Residents Fight to Protect Historic First Lutheran Church From Demolition

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The history of the First Evangelical Lutheran Church, a Romanesque brick building with stained glass windows, dates back nearly a century. In the 1920s, it was built as St. Anthony's, the first Catholic church in Fort Lauderdale, by an architect who had designed dozens of churches along Florida's east coast. After that congregation outgrew the building, they sold it for $1 to Lutherans, who had never worshipped in their own structure in Fort Lauderdale before.

They moved the building brick by brick from the Las Olas waterfront to its current location on Southeast Third Avenue. But that history seems to be lost on the Taho Group developers, who are gobbling up properties on the block and proposing a 32-story condo tower. When the First Evangelical Lutheran Church announced that it was in the process of selling the building, retired pastor Paul Pfadenhauer and local gallery owner Robin Merrill rushed to apply for historic preservation status to save the cherished structure from demolition.

"For years this building gave solace and comfort, married and buried people, brought a message of hope when suffering," Pfadenhauer tells New Times. "To take away a building that was the center of that for new construction, rips the heart and soul out of the community." Though the Broward County Property Appraiser's Office has no record of a sale at 441 NE Third Ave., a church bulletin states that on May 19, 2016 a purchase and sale agreement for $3 million was finalized with Taho Group LLC, a Sunny Isles development group.

New Times left messages with the church, Taho Group, and Crush Law, a firm associated with the condo project. We will update this post when we hear back.

Artist Robin Merrill explains that her gallery was first located in the church, in one of its upper rooms, and that's how it was named Upper Room Art Gallery. Merrill has a deep connection to the place. Merrill is currently manning a Facebook campaign to "Save Historic First Lutheran Fort Lauderdale," an online petition, and an online fundraiser.

Ever since Merrill heard whispers of a sale, she has been brushing up on the building's history and will submit the application for historic preservation with the city this week. "This building has an amazing story about the generosity of the community from the early days and that type of generosity needs to live on," Merrill says. "We don't need for everything to be bulldozed and we don't need more housing."

More than 200 people have signed the petition and nearly 100 have commented about the importance of keeping this building in the community. Alyssa Forman of Fort Lauderdale wrote a week ago: "Ever since I was a little girl I passed by this church and planned that one day I would have my wedding there. It's so beautiful...I pass it almost every week and love the fact that we still have such a gorgeous, historic church in our midst. Don't let that fact disappear."
Next October marks 500 years since the Lutherans separated from the Catholic Church in Germany. Merrill believes that makes this building even more historic since it was St. Anthony's Catholic Church that gifted their church to the Lutherans in the 1940s. 

In an act of artistic protest, Merrill is taping a dollar bill on the doors to remind the Lutheran Church of the previous generosity of the Catholic Church. She welcomes anyone to similarly tape a dollar to the doors and then take a photo and post it on social media. 
Though Merrill and Pfadenhauer are optimistic about saving the property, Steve Glassman isn't. As president of the nonprofit Broward Trust for Historic Preservation, Glassman says that process to have a property designated with historic preservation takes months: the application must be submitted, the city's preservation board meets, sends its recommendation to commissioners, and then commissioners make the final ruling. However, a demolition permit can be granted in just two weeks. 

"That's the irony," Glassman says. "To get a permit for anything in Fort Lauderdale takes months but for some reason if you want to knock something down—no problem!"

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