Groups seek to save church with Mark Twain tie
CARSON CITY (AP) – Local officials and historic preservationists are joining forces in a last-ditch effort to save a Carson City church that Mark Twain helped build when he was a newspaper reporter in nearby Virginia City.
Carson City Historic Resources Commission members said they need more information on the feasibility of saving Nevada’s oldest church building before they can take action on the First Presbyterian Church’s demolition permit.
The panel has been urged to save the church by Preserve Nevada – a statewide historic preservation group chaired by former U.S. Sen. Richard Bryan – and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
“It’s vastly important to the history of Nevada, and we feel the building should be rehabilitated,” Preserve Nevada board member Michael “Bert” Bedeau said. “We believe with the proper approach that it can be saved.”
Twain raised $200 to help complete construction of the church in 1864 when he was a Territorial Enterprise reporter. His brother, Orion Clemens, was a church member and secretary of the Nevada Territory.
As a compromise, commission members discussed the possibility of saving three of four walls and incorporating them and other original features into a new 9,600-square-foot church that elders want to build.
“While it would be wonderful to save the entire building, I don’t think that’s realistic,” commissioner Rebecca Ossa said. “But I think there are alternatives” so it can at least be partially saved.
Commission members, who postponed action on the demolition permit last week, are urging church officials to consider a compromise.
The panel plans to take action on the demolition permit after receiving an expert’s report on the costs of saving the church. Its actions can be appealed to county supervisors.
While they reluctantly agreed to explore the possibility of a compromise, church elders maintained their only viable option is to tear down the building.
They said it would cost more to restore the dilapidated church than to demolish it and build a new one. And even if they had the money to save it, they said, the building is not big enough to meet their needs.
Since the church was last used for services in 2001, about 450 parishioners have been gathering next door in their cramped Family Life Center.
Former Carson City Mayor Jim Robertson, a church member, said it would cost as much as $5 million to restore the old church, more than double the cost of building a new one.
“It makes it impossible economically to restore the church,” he said. “We really have no choice from an economic or space standpoint.”
State Archivist Guy Rocha said it would be a mistake to demolish the church at a time when cultural tourism is gaining in popularity.
Rocha said the church is one of only two documented tangible links to Twain in Nevada. The other is Orion Clemen’s house in Carson City, where Twain periodically stayed while working in Nevada.
“When you go to Hannibal, Missouri, you find tangible vestiges of Mark Twain,” he said. “What we have here in my opinion is a national treasure.”
But church member Mary Sitts said the spiritual needs of the church are more important.
“Mark Twain was a great man. Jesus Christ was greater,” she said. “The purpose of the church is not to teach that Mark Twain was here, but about Jesus Christ.”
Pastor Bruce Kochsmeier spurned offers by Twain impersonator MacAvoy Lane and others to raise money to save the church.
“We can’t accept money that could be used in dealing with more compassionate needs such as the homeless,” he said.
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