Editors note: This article has been updated since it’s original publication
A landmark church in Fort Mill plans to tear down part of its building, and close one of the longest-running gathering places in town.
Unity Presbyterian Church would take down its Unity Hall building, and restore its historic sanctuary but not open it for public gatherings for at least some period of time.
The church has applied with the town historic review board for the changes. The church isn’t in the town’s designated historic district, but had to apply because it’s on the National Register of Historic Places.
Unity Presbyterian, at 303 Tom Hall St., had a December fire that damaged Unity Hall. Smoke from the fire, and water used to put it out, damaged to a lesser extent the historic sanctuary, which dates back to 1881.
Unity Hall was built, along with an education wing, in 1938.
The main sanctuary where the church now meets, its fifth dating back to the church’s founding in 1788, wasn’t impacted by the fire. The larger sanctuary is on the opposite side of the historic site. The new sanctuary opened in 2010.
According to the application from the church, the work on the historic sanctuary won’t impact the view drivers see from Tom Hall Street.
It’s proposed that the historic sanctuary won’t re-open for use by the congregation or public, at least soon.
“The historic sanctuary will not re-open for use by the congregation or public at the conclusion of this initial work,” reads the church’s application to the review board. “Upon completion of this work, the church and its consultants will conduct a thorough assessment of the structure and thus be better informed to consider its future options.”
In an online response to the story about the church’s filing with the review board, senior pastor Mark Diehl stated the congregation is taking steps to secure and preserve the historic sanctuary to prevent further deterioration from the fire. Those steps won’t allow short-term use of the facility, he said.
“These steps are intended to allow Unity to further assess damage and develop recovery and utilization plans that could appropriately preserve the historic integrity of the structure while assessing potential future uses suitable to the ministry needs of the congregation and community in the Twenty-First Century,” Diehl posted.
Traditionally the sanctuary and other Unity buildings have been used for church activities and to host Cub Scout, Boy Scout and other functions. Community groups gather outside to line up for the town Christmas parade. Unity also has the town’s main downtown cemetery, including sections for soldiers killed in various wars. Tom Hall, the Medal of Honor recipient killed during WWI and namesake of the road in front of Unity, is buried there.
The application from the church to the historic review board lists work as “the complete demolition of Unity Hall building and the clearing, cleaning and securing of the historic sanctuary.” Taking down Unity Hall will leave the historic sanctuary without connections to other buildings on the campus.
Plans from the church show the demolition won’t impact the two-story fellowship area, office building or main sanctuary. Unity Hall had a large community room, secondary kitchen, fifth grade room, library and four adult education rooms.
Fire officials determined the Dec. 9 fire was started by a bathroom ventilation fan. It caused more than $1 million in damage. The fire happened on a Sunday night, a little before 10 p.m. The Fort Mill Fire Department, stationed just on the opposite side of the town post office from the church, had six more units and more than 50 firefighters join to fight the blaze.
The church continued to meet in its current sanctuary, just a week after the fire.
The Unity Church complex made the national historic places list in 1992.
The historic sanctuary is built of brick because two of the first three structures for the young congregation burned, and by 1881 members didn’t want to raise another wooden building. A log structure on a hill overlooking Steele Creek burned in 1804. In 1880, a clapboard structure near the Tom Hall, Banks and Steele streets intersection burned.
Among the few items surviving that 1880 fire was the church bell later hung in the existing belfry.
The town historic review board will meet Oct. 8 to hear from the church. Town planning staff recommends in favor of the church’s plan. The review board could decide Oct. 8, or has up to 180 days to render a decision on the demolition.
At the same Oct. 8 meeting, the review board will hear plans from another historic property at 119 Banks St. The Mack-Belk House, like the church, isn’t in the historic district by is on the federal list of historic properties. A representative of Masterbuilder Fellowship for the Built Environment will give information on what may happen there.
Listed on the historic places registry in 1992, the Mack-Belk House dates back to the 1860s. Previous owners include Presbyterian minister and seminary professor Dr. Edward Mack and Fort Mill Main Street mercantile store owner Thomas Heath Belk, part of the Belk family of retail stores.