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City Methodist Church | Photo © 2020 David Bulit

City Methodist Church

Location Class:
Built: 1926 | Abandoned: 1975
Historic Designation: National Register of Historic Places (1994)
Status: Abandoned
Photojournalist: David Bulit

William Grant Seamon, City Methodist’s Founder

Since Gary’s founding in 1906, there has always been a Methodist church within the city. In 1916, Dr. William Seaman became its pastor. He had a dream of a new church to serve the burgeoning city and wanted a religious presence in the neighborhood dotted with numerous brothels and taverns.

William Grant Seamon was born in 1867 in Wakarusa, Indiana, to Joseph Washington Seaman and Sarah Margaret Uline. He attended Fort Wayne Methodist Academy and completed his studies at Depauw University in 1891, where he was a member of Beta Theta Pi and Phi Beta Kappa. His academic journey continued as he obtained a PhD from Boston University in 1897. In recognition of his accomplishments, Depauw University conferred an honorary D.D. degree in 1918.

After participating in the Depauw Male Quartet, he pursued ordination as a Methodist minister in Anderson, Indiana. His ministerial journey took him to various congregations: Sudbury, Massachusetts (1893-1898); State Street M.E. Church in Springfield, Massachusetts (1898-1900); and Wesley Church in Salem, Massachusetts (1900-1904). Following this, he served as the Chair of Philosophy at Depauw University from 1904 to 1912, then assumed the presidency of Dakota Wesleyan University.

In 1916, Seamon became the minister of the City Methodist Church in Gary, Indiana, where he spearheaded the construction of a grand new church, largely funded by donations from U.S. Steel, making it the largest Methodist church in the Midwest. Later, he was transferred to Ohio and tragically died in a car accident during which he suffered a fatal heart attack on April 7, 1942. He body was cremated and eventually interred in the sanctuary of City Methodist Church.

City Methodist Church
Reverend William Grant Seamon. The Indianapolis Journal

City Methodist Church

With financial assistance from U.S. Steel, the city’s chief employer, City Methodist Church was erected in 1926 on land donated by the steel company.

Designed by the Lowe & Bollenbacher architectural firm of Chicago, the sanctuary was just part of a large nine-story complex with an adjoining theater called Seaman Hall, which could seat 1000 people. It was named in honor of William Grant Seamon. It contained corporate offices, a gymnasium, a Sunday School, and a dining hall. Judge Elbert Gary, named after the city and chairman of U.S. Steel, personally donated an ornate, four-manual Skinner organ.

The church held its first service on October 3, 1926. By 1927, it had a congregation of 1,700 with a staff of six, including an assistant minister, directors of athletics and Christian education, a music master, and a secretary.

City Methodist Church gary
The City Methodist Church sanctuary, 1929
City Methodist Church gary
A full house in the auditorium of Seaman Hall, 1930s
Rapid Decline in Church Membership

The church struggled financially during the Great Depression, so in need of funding, the church leased space in Seaman Hall to Gary College, which offered a satellite campus in the offices of the building. After World War II, the Indiana University Center used a portion of Seaman Hall, and by 1949, Indiana University Northwest occupied three floors. Around this time, the city of Gary was enjoying a religious revival of sorts, and by the 1950s, the church’s popularity peaked with membership surpassing 3,000.

Gary rapidly declined in the 1960s and 1970s, and the church likewise. As stated previously, the congregation consisted of mostly white middle-class members, many of which were lost due to white flight as crime rates in the city soared and Gary’s social makeup changed. By 1973, membership had fallen to 320, about a third of whom regularly attended.

First Methodist Church and Gary Hotel, Gary, Ind., "The Steel City"
A postcard featuring a colored image of the First Methodist Church, also known as City Church, with the Gary Hotel located behind it in Gary, Indiana. Abandoned Atlas Archives
First M. E. Church and Community House, Gary, Ind. "The Steel City"
A postcard featuring a colored image of the First Methodist Church, also known as City Church, in Gary, Indiana. Abandoned Atlas Archives

Offerings weren’t enough to pay the utility bills, let alone the numerous repairs needed on the aging structure. After attempts to sell the building to another congregation proved fruitless due to the expense needed to maintain the building, the decision was eventually made to close the City Methodist Church on October 5, 1975.

The structure was passed into the hands of Indiana University, which continued to use Seaman Hall as a satellite campus, but nothing was done with the church itself. In 1994, City Methodist Church was added to the National Register of Historic Places as a contributing structure of the Gary City Center Historic District. Over the years, the church slowly degraded, and attempts were made to renovate it, but none came to fruition before the Great Gary Arson of 1997.

City Methodist Church
1945 Sanborn Insurance Map for Gary, Indiana. Library of Congress
The Great Gary Arson of 1997

On the night of October 12, 1997, a fire started on the second floor of the abandoned Goldblatt’s Department Store just north of the Broadway Shopping Mall and quickly spread, engulfing the Memorial Auditorium to the east and the Radigan building to the north, then across to the roofs of the Genesis Towers building and City Methodist Church. Most damaged buildings were abandoned before the fire and quickly demolished.

The fire greatly damaged City Methodist Church, collapsing most of the roof and accelerating the building’s deterioration. In 2011, a portion of the roof above the sanctuary caved in, and thieves removed most of the interior fixtures.

City Methodist Church gary
City Methodist Church, 1929
Future of the City Methodist Church

The city of Gary has a mothballed plan for the crumbling cathedral, and it involves turning it into a ruins garden, a public park that could host weddings, performances, and special events. Flowers and other flora can make the area a little nicer. Signs could describe certain architectural features around the structure. A more stabilized and safer structure can allow people to wander around it who wouldn’t otherwise consider going in given the dangers involved. This plan was first introduced in the early 2000s and was brought up again in 2014, but after six years, the building is unchanged.

In 2019, a historic landmark marker explaining the church’s history was installed. After decades of abandonment, the church remains a symbol of urban blight and a nationwide beacon to photographers and explorers.

David Bulit

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