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A familiar profile at Second, Poplar

Story originally published by the Commercial Appeal

The facade is fresh, yet familiar.

From arched doorways to a soaring bell tower, plans for the property at Second and Poplar offer a graceful re-addition to the Downtown landscape.

And that's only the beginning, according to members of First United Methodist Church, who recently approved a design plan that will see the congregation in a new home at its old location by mid-2009.

Future plans call for expanded outreach ministries and programs to meet the needs of the growing Downtown population.

"From the beginning we knew God's call to us was to minister in an urban setting, to reach out to the Downtown community," said Rev. Martha B. Wagley, the church's senior pastor. "Our goal is to once again be open as a seven-day-a-week church, just as we were before."

Before.

As in, prior to Oct. 6, 2006, when flames swept through Downtown and gutted First Church's 114-year-old sanctuary. Members were determined to rebuild at the same location and they're looking forward to the day when the project is completed.

"In the timetable of history, this is only a blip in the life of our congregation," said Dell King, vice chairman of the building committee. "Compared to that, this is only a matter of weeks."

After more than a year of study and preparation -- during which time the city's oldest congregation didn't miss a single Sunday worship service -- members voted unanimously on Dec. 9 to approve the schematic design.

"It's been nonstop work since the fire, with months and months of planning and meetings to figure out how we wanted to proceed," said Gary Gardo, chairman of the church's building committee. "We've considered our current needs and we're looking ahead to anticipate what we'll need in the future."

Construction of the 10,000-square-foot building will begin in the spring and should be completed by the summer of 2009. Work is under way to renovate the 35,000-square-foot education and administration building adjacent to the former sanctuary, which received smoke and water damage in the fire.

Members will meet in that building when it's finished, likely by the end of 2008.

The exterior of the new worship center will be reminiscent of the former neo-Gothic structure, a Downtown landmark completed in 1892 at the corner of Second and Poplar.

It will feature historical arches and marble columns that were part of the former building, as well as salvaged granite that will be used as part of the foundation. There will also be a courtyard and a green space, visible from Second.

Hord Architects was hired to create the design and Grinder, Taber and Grinder Inc. will operate as the general contractors for the project.

"It's not a duplicate of what we had before, but similar and, we think, improved upon," said Robert Klingbeil, chairman of the study committee. "People have been very emotional about it, but we all agreed that we wanted to be the light that unites."

Since the fire, the congregation has held Sunday morning services in the Training and Conference Center at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital at Third and Overton. Wednesday evening services take place at BRIDGES, 477 N. Fifth.

To offset expenses, the congregation hopes to raise nearly $2 million with its "First Responder" campaign. For information on how to help, call 527-8362 or go to firstchurchmemphis.org

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