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GARY | When they learned much of the sanctuary roof caved in, local photographers rushed to the majestic ruins of the City Methodist Church, a long-abandoned downtown cathedral that skilled craftsmen carved out of Bedford limestone to glorify God in a hardscrabble mill town nearly a century ago.

They wanted to capture whatever images they could of the towering nine-story church, which was constructed with an attached auditorium and school as a civilizing influence in 1925. That's when a rough-hewn, teenaged Gary was filled with taverns, brothels and shanties and hard men who drank hard liquor and forged the hardest metal of all in a city built to feed America's then-insatiable hunger for steel.

The photographers believed the roof collapse meant the end — after four decades of neglect, countless gawkers and wild arson rampaging through downtown Gary — was finally near.

Their instincts were right.

The end was near.

Gary has now fenced off the church at 577 Washington St., a Gothic fortress that once was the largest Methodist church in the entire Midwest with 3,000 worshipers. The city blocked off urban explorers, the adventurous photographers who venture into decrepit buildings to snap pictures of the decaying architectural treasures society has thrown away. 

For years, they have chronicled the church's slow disintegration since it was abandoned for good in 1975, a process that accelerated when the church's interior was exposed to the elements after the Great Gary Arson of 1997.

City Methodist Church, dubbed "Seaman's folly" almost immediately by people who questioned whether Pastor William Seaman built it too big, ultimately buckled under the weight of hefty maintenance bills after white flight and downsizing in the steel industry emptied out the pews and winnowed the remaining faithful down to around 200 people in the early 1970s.

Lately, the church has mainly hosted curious neighborhood kids, rogue photographers who have splashed it all over Instagram, and filmmakers who have shot a Freddy Krueger flick and other movies there.

The city had been planning to fence off the forsaken church even before a large portion of roof collapsed, opening the great vaulted sanctuary up to the sky. Gary had already been looking to revive a mothballed plan that dates back to 2007 to transform the blighted church into a European-style ruins gardens.

"It's in its infancy stages, but we want to preserve as much as possible," Gary Building Commissioner Steven Marcus said. "It's in the downtown historic district. It's one of the properties that adds to that district. We want to preserve as much as possible of what's historical, but also figure out a way to repurpose the property."

Ruins garden

Gary hopes to give new life to a crumbling church even the most pious had long ago given up on, as part of an overall effort to rejuvenate a downtown that once bustled with department store shoppers and theatergoers and diners in their Sunday finest. Now the downtown has few flickers of life outside of banker's hours when the Gary SouthShore RailCats aren't playing, but revitalization efforts are underway.

The city recently razed the Sheraton Hotel tower no one had checked in to for decades and is now bankrolling an effort to turn the mostly empty Gary State Bank high-rise office tower into a data center with a street-level bank branch.

Much of what remains of City Methodist Church — often held up as a symbol of Gary's decline from a nouveau city of grand ambitions to a diminished burgh that suffers from crime and blight — would likely be torn down so the most dramatic architectural features could be stabilized and appreciated safely. Immense columns and vaulted arches in the sanctuary would remain as a testament to a bygone Gary, a prosperous company town that had once been a playground for Chicago architects.

"The structure of the building was built really, really tough, but we need to stabilize the building," Marcus said. "We hope to move as quickly as possible."

A ruins garden would be a public park that could host weddings, performances, and special events, Marcus said. Goths — remember them from high school? — already have been getting married in there for years.

An amphitheater could even be built on the grounds of God's forsaken house at Washington Street and Sixth Avenue. An appointed commission will have to determine exactly what programming takes place there, such as if the Gary Shakespeare Co. would be given the opportunity to stage plays against such a striking backdrop, Marcus said.

Tourist attraction

Similar ruins gardens litter England and Continental Europe, but are less common in the United States. The City Methodist Church ruins gardens likely would be the largest of its kind in the country if funding is secured and the project comes to fruition, said Tiffany Tolbert, field director of the Northwest Field Office of Indiana Landmarks.

Such reclamation projects could become increasingly common in other Rust Belt cities, such as Detroit, Cleveland and Pittsburgh, where inner cities have hollowed out and forsaken architectural gems are worth saving but beyond renovating, she said.

"Even in its current state, City Methodist Church is still awe-inspiring and popular with photographers," she said. "It's a tourist attraction. More and more people have been discovering it online through Instagram or Twitter. Some call it 'ruin porn' where they take pictures of City Methodist, Union Station or other buildings. Architecture students from Chicago also come down to study its classical form. If it could be preserved to prevent further unsafe photography without compromising it as a tourist attraction, it would be a huge benefit to the city without incurring the substantial, astronomical cost of demolishing the entire building."

People from all over the country already call the Indiana Landmarks field office to find out about how to visit City Methodist Church when they're passing through town, and whether the neighborhood is safe, Tolbert said. Along with Union Station, it's one of Gary's 8,000 or so vacant properties that attracts the most attention.

"It's significant architecturally," she said. "People do forget that, in its creation, Gary rivaled Chicago in design ... that Chicago architects and builders treated Gary like a little playground."

Turning the church into a ruins garden could boost its popularity, Tolbert said.

Flowers and other flora could make it look nice. Signs could explain architectural features. A stripped-down, stabilized structure would be safer and more inviting to less risk-tolerant souls who would never consider wandering around inside a vacant building that could be filled with squatters and who knows what else.

'Reminiscent of Chernobyl'

St. John-based photographer Joey Lax-Salinas has been photographing City Methodist Church for years, and happened to be leading an Indianapolis television news crew into the building the morning after a large portion of the sanctuary roof collapsed. They were filming footage for a report on how Gary is addressing its glut of abandoned properties after learning suspected serial killer Darren Vann led police to six victims dumped in vacant homes.

When Lax-Salinas saw the the blue sky through the grand sanctuary and watched the clouds pass through, he had two thoughts: it would make for a cool time-lapse shot and it would likely force the city to completely fence off the property. A sense of lost opportunity came over him: He had been hoping to photograph the church again this winter.

"I'm disappointed that it happened," he said. "But I've been in every nook and cranny of that church and knew somebody's going to get hurt if they didn't do anything."

Gary can't be faulted for the church's condition because the city has limited finances and has had far more pressing issues, Lax-Salinas said. But it's a monument to the storied past of a once-thriving boom town that had been celebrated as the "City of the Century."

The church looks epic, to the point where it feels like a movie set that's too expansive to be in a Hollywood studio, Lax-Salinas said. It's been a backdrop for both low-budget music videos and a $195 million Hollywood blockbuster: "Transformers: Dark of the Moon."

"It's surreal and otherworldly," he said. "It's reminiscent of Chernobyl, which was abandoned after the nuclear accident. I remember thinking that, after watching a documentary about Chernobyl, that this is kind of what that looks like."

Lax-Salinas has shot the church a few times each year, bringing a police officer friend from high school along as hired security. He still can't shake his initial awe.

"The first time I visited I was in shock," he said. "It was an abandoned building that was so long deteriorated that all the drywall and plaster was just dust on the ground."

Much of the interior has disintegrated, but the arches and columns that account for much of the visual appeal still look like they'll stand at least another 100 years, he said.

"The old architecture is awe-inspiring," he said. "We just don't build churches like that anymore. Churches now are square and efficient and aimed at saving money and energy. They don't have that appearance, that spiritual look. It was the end of an era."

Normally, photographers who want to shoot abandoned buildings have to venture far into the countryside to find some eerie old barn at the end of some meandering gravel road, Lax-Salinas said. City Methodist Church has been such a draw because it's shocking to find an edifice so grandiose in such a deteriorated condition smack in the middle of a city's downtown. It's easily accessible: just 25 minutes from Chicago, within a few hours' drive of other major Midwestern cities such as Milwaukee and Indianapolis, just off the Indiana Toll Road, and a few minutes from a major interstate highway.

Over the last five years or so, the church's haunting sanctuary has become increasingly popular as a tourist attraction because images of it have been shared so widely on websites like Flickr and Facebook, Lax-Salinas said. It's drawn budding shutterbugs and gear-saddled darkroom veterans from all over. They often find his pictures online, and call him to get intel on how to get inside and what to watch out for. They often travel from a distance and plan to visit urban ruins in both Gary and Detroit, just four hours east.

"Photographers will make a day out of it," Lax-Salinas said. "It's a playland for taking pictures. But if the city doesn't do something, we'll lose the building completely at some point, lose it entirely. It's dangerous and at risk of collapsing. Just as a liability concern, they need to cover themselves for a lawsuit."

Built as a gift for God

Someone was eventually going to get killed if the church hadn't been fenced off, photographer Guy Rhodes said. The East Chicago-based professional photographer, who recently shot the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia, has seen less safety-conscious photographers enter in sundresses and sandals, including to shoot senior portraits, without even watching their step.

When he saw rubble from the roof strewn on Sixth Avenue, he feared it was the beginning of the end for a building that was meant to last forever. Rhodes has long lamented that nothing has been done to preserve the decaying church, which he considers a work of art.

"For me it's just the architecture, the lighting and design," Rhodes said. "I really appreciate the craftsmanship that doesn't exist in today's world of vinyl siding. This was a Gothic cathedral and the limestone work was so intricate and all done by hand. There's ornamentation on the steeple that you'd never see from the ground, like hand-carved owls where they etched every feather and every claw. Skilled stone masons built it as a gift for God."

A church that was built for eternity is eroding away because no one has taken care of it for decades, Rhodes said. He compares it to ice slowly melting, and notices different bricks have fallen in every time he visits. The stonework and stained glass appears sturdy, but much of the rest of the building, such as drywall, has succumbed to neglect and the elements.

"It's unfortunate," he said. "It's heartbreaking. It's like watching a building melt."

Rhodes has worried City Methodist would ultimately share the same fate as many historic buildings in East Chicago, such as when the ornate edifice of the 1st National Bank & Trust Co. downtown was razed in 2005 to make way for a Walgreens parking lot because no one wanted to do anything with it.

"The City Methodist Church was built to last forever, but there's been no love and care for a building that was constructed with such craftsmanship," Rhodes said. "The people who built the place would likely be very upset to see what condition it's in today, which speaks to our throwaway society. The cinder block boxes they build now are sucking the soul out of our society. Buildings used to be meant to inspire excellence."

The cost of demolition and preservation will likely be steep, well into the millions of dollars. Rhodes wishes Chicago's many wealthy preservationists would take an interest in nearby Gary.

"At the end of the day, if the building is saved, it doesn't matter if some millionaire made it his private house," Rhodes said. "So long as it's not a pile of rubble. At all costs, it cannot be torn down."

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Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.

Senior Copy Editor

Jeanette is a journalist with The Times Media Co. who has worked as both a reporter and editor. She has a master's degree in public affairs reporting from the University of Illinois at Springfield.