Questions about the future of the former Unitarian Church in Keokuk were settled Wednesday morning when the operator of a large, yellow backhoe started crunching the building's brick exterior with a giant metal claw. The city said a clean demolition was the most feasible option, compared to trying to salvage aspects of the more than 125-year-old structure.
Photos and videos of the demolition of the vacant, dilapidated church at the corner of 4th and High Streets spread quickly on social media Wednesday morning. This video was shot by Tri States Public Radio at about 8:15 a.m.
In the video, you can see the red front doors are still in place as well as some stained glass windows. That led residents and non-residents alike to ask on social media why those items were not salvaged.
City Administrator Aaron Burnett told TSPR Thursday morning that he’s been hearing the same questions. He said there are a couple reasons for this, including the condition of the building.
The city hired Keokuk Contractors to demolish the building for about $175,000. The contract did not require any salvaging of items from the church, allowing the company to bring down the church in less than 36 hours.
Burnett said items from inside the church had already been removed in recent years. He said the city talked to Keokuk Contractors about salvaging what was left, but he said the condition of the building eliminated that option.
“The structure just kept becoming more dangerous by the week,” said Burnett. “I think getting people inside the building to do any salvage work was becoming more concerning.”
The city declared the building unsafe to occupy years ago, preventing people from entering without permission. A contingent of city council members and city staff recently looked around the building to get a sense of the deterioration.
Alderman John Helenthal, who works in construction, told TSPR at the time that he did not know if the building would last another winter given the giant holes in the roof, the lack of a floor in the sanctuary and walls pulling away from the foundation.
Burnett said the large red doors were not in good condition because of damage sustained by people trying to break into the church.
Cost Factored Into Salvage Decision
The city received three bids for demolition, ranging from about $175,000 to about $250,000. In between them was a firm in southern Iowa that sought salvage rights.
Burnett said that company wanted about $220,000 plus the salvage rights. He said with taxpayers covering the cost of the demolition, the city council thought it best to go instead with the low bid submitted by Keokuk Contractors.
Burnett said the city is glad the building is no longer a danger to neighbors or pedestrians.
“It’s been a long discussion with the owners and everyone involved to try to solve this problem, but now it is safe,” said Burnett. “It’s always unfortunate to lose a historic building but it was important to make sure the dangerous building was addressed.”
Keokuk included $500,000 in its current budget for building demolition.
The church is owned by Christvision, an organization recently acquired by a group of Keokuk residents. It will retain ownership of the lot.
Christvision was able to halt the demolition for a couple weeks after receiving a temporary injunction, but a judge dissolved the temporary injunction because it was obtained improperly. The organization applied for another temporary injunction but the demolition began before a hearing could be scheduled.
The building has been the subject of legal proceedings for nearly a decade because of its condition. A judge declared it a dangerous building in December 2016.