WATERLOO — Hymnals still rest in the dusty pews of Walnut Street Baptist Church. Pamphlets are scattered on tables in the back of the room. A wall board details weekly giving and building fund efforts.
It may feel like time stood still in the decade since the last congregation packed up their Bibles, the organ and steeple bell and left the church at 415 Walnut St.
But smashed ceiling plaster across the front of the sanctuary, evidence of water damage and the tell-tale signs of raccoons show time and the elements have pushed the 111-year-old historic structure into decay.
“It’s disheartening that it’s still so beautiful and not able to be cared for,” said Ali Parrish, executive director of Iowa Heartland Habitat for Humanity.
But Parrish and other members of the Walnut Neighborhood Housing Coalition are looking to save the building as part of their ongoing neighborhood revitalization efforts.
Habitat for Humanity bought the church on behalf of the coalition for $40,000 from a western Iowa tax sale investor. The plan now is to stop the building from decline while the neighborhood stakeholders look for ideas and money to bring it back to life.
“We were initially pleased on some levels with the quality of the craftsmanship and what’s still here,” Parrish said. “I think a lot of ideas started to flow right off the bat; you could see some really cool uses for it.
“But we were certainly saddened that it’s in the condition it is,” she added. “The struggle in the community is when the owner can’t afford it anymore and it goes to tax sale and gets sold, at times, to outside investors who aren’t really interested in the community or owning these kinds of properties.”
Walnut Street Baptist Church was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2000.
Historic records indicate four men sat on a log on a triangular piece of land at the corner of Walnut and Lime streets in the summer of 1896 and came up with plans for a church, which was built that same year.
The original Walnut Street Baptist Church was replaced in 1908 with the current brick building, designed by noted architect Clinton P. Shockley. It housed one of the largest Baptist congregations in Iowa and hosted revivals by renowned evangelist Billy Sunday.
The congregation, now known as Walnut Ridge Baptist Church, moved to its current location at Ansborough and Ridgeway avenues in 1971. The building was sold to another Baptist congregation, which renamed it Faith Temple Baptist Church.
Laura Hoy, president of Walnut Neighborhood Association, spent time last week at Friendship Village visiting with older members of Walnut Ridge Baptist Church about the building.
“They shared their stories and brought some pictures,” Hoy said. “Some of them had relatives who back in the late 1800’s were praying on this little triangle of grass.
“It was so fun walking through the church because I had some of their stories playing in my head,” she added. “We’re thinking about a way, no matter what it would become, that there would be someplace in the church that honors the past.”
Parrish said saving the church is a key aspect of the targeted work being done to rejuvenate the Walnut Neighborhood, an area on the north side of downtown that has seen many of its historic structures torn down.
Habitat for Humanity has been constructing new homes and renovating others in Walnut. JSA Development is investing hundreds of thousands of dollars into historic renovations of four homes. The city of Waterloo has provided funding for new commercial development in Walnut and lots for the housing push.
Mayor Quentin Hart has praised the revitalization effort in Walnut, which includes working with existing residents, as a model that could be used to bring up other neighborhoods in the future.
Parrish said the idea was to build on the neighborhood’s assets, and history was a key asset in Walnut.
“One of the things that was really important to the residents when we had our listening meetings a couple years ago, one of the assets of the neighborhood that was identified, was the historic buildings,” she said. “That was something considered valuable to the neighborhood.”
The city also sponsored a survey that led the Walnut Neighborhood to be declared a federal historic district this year, joining three others in town. The designation is expected to provide tax credits for historic renovation efforts in the district.
Parrish and Hoy said the next steps will be getting a report from state historic preservation officials about steps that need to be taken to protect the building from ongoing decay.
The coalition will then be working with the neighborhood and other stakeholders on a planning phase for future uses of the church.
“It needs to be something the neighborhood would support and that would be sustainable,” Parrish said.
While the effort may seem daunting, Parrish said the coalition members didn’t lose spirit during their first walk-through of the church.
“This biggest surprise was the inspiration we felt right off the bat,” she said. “It didn’t feel depressing. It felt like ‘OK, we can work with this.’”