A historic church restored

This summer I worked on an article about this amazing church being restored in southeast Idaho. The feature was recently published in East Idaho Health & Fitness, and I wanted to share it here because, duh, a historic church is being restored. Really, it is an amazing project—so inspiring for lovers of old architecture like myself. I hope it will inspire you too.


‘Charged with positive energy’: Historic church gets new lease on life, becomes The Healing Sanctuary


For nearly four decades the old brick church at 187 E. 13th Street has been experiencing an identity crisis.

The church opened its doors in 1937, and for 44 years it functioned as the Third Ward LDS Church for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But starting in 1981 its role became less clear, and at different times it functioned as a counseling center, a dance studio and a Cornerstone Assembly of God meetinghouse. Eventually the church fell into disrepair, a victim of poor maintenance and vacancy.

With respect for historic architecture and a hefty budget, the old church is undergoing a restoration and will get another chance to serve the community, this time as The Healing Sanctuary. With Jeffrey B. Baker, M.D., and The Healing Sanctuary CEO Stephen Loosli leading the charge, the church is nearing the end of its restoration, not unlike the restoration to health Baker’s team offers patients.

A broadened medical perspective

A seasoned medical professional, Baker’s turn toward integrative and functional medicine was borne of frustration. When one of his children struggled with obsessive-compulsive disorder in high school, Baker began to see some shortcomings with the traditional medical treatment he and colleagues practiced.

It was then that he attended his first conference on functional medicine. “I started investigating that, and it was like standing next to a lake of new information — I envisioned myself dipping my toe in it,” Baker said. “The more I investigated it, the more it seemed right. The more I learned, the more I wished I would have done this earlier in my career.”

According to Baker, traditional medicine is based upon modalities proven over time and study, an approach that doesn’t fully consider root causes. Functional medicine, on the other hand, looks at the causes of illness by providing in-depth patient care complete with labs, questionnaires, genetic analysis, and collaboration with other practitioners. This “healer’s council” is comprised of health providers who utilize evidence-based treatments from Western, Eastern and natural medicine.

“Our whole goal is to have a package of preventions as well as a package of treatment. Our goal is to gather the clues to decipher what is causing this problem,” Baker said, which means looking at details like skin, hair, nails, mental health, environment, family history and more. “We call ourselves healers, but we don’t heal; the body heals. We help the body heal.”

Today Baker is nationally board certified in integrative medicine and certified by the Institute for Functional Medicine. For 10 years, functional medicine has been part of his practice, but complete implementation would require a fresh start. And that’s where the rundown church on 13th Street entered his story.

Sensing the potential

Despite the way it looked at the turn of the 21st century, the 13th Street church was once quite the place. Built for the newly organized Third and Fourth Wards, construction began with gusto in the Roaring Twenties but crawled to completion during the Great Depression.

The building itself tells that tale, with an ornate brick exterior completed early on and a contrasting Spartan interior designed to save money at the tail end of the project. Idaho Falls Historic Preservation Commission records state that the LDS church paid 65 percent of the building cost, and ward members were asked to cover the rest. According to Loosli, church members “were doing whatever it took to get Salt Lake City to sign off on it” by the project’s end.

With its flat roof and modern (for the time) roof, the building was based on a plan called The Colonel’s Twins, which was used elsewhere, including for the Main Street church in Iona, Idaho. Total cost of the 13th Street church was $152,000.

Legend has it that when church president Heber J. Grant came to dedicate the building, he said it was the most expensive chapel the LDS church ever built and that a meetinghouse of its caliber would not be built again, Loosli said.

The building was in a state of disrepair when Loosli took an interest in the spring of 2016, and to be honest, the first draw was square footage — Baker needed ample room to build the practice he imagined. It didn’t take long, though, before the feeling inside became at least as important as available space.

This side door is one of the last original features in need of TLC.

In March 2016, the first time Loosli took Baker to see the property, the neglected roof wasn’t holding anything back from a recent rainstorm. “When we were in there, it was physically raining. I was totally trepidatious. But (Baker) said, ‘This feels right. Let’s do it,’” Loosli said. “Traditional buildings didn’t feel right.”

With Baker’s endorsement, Loosli worked to secure the church, and the deal closed two months later. Plans for the building quickly evolved. “We started with a little bit of a lipstick-on-a-pig theory. We thought we’ll clean it up and fix a little of the infrastructure,” said Loosli.

It didn’t take long for the team to decide that level of renovation wouldn’t do, and a full restoration took shape.

The way things were

Unlike a quick remodel to update the structure, a restoration requires that a historic building be returned as much as possible to its original form. Because today’s contractors don’t necessarily rely on methods of yesteryear, this requires hiring those who will work “the old way” to get things back to how they used to be.

Jay Taylor Construction was hired as general contractor. “We haven’t done a lot of historical restoration work in the past, but when we did our initial walkthrough in the building, it was just such a neat building. It had so many features and things that you don’t see in a lot of new construction,” said R. Jay Taylor Construction president Tory Taylor.

Baker and Loosli requested that Jay Taylor, the company’s founder, oversee the project, and under his leadership, the first task was to get marching orders from the State Historic Preservation Office, a division of the Idaho State Historical Society. With SHPO’s requirements in mind, the contractors started by straightening things structurally. All three of the church’s levels sagged, so shoring up floors and walls from foundation to roof was essential. Next came peeling out original electrical, mechanical and plumbing and updating those.

An ancient swamp cooler was traded for an innovative heating-and-cooling system. And even an old building must meet current building codes and ADA standards to become a professional-medical space, so those were addressed too.

The original lathe and plaster was a trick to imitate, so Jay brought in a specialty crew to mold and match the existing work. Original windows with rotten frames had to be replaced, but new ones were custom built to match what had been there all along, right down to the asymmetry of the lower sashes. Then there’s been masonry work outside, floor preservation inside and a host of other seemingly small considerations that must be made with a restoration.

The trickiest part, then, for the R. Jay Taylor team has been the administrative part of things. According to Tory, bidding the project was tough because with an old building, you don’t know what you’re getting into until you get into it.

“What it takes is an owner that has a vision and is willing to step in there and take a few risks, and Dr. Baker has been willing to do that. That’s what you need to make it successful,” he said.

Approaching the finish line

Restoration completion is slated for Fall 2017, and The Healing Sanctuary will move in shortly thereafter.

Baker’s retirement has helped fund the project, now four times the original finish budget. Healing Sanctuary employees are working to secure grant money and a historic-preservation tax incentive, but regardless of what happens with finances, Loosli said a halfway job just wouldn’t do for this church.

“The building was a battery already charged with positive energy. We wanted to create a healing building — the good feeling is already there,” Loosli said. “The building is an employee in a real way and deserves what we give our employees, which is dignity, respect and recompense for its service.”

When the church’s doors reopen, patients and the public alike will see how respect for the past combined with the best innovations of today can yield the perfect space for achieving holistic health.

“The whole goal was to restore that building like we are restoring lives,” Baker said. “That’s the metaphor.”

See the PDF version of the article and a few interior photos in the current issue of East Idaho Health & Fitness. •

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