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Site chosen for landmark, but move tangled in red tape

DULUTH - The little white church on the hill that has overlooked this old railroad town for more than a century is closer to a moving date.

City officials have chosen Hardy Industrial Street as the new site of the former Duluth United Methodist Church.

The 132-year-old landmark has stood on its hilltop for generations. From its perch on Main Street, it looks out across the city's town green, a landscape of new downtown shops, restaurants and townhomes.

The old church is making room for progress - an $8 million city hall. Construction is slated to begin early next year, and the church will need to be moved in about four months.

First, a few obstacles stand in the way.

Complications

The city wants to purchase Lathan's Garage at Hardy Industrial and Hill streets, where the church can be moved temporarily, said Duluth City Administrator Phil McLemore.

Owner Lathan Mayfield has decided to close his business after more than 20 years in Duluth.

The biggest hitch is that $400,000 in U.S. Department of Transportation grants are tied up in red tape. The federal agency gave Duluth the OK to use public money to widen and extend Hill Street.

But Duluth also needs permission from the feds to run an upgraded Hill Street across Mayfield's land - private property normally off-limits to publicly funded improvements - "or risk losing the grant funds," McLemore said.

Another complication is the move itself - up to a $50,000 job. McLemore has called eight companies and gotten a response from one. The firm selected will face the challenge of moving a more-than-century-old building that is wider than the street. It could take several days to move the church about 100 yards.

Eventually, the church will be relocated again from Mayfield's property to Hardy Industrial, once improvements to Hill Street are finished.

Deep roots

The growth of Duluth and the Methodist church have been intertwined for generations.

Church historian Kathryn Willis said origins of the church date to 1871, when the railroad first opened in the area and the town changed its name from Howell's Cross Roads. In 1873, the Methodist congregation moved into its new white church on the hilltop.

Membership had finally outgrown the tiny building by the late 1950s. A few years later, a new Methodist church was completed on Duluth Highway and has since grown into one of the city's largest. The old church still serves as a Masonic lodge.

Longtime church members understand the necessity of a new city hall, but some, such as Mary Evelyn Jackson, say the move is still disappointing.

Jackson joined the little church on the hill when she was 13 and still remembers her first Sunday school teacher, Hattie Green. For countless Sundays, Jackson sang hymns as her mother - the church pianist for 55 years - supplied the notes.

Her grandfather, Buck Knox, was a founding member and church superintendent for 65 years.

"I say leave it right where it is," Jackson said. "If they move it, even if they preserve the building, it won't be how I remember the church."