Photo by GREG KAHN // Buy this photo
NAPLES — A crumbling ceiling hides rustic beams inside a former downtown Naples church, but new owner Stephen Fleischer knows the relics are there.
With city approval, he’ll tear down the dropped ceilings added by more recent tenants and convert the Seventh Avenue South structure to a restaurant, ultimately restoring the 65-year-old landmark to its original glory.
“It’s a disaster now,” Fleischer said of the building as he peered through a dark hole in the ceiling at the front of the church.
The redesign would place what was originally First Baptist Church among the modest ranks of historic Naples buildings that have been retooled for modern purposes while maintaining their original look and feel. It’s a concept called adaptive reuse that has area history buffs excited about Fleischer’s undertaking.
“This is an opportunity to preserve something that was part of the fabric of the neighborhood,” Naples historian Lodge McKee said. “It’s next to City Hall and across the street from Cambier Park. I commend the owner for taking this approach.”
Cases of adaptive reuse are rare in Naples where the demand for coveted coastal property made vacant land more valuable than plots with old buildings or homes, McKee said.
“There are only a handful of commercial buildings in Naples that are historically significant in terms of their importance to the city,” McKee said. “There are some fairly old buildings that have been remodeled so many times that they’re no longer recognizable.”
The Olde Naples Building on Third Street South was built in 1921 and is still undergoing renovations to take on yet another function. It served as a cheese shop and movie theater in the past.
Campiello’s Restaurant on Third Street South occupies the former Naples Mercantile building from 1919. The former Naples Depot, built in 1928, now houses a museum.
Palm Cottage on 12th Avenue South is home to the Naples Historical Society. Built in 1895, the cottage is on the National Register for Historic Places along with the depot.
Naples’ historic district is designated as the area from Ninth Avenue South to 13th Avenue South and from the Gulf of Mexico to east of Third Street South. There are no city ordinances in place that require buildings in the area be preserved, Mayor Bill Barnett said.
“The only thing that preserves historic resources in our community is people,” McKee said.
Built in 1946, the Seventh Avenue South church qualifies for the National Register for Historic Places, and Fleischer may apply to be added. The church qualifies anecdotally, too, having once reverberated with the voice of famed evangelist Billy Graham in its early days.
The church was also the last piece of property sold off by the Naples Town Improvement Company.
“It’s an extraordinary little piece there,” said Lois Bolin, co-founder of the Naples Backyard History group.
Michael Wynn, owner of the Sunshine Ace Hardware stores in the area is pleased to see the church his late grandfather Don Wynn founded will remain intact. The First Baptist congregation now worships at the 3000 Orange Blossom Drive location in North Naples.
“It’s important that any time in history have respect paid to it and its heritage maintained,” Michael Wynn said. “It’s important to remember the hard work and values that laid the foundation for Naples to become what it is today.”
Fleischer will go before City Council in December for its ruling on a variance that would make an exception for the church which lacks sufficient parking spaces on site.
City ordinance requires one parking space per 100 square feet of floor area for restaurants and three parking spaces per 1,000 square feet of outdoor dining area. With 4,600 square feet of indoor dining space and 1,500 square feet of outdoor dining space, the property requires 52 parking spaces compared to the 22 available.
“I personally think it’s a great idea if we can overcome the parking issue,” Barnett said. “That’s where the debate’s going to be.”
The city’s Planning Advisory Board voted Nov. 9 to recommend that council approve a variance to allow Fleischer to continue with his plans and rely on surrounding downtown parking to serve his patrons.
“In a downtown setting, patrons typically park once and visit multiple destinations,” Fleischer’s attorney John Passidomo said.
Fleischer purchased the half acre property about six months ago for $1.1 million — a steal, he said considering its historic importance and location.
“I bought it under the umbrella of the parking problem knowing that if I didn’t win the process that it was still an economically viable property to do something with,” he said.
All plans hinge on the parking variance, but Fleischer hopes to serve reasonably priced Florida fish with Caribbean spices — “Floribbean,” he calls it. He anticipates about six months of construction, given all future building permits are granted, and hopes to open in September of 2012.
Diners would eat in the main part of the church where the altar and pews once stood under restored wooden beams supporting the steeple. The back of of the building, which was added when doctor’s offices were needed for the a senior center there, would feature private dining rooms with individual patios. The kitchen will occupy the remaining space.
Most recently, the church served as a senior center. It has been vacant for a few years now and Naples residents are excited about the church’s latest face lift.
“How many times have we had to explain to visitors that this painting or that photo is of a building that is no longer here,” wrote Virginia and Randy Wilson in a letter to the city. “When an opportunity arises to save a building such as the old Baptist church in a prominent area of downtown, I am excited at the prospect.”
Hayes Wicker, senior pastor of the First Baptist Church wrote to the city expressing similar excitement.
“We are pleased to know that will not be demolished,” he said.