Sep 28, 2023 - News

Redevelopment project transforms historic downtown church that burned in 1984

An artist's rendering of people gathered in an open tree lined courtyard of a building.

An artist's rendering of the completed Monroe Street Abbey project. Image courtesy of Jones Studio

An ambitious project to redevelop a historic abbey that caught fire nearly 40 years ago is coming to fruition and has signed its first tenants.

State of play: The project aims to transform downtown's historic former First Baptist Church, at Monroe Street and Third Avenue.

  • The nonprofit Housing Opportunity Center, led by former Phoenix Mayor and Attorney General Terry Goddard, acquired the building in 1992, saving it from demolition, and has been working on the redevelopment for the past decade.
A dirt lot surrounded by five-story walls in the middle of a ruined church building.
The former First Baptist Church on Monroe Street in downtown Phoenix as it looks today amid the redevelopment project. Photo: Jeremy Duda/Axios

Driving the news: The first phase is renovating the central courtyard area, as well as the western side of the first two floors of the five-story building.

  • Goddard says that work is scheduled for completion in December.
  • There's no timeline for the remainder of the building.

The latest: The Monroe Street Abbey earlier this month signed its first tenants: Trista Croce, owner of wedding and event planning company BTS Event Management, and Noelle Townsley, owner of catering company Fresh From the Kitchen.

  • "It's going to be an indoor/outdoor venue, and there's nothing else in town like it," Croce told the Arizona Republic. "It has a European look to it."
  • Goddard says the new tenants expect to open for business in the spring.
  • There's also space for restaurants, bars, conferences, musical performances and more.

Flashback: The First Baptist Church was completed in 1929.

  • The congregation moved to north central Phoenix around 1972, Goddard said, and for about a decade the nonprofit Urban League used it for training.
  • In 1984, days after Goddard became mayor, the building caught fire and the roof collapsed.
  • At the time, a group that included Phoenix Suns star Alvan Adams planned to redevelop the property but was forced to abandon the plans.

Zoom in: A group of visiting architects conceived the project around 2006, Goddard said, envisioning what one called a "garden in a ruin."

  • The nonprofit sold two buildings in 2012 and 2013 to fund the project, using the money for a $4 million effort to add steel reinforcement.
Three tall windows with no glass with rose colored tinting on the beige walls.
The rose-colored tinting on the abbey's eastern walls were caused by the 1984 that collapsed the building's roof. Photo: Jeremy Duda/Axios

Between the lines: Rather than replace the collapsed roof over the former nave, they'll plant trees there and leave it open as a garden area for hosting events.

  • The project is preserving as much of the original building as it can and plans to leave the chipped and worn columns and other features as is.
  • "We've never aspired to replace the roof. And frankly, I think most people are sort of taken away by the sort of grandeur of the semi-ruined columns. And most people say don't change a thing," Goddard tells Axios Phoenix.
  • Goddard points to the rose-colored tinting on the eastern walls, caused by the heat of the fire. "We'll never reproduce that. And when the sun gets low in the afternoon, it glows. It's just gorgeous," he says.

The intrigue: The project was underway and the building was fully leased in March 2020, but the tenants pulled out amid the economic upheaval of COVID-19, Goddard says.

  • Had it not been for the pandemic, he says, the Monroe Street Abbey likely would've opened for business last year.
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