization would be placed in a difficult situation, whereas a for-profit group could explore more options. While Historic Seattle had found that the project presented too great an investment risk, David Brewster decided that a for-profit company could offset some of that risk by maintaining an exit strategy. If the group has to sell the building, they can preserve their funds for similar use in the future.

Another factor in the decision was speed. Raising funding from multiple sources, including government entities and the philanthropic community, can be a time-consuming process. Granting cycles and review periods can be protracted. Additionally, delays often occur if time is short and the project timeline is out of sync with the timelines of the funding sources. The quickest route seemed to be private.

The non-profit Town Hall Association hopes to complete the donation and purchase transaction from the ownership group in 2003. Currently the LLC owns the building, and the non-profit has a five-year lease with a five-year extension. The agreed upon price increases incrementally every year according to a formula that yields a rate between 7 and 10%. The price is set to provide a small return consistent with inflation, although some of the investors are planning to donate their share to the non-profit.

Under the agreement, most of the rent that would be owed by the Town Hall Association to the owners is paid in the form of building improvements, which provides additional advantages. This allows the non-profit to avoid paying rent during its start-up years, and concentrate on renovation of the building. When Town Hall Association acquires the building, they will own those improvements.

A drawback to the flexibility of using for-profit ownership include property taxes, which are passed on to Town Hall Association as rental costs.

Town Hall is likely eligible for federal and local historic preservation incentives. However, although the Town Hall group was aware of potential incentives, because of the need for flexibility and the risks inherent in the project, the choice was made not to pursue them after reviewing their respective costs and benefits.

In addition, the Town Hall project is in its fourth year, and is still determining its facilities needs, options and budget. Mr. Brewster wants to protect their options for renovation and to maintain his aforementioned first criterion for decision-making: is it functional, and is it useful? Without a solid project plan for the building in hand, landmark status presents some unknowns and does not currently present many financial incentives due to the ongoing, fluid nature of the renovation. Down the road, however, landmarking may become a possibility.

Generally, Brewster feels that there is a need to protect buildings with measures that exist between landmarks controls and no controls. Many developers avoid landmark status because it is perceived to be a time consuming and risky process, and the incentives offered are outweighed by the restrictions.

Likewise, the HRTC does not represent a useful incentive for this project. As the renovations are proceeding on a continuous basis, the certification process would be a complicated task. Although the HRTC program provides for phased projects along a 5 year plan, Town Hall has not chosen to pursue this course. It is also possible that the Federal HRTC would be too small to attract an equity partner easily. To date, they have completed roughly $1 million in renovations, some of which would not qualify for the HRTC basis. Thus any potential tax credit would be below $200,000.

Making It Pencil

Town Hall is a work in progress. The $1.6 million building was acquired through the personal investments of 17 civic-minded residents, ranging in amounts from $25,000 to $300,000. Three individuals have donated their share of the building to the non-profit and are no longer members of the investor group.

Thus far, the building has undergone about $800,000 in improvements and upgrades. Funding sources have come from individual contributions and public and private grants. Approximately $500,000 has been received from two Seattle Neighborhood Matching Grants, a King County Cultural Facilities Grant, a Washington State Building for the Arts Grant, and a grant received from the Seattle Foundation. An additional $250,000 has been received from individual contributions and local foundations, including the Bagley Wright Foundation, the Kreisheimer Foundation, and the Paul Allen Foundation. The goal of raising $5-10 million for the planned remodeling campaign has been slowed by the downturn in the economy.

Naming rights and a sale of Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) credits might also provide funding for the nonprofit to be used for the outright purchase of the building. The site is zoned for 160' and there was a proposal to do an in-block TDR transfer, but it fell through.

Thus far the project has met its goals. Last year (2001), Town Hall Association had a $450,000 operating budget, which has grown to $650,000 this year. Half of the revenue is raised from ticket sales, memberships, and from donations. The other half is drawn from facilities rental.

A Success Story

The Town Hall Project has been a successful experiment due to its organizational flexibility and the building's characteristics. Its 900-seat capacity fits nicely between larger venues such as the University of Washington's Meany Hall and the smaller Benaroya Hall downtown, and its First Hill location is well suited to its market. A project at the Temple de Hirsch would probably not have met with the same success: the venue would have been smaller, the location more remote, the renovation costs higher.

According to the Puget Sound Business Journal, in 2002 Townhall anticipates 60,000 visitors and has 300 bookings, a 50% increase over the year prior.

Although a historic building, Town Hall has been conceived with an eye toward the future. David Brewster imagines the future of the neighborhood developing toward a balanced mix of uses. Future projects may help cultivate a diverse community of businesses and people, and a well-rounded neighborhood that has a life after 5pm. Town Hall, he asserts, is the beginning of this trend.

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