Church gets 2nd chance to remain a church

Redeemer Presbyterian Church, at 43 Wentworth St. , must raise $1.6 million by Sept. 11, or the original deal to sell the historic property to Charleston businesswoman Nancy Snowden will be back in place.

It wasn’t exactly divine intervention, but Redeemer Presbyterian Church will get two months to match a $1.6 million offer for its historic church home on Wentworth Street.

If Redeemer can pull off the deal, then the historic Greek Revival church won’t be converted into a residence after all.

Charleston City Council was set to reconsider a zoning variance Tuesday that allows the sanctuary and adjoining educational building to accommodate a mix of residential and office use.

Council members later said that vote appeared to be shaping up as a 6-6 tie, with Mayor Joe Riley poised to cast the deciding vote. But the motion never made it to the floor because of a compromise negotiated just before the meeting.

Charleston businesswoman Nancy Snowden, who had a contract to buy the church and who received the variance to convert the property, agreed to step back and give the Redeemer congregation a chance to match her deal.

The 43 Wentworth St. property had been a Methodist Church for more than a century, and it still is owned by the successor church to St. Andrew’s Lutheran, whose congregation moved from downtown to West Ashley in 2006.

It had put the church up for sale while leasing it to Redeemer in the meantime.

Snowden had a contract on the church and received a zoning variance last month to move ahead with the deal, but others began to question if the city was making it too easy to turn a 172-year-old church building into a home.

City Councilman Blake Hallman, who had criticized the variance, said the compromise gives Redeemer until Sept. 11 to prove it can raise the $1.6 million to buy the property, and it requires both churches to negotiate in good faith.

Redeemer church leaders said they had ruled out buying the property because it originally was listed for $8 million, and it still was too expensive when the asking price fell to about half that amount.

They said that the $1.6 million figure, well below its most recent asking price, was not out of the question, but they had trouble communicating with the sellers.

Nancy Vinson of Redeemer thanked Snowden for her decision. “We are extremely optimistic because Mayor Riley is committed to helping raise the money to protect this important part of Charleston’s history,” she said.

Riley said he will hold a Friday news conference to urge the city’s preservation community and others to contribute toward keeping the church a church. No city money will go toward the preservation push, he said.

“This is a special circumstance,” Riley said, noting that his grandmother worshipped there. “To find a way to keep it in that use is worth our effort, the effort of the congregation and the effort of the community. ... Not every use can be preserved, but it’s important we try our best.”

After the meeting, Snowden said Redeemer faces a larger financial hurdle than the $1.6 million purchase price. Her estimate puts needed renovation work at an additional $2.5 million.

Under Tuesday’s compromise, she will have the right to buy the church, and won’t have to worry about City Council revoking the variance, if the Redeemer deal does not pan out.

“We felt like it was the right thing to do — to give them one more opportunity,” Snowden said.

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.