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Thursday, Sep 18, 2014

Stately old church gets new life


Published:   |   Updated: August 29, 2014 at 06:54 AM

— The gray, weathered Spanish fašade and tower of the old church in the city’s historic district offer a dramatic subject for local painters and charcoal artists.

The abandoned three-story building christened First Baptist Church in A.D. 1926, as its marble cornerstone reads, has had a long history as a house of worship for Tarpon Springs residents.

Its next life will be as a palatial home for the Boeckl family.

“This building really is a landmark in Tarpon Springs. Keeping this is very important for the town,” said Andreas Boeckl, who is helping manage the massive construction project for his father, Richard Boeckl.

Technically, only the building’s majestic frontage along Read Street will survive the transformation.

The rest will be remade into a two-story home with a stucco exterior that will match the remnant of the fašade. Inside will be five bedrooms in a minimalist Northern European style.

Since Richard Boeckl bought the haunting Old World style church in the early 1970s, protecting it against nature’s decay has been a constant battle.

The school teacher bought the property for a song mainly to rent out a one-story building behind it that he converted into four single-bedroom apartments.

He rented the church to several congregations in the subsequent decades until a deluge called the No Name Storm in 1993 flooded its ground floor with three feet of water and ravaged sections of roof.

Replacing 40-foot roof trusses and addressing other structural ills that had accumulated during the church’s long life proved too daunting and expensive for Boeckl. The church turned into a beautiful but empty ruin along Tarpon Springs’ trail of grand, historic homes and cathedrals.

At the time, Boeckl had three children in college.

“I had been maintaining the building as best as I could, but then I said it’s either the kids or the building,” he said.

Investing about $750,000 to tear down most of the 15,500-square-foot structure and building a dream house wasn’t Boeckl’s original plan.

A brief plan in 2011 to remake the space into a sweeping antique condominium was quashed by a restrictive lending climate for commercial projects.

Then there were the city inspectors who suddenly took an interest in the building’s many faults and began writing citations.

After a prolonged discussion with the city’s historic preservation board about what could and couldn’t be saved, the Boeckl family proceeded to sketch out their vision for a new home.

Contractors are erecting concrete and steel columns behind the soaring fašade to shore it up before demolition can safely commence on the rest of the structure.

If all goes well, they hope to get a certificate of occupancy within a year, though they fully expect plenty of surprises as they look to preserve the most notable part of this 88-year-old structure.

“It’s one of the iconic buildings in this town, that fašade,” Andreas Boeckl said.

jboatwright@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-1277

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