Church building for sale at $675,000, but Norwich unlikely to make offer

The United Congregational Church in Norwich is for sale. Asking price: $675,000.
The United Congregational Church in Norwich is for sale. Asking price: $675,000. Sean D. Elliot/The Day Buy Photo

Norwich - The historic United Congregational Church across from City Hall is up for sale, and church officials hope to entice the city to buy the building for the $675,000 asking price and create a community center.

Church officials met about a month ago with Mayor Deberey Hinchey and City Manager Alan Bergren, and last week the top city leaders toured the church.

But Hinchey said it is unlikely the city would pursue a deal to buy the building.

"We just went through a tough budget year," Hinchey said, "and taking on that building is just too much for the city at this time. It's not just the price of the building, but the upkeep as well."

Church trustee Linda Lancz countered that it would make the most sense for the city to buy the building. It's already the home of numerous civic groups for meetings and events, including the Norwich branch of the NAACP, the Greater Norwich Area Anti-Bullying Coalition, the Chelsea Players theater group and American Friends of Kenya.

"The church is funding a community center there," Lancz said. "It's got everything a community center would need - a stage, offices, library, playground, commercial kitchen, community hall. And it's in pretty good shape."

The church secured a $125,000 state grant for a major structural restoration several years ago that shored up the vaulted ceiling and exterior walls.

Lancz' husband, John Lancz, who died March 8, served as pastor of the United Congregational Church. Interim pastors have been leading services since his death, Linda Lancz said. But the congregation is small and already shares the sanctuary with the Norwich Unitarian Universalist Church, as well as with the various civic groups.

The building has become too large and too expensive to keep, Lancz said. She said her husband's death was a factor in the decision to put the building on the market, but not the sole reason.

Real estate agent William Champagne is handling the marketing of the building for Connecticut Commercial Realty. Champagne said he has received interest from two parties, not including the city of Norwich. One would be for a use other than a church, while he did not know the proposed use by the second party.

The city and the church share the two-story parking deck adjacent to the church on Broadway. The structure was built on the church's previous parking lot, and the city pays the church $10,000 per year to lease that portion of the parking deck.

The church has a storied history in Norwich with ties to President Abraham Lincoln, the founding of Norwich Free Academy, the abolitionist movement and the famous Tiffany jewelry family in New York.

The church was built in 1857 as the Broadway Congregational Church, pulling many members from the crowded Second Congregational Church. In 1918, the two churches merged.

Gov. William A. Buckingham was a member of the new Broadway church, and the Rev. John P. Gulliver was instrumental in soliciting support for the idea of building a free academy for high school students among the city's wealthiest citizens, city Historian Dale Plummer said.

Gulliver also was a devote abolitionist and Lincoln supporter in the 1860 and 1864 presidential campaigns. When Lincoln visited Norwich in March 1860, Gulliver managed to secure a seat adjacent to the president on the train as he departed the city, Plummer said. Gulliver's later account of their conversation has been cited by Lincoln historians for its insight into Lincoln's thoughts and feelings at the time, Plummer said.

In the early 1870s, church member Mary Goddard married Louis Comfort Tiffany, son of the famous New York jeweler. Louis Tiffany gained fame himself by developing the techniques for creating magnificent stained glass.

Although his wife had died by 1891, when the church undertook a major modernization project, Louis Tiffany was hired to install his signature stained glass windows in the sanctuary. Those windows remain intact today. Tiffany, an interior designer, also designed the church's stenciling, carpeting and other interior features, Plummer said.

Lancz said church officials didn't take lightly the decision to sell the historic church, but the group felt it was best to secure the future of the building, especially if it becomes a community center.

"If it becomes what Norwich needs, then it's a good thing," she said. "If someone could take over what we're trying to do, that would be good."

c.bessette@theday.com

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