Back to church

Bobby Griffith
Photo by Mark Hancock

After sitting vacant for years and undergoing a renovation that added a swimming pool in a failed effort in the past decade to turn it into a health club, it sold late last year to City Presbyterian Church (known as City Pres), a downtown congregation founded in 2011.

On Easter Sunday, the church will host its first service in its new home at 1433 Classen Drive.

What’s old is new again, and this church has been on a long journey and now will serve a young, mobile demographic.

Bobby Griffith, co-pastor of City Pres, said the church has a younger congregation; the majority of parishioners are under 35. While the church is traditional in some areas, it is more contemporary in others; the clergy wear robes and follow the church

calendar, but a rock band provides music for the services. On average, 200-250 people have been attending services at temporary space at First Church, 131 NW Fourth St.

“We want to be a church that sees itself as rooted in tradition but communicating in a way that fits Oklahoma City,” Griffith said.


Reborn beauty 

The National Register of Historic Places nomination form shows the building was designed by Hawk and Parr, a prominent architecture firm at the time, and it was built in a late gothic revival style. The exterior includes red brick with limestone embellishments and two large towers facing Classen Drive.

Looking up from the sanctuary, the ceiling is made up of an oak-covered steel truss system with decorative pendants and is perhaps the most unique feature in the building.

In the past 25 years, the stained-glass windows were removed and remain damaged in boxes or lost. The pews and the organ also have disappeared. Despite the loss of those elements, having a clean slate worked just fine for Griffith. Racing the clock to have it ready in time for the Easter service, he helped clean and paint and oversaw the addition of carpet and the installation of pews from another old church in Buffalo, Okla.

Without a fortuitous event, however, the congregation likely would still be in rented space.

Last fall, church leaders planned to lease and eventually purchase the old Pilgrim property and were working with Ben Sellers of Wayne Property Advisors.

The church did not have the $350,000 down payment to purchase the building until Griffith and his counterpart, Doug Serven, were at a conference for pastors in Decatur, Ga. They told a fellow minister from Fort Worth, Texas, about their desire to buy the space.

Soon, an anonymous donor from Texas surfaced. All Griffith and Serven knew about the stranger who pledged $300,000 was that his name was John.

“We got a text Monday that John was in and would send us $300,000,” Griffith said. “Thursday, I opened our P.O. box and there was a handwritten check for $300,000.”

With two $25,000 donations from parishioners in OKC, the church put down $350,000 and financed the remainder of the $975,000 purchase price.

“It’s pretty incredible,” Griffith said.


The building’s long journey 

Long before Griffith walked through the dilapidated doors, the building was home to Pilgrim Congregational Church for many years. Pilgrim put it on the market in the late 1970s, and that’s when James Loftis stepped in.

Loftis, an architect, and three business partners purchased the building with a unique plan for the space. His group eyed a portion of the building constructed in 1968 to be its office space. Yet he wondered if purchasing a church was the best idea, until the idea was presented to turn the old sanctuary into housing units for young, monied downtown professionals.

“I wasn’t for it until we decided we could convert the sanctuary into housing,” he said. “Then it made sense. Otherwise, why would you buy a church?” They purchased the building for $150,000, but as federal tax credits dwindled in the early 1980s and the oil bust set in, the housing plan was scrapped. Loftis kept his office at the church from 1979 until the early ’90s and sold the building in 1991.

“It served us well for about ten years,” he said.

Loftis worked to get the building included on the National Register of Historic Places in the early 1980s. At that time, many of the original features of the building, both interior and exterior, were intact.

“We still had the pipe organ and pews,” he said.

The property is valuable today, perhaps more than ever, as it rises on the edge of the growing Midtown district less than a mile from the central business district. Its neighbors include both Heritage Hills, Mesta Park and a working-class neighborhood to the west.

Its first church service at its new home is at 10 a.m. on April 20.

Gazette Staff

This article was written by the Oklahoma Gazette staff. To reach an editor, please email jchancellor@okgazette.com with this story headline in your subject line.

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