Conn told Rotarians the university is moving forward with the integration of the old First Baptist Church properties into its campus footprint. The plan includes renovation of the main First Baptist sanctuary building into a music performance hall, construction of a new academic building and demolition of the old JCPenney building to make way for lawns and open “green space.”
He said the key to the new development is “a major gift of property and cash” from Allan and Janie Jones, which Conn also announced today.
Jones said in a prepared statement, “It is our family’s pleasure to make this donation to Lee University, which will strengthen downtown Cleveland, higher education and traditional family values.”
Conn declined to reveal the amount of the gift, but announced that the renovated First Baptist sanctuary will be named “Pangle Hall” in honor of Janie Jones, Allan’s wife.
“Pangle is not only Janie’s maiden name, but is also a nickname I gave her. Many of her friends now know her as ‘Pangle Jones’,” the local business leader explained in a written statement.
The opening of both the new music hall and the academic building will be scheduled for fall 2014.
“We are studying other universities which have recently remodeled old churches into performance venues,” Conn said. “There are some good examples out there. The old First Baptist sanctuary is a classic, handsome building, and it is important to us and to the Jones family that this familiar structure not be altered unnecessarily.
“But there are some changes we will make, mostly inside, which will make it more suitable for larger musical events. On the outside, we will remove the steeple and replace it with a cupola which will more faithfully reflect an academic style of building.”
“We have watched for many years the wonderful work Dr. Conn has done defining his campus with architecture,” Jones stated. “The continued expansion of Lee’s campus toward the traditional downtown area is a wonderful development for both Lee and historic Cleveland. The campus reminds me of the beautiful Ole Miss [University of Mississippi] campus, and our family is proud to be a part of that.”
Conn said the first step in the new plan is “a significant amount of demolition” of structures within the extended campus footprint. Lee plans to raze the buildings formerly housing JCPenney, Woolworth and Cole’s Drug Store, as well as a small drive-in bank building on Ocoee Street and the aging Corn Apartments on Church Street. Also on the schedule for eventual demolition are various small houses between the core of the Lee campus and the new construction.
“We are grateful to the Jones family for this wonderful gift,” Conn said. “It is the final piece in the puzzle for us. We have lots of work to do, and it will take us three or four years to complete the overall plan, but now, thanks to this gift, we can begin.”
Conn reflected that the property slated for redevelopment has been an important part of downtown Cleveland life throughout his lifetime.
“I worked at JCPenney’s when I was in high school and Allan Jones remembers watching when the steeple was erected at the First Baptist Church,” Conn said. “This area is full of memories for all of us, and now we hope to redevelop it into something special for generations to come.”
Conn told the Rotary Club luncheon crowd that the idea of linking the Lee campus with downtown Cleveland began with the encouragement of local business leader Forrest Preston, who Conn called “one of Cleveland’s great visionaries. He challenged me with the dream that the Lee campus should eventually connect to downtown, and now we are ready to take a giant step in that direction.”
The two other parts of the former First Baptist building function as a campus childcare center and as additional classroom space for one of the university’s departments.
Lee University announced the purchase of the old First Baptist Church in June 2010 for $5 million after the congregation moved to its new site on Stuart Road.
The transaction included the 95,000-square-foot sanctuary and Christian education building, the 35,000-square-foot commercial building on Ocoee Street that formerly housed Woolworth’s and JCPenney, and 13 random parcels of property between Lee University and First Baptist Church.