In Seattle today, real estate is practically a religion unto itself—although one without much use for majestic old churches. As we've seen with the all-but-doomed First United Methodist Church downtown, it's the land and not the church that developers covet.

The impending loss of that downtown landmark has prompted local preservationists to become fiercer and more organized. But their efforts may be futile, at least where churches are concerned. The crushing setback came last fall with the decision by the court of appeals to uphold a ruling that allows a congregation to tear down its own temple, even if the city moves to protect it as a historic landmark.

So momentum belongs to developers like Martin Selig, who plans to build a skyscraper on the current site of the First United Methodist Church at Fifth Avenue and Marion Street, next to Columbia Tower.

But the preservationists' efforts to stop Selig have not been a total loss. By organizing rallies and attracting scores of politicians to their cause, advocates shined a glaring media spotlight on First United Methodist Church's congregation. Even if the pressure they brought to bear did not prompt that particular church to preserve its building, it seems to have influenced another congregation facing a similar choice.

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When white land-use-action signs appeared outside First Church of Christ, Scientist, at 16th Avenue and East Denny Way, it stirred up anxiety among the neighbors. That sign was quickly tagged with graffiti that read, "DO NOT LET THEM TEAR THIS BUILDING DOWN." Shortly thereafter, the sign itself was torn down, left lying in the bushes next to the church's entrance, as if that act of defiance could somehow block the proposed project.

The structure dates to 1906, making it one year older than downtown's First United Methodist sanctuary. Its magnificent, 60-foot edifice features intricately detailed stained-glass windows above heavy wooden doors, framed by classic columns and cornices, all made with granite shipped cross-country from Concord, New Hampshire, near the birthplace of the religion's founder, Mary Baker Eddy.

According to Steven Agnew, chairman of the church's board of trustees, the temple was built to seat 1,300 and came in response to the congregation's growing beyond the 500-person capacity of its first church, at Sixth Avenue and Marion Street—one block from where First United Methodist Church's temple would be built.

But like United Methodist, First Church of Christ, Scientist, has seen its membership dwindle—a Sunday service in early August attracted just 50 people, the worshippers dwarfed by the church's cavernous interior.

"We're burdened with the preservation and restoration of a building," says Agnew. So several years ago, the church began seriously considering offers from developers. And as they did, they kept an eye on the drama unfolding downtown with First United Methodist Church.

"We've watched that with interest, for obvious reasons," says Agnew. "We see how many times the church has been on the front page of the Seattle Times the last 10 years, how they have been caught in a quagmire of politics. And as a congregation, we said, 'That's not our purpose.'"

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Church of Christ, Scientist, is distinguished from other Protestant faiths by its belief in the power of prayer to heal physical ailments. The church also has a democratic structure, one that rejects hierarchical organization. Indeed, Agnew agreed to be quoted for this article only on the condition that we make clear he speaks not for the congregation as a whole, but from his singular perspective as a member.

Discussions between church members about the temple's sale are confidential, though Agnew said it was safe to say that the land was worth far more without the temple than with it. The drawback, of course, would be the loss of the sanctuary—and whatever controversy would result.

"In a real sense," says Agnew, "where we meet, what building we're in is nowhere near as important as such fundamental questions of whether we're loving our neighbor, loving God, loving Jesus Christ." All the same, he says the church structure is "more than nothing," in that it is "representational."

In conversations Agnew describes as "harmonious," the church's trustees agreed to sell the land to Atlin Investments, owned by Wes Giesbrecht. Atlin intends to build condominiums on the site—but as anxious neighbors who attended a meeting of the design review board were relieved to hear, the church sold the building on the condition that the exterior be preserved.

Imposing that condition cost the congregation, says Giesbrecht, "about a million dollars in market value."

"We chose to not go the route that would yield the most money," explains Agnew, "because that route could also bring some unwanted publicity." And dealing with the fallout would require a lot of time and effort, "taking us away from our core mission, which is not real-estate development."

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Giesbrecht describes his investment as "an eccentric labor of love." He is not optimistic about turning a profit—the retrofitting of the church's interior for condos, says Giesbrecht, is going to cost 50 percent more than simply tearing down the church and starting from scratch.

It is too early, says Giesbrecht, to discuss in detail the ways that the interior will be changed for its new use. He can only say that he will not be adding a structure to the existing one, that there will be two floors, and that his architect will try to save as many of the interior details as possible.

In particular, Giesbrecht admires the church's plasterwork. One difficulty will be bringing natural light into the building—the stained-glass windows are too few and too small. So Giesbrecht hopes to add a few windows to the west side of the church, which faces an alley. That plan requires approval of the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board.

Meanwhile, First Church of Christ, Scientist, will be relocating, though Agnew says they do not know yet where—surely, a more intimate temple. recommended

Additional reporting by Sarah Mirk