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How great thou art: From house of worship to classroom

Rear view of St. Peter's Church in Duluth. The church now a potential new owner who plans to re-purposed it as a fine arts school. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com1 / 6
Pigeons roost atop St. Peter's Church Wednesday afternoon. The old church now has a potential new owner. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com2 / 6
Sign at the front entrance of St. Pete's Church at 810 West 3rd St. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com3 / 6
St. Peter's Church at 810 West Third St. has a new lease on life with a potential new owner. Jeffrey Larson plans to buy the building on Monday and turn it into an atelier, a formal school for the fine arts. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com4 / 6
St. Peter's Church at 810 West 3rd St. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com5 / 6
Jeffrey Larson plans to open an art school in the former St. Peter's Church on West 3rd St. Photo by Heidi Larson6 / 6

St. Peter's Catholic Church in Duluth just may have found an unlikely savior.

Artist Jeffrey Larson of Cloverland in Douglas County said he hopes to turn the abandoned sanctuary into an atelier, a formal school for the fine arts.

The structure built of locally hewn stone on Duluth's Observation Hill has been closed since 2010, when its shrinking congregation was deemed too small to support the church any longer. St. Mary Star of the Sea Parish subsequently put the property up for sale.

Larson has stepped forward as the church's prospective buyer and said he expects to close on the property located at 818 W. Third St. on Monday for an agreed-upon price of $80,000.

However, the purchase price is just the start of the investment Larson plans to make in the neglected church. The roof needs fixing. The heating system has been removed. And St. Peter's stained glass windows have been taken.

All told, Larson figures it probably will take about $500,000 to put the building back in order.

"I came into a real beehive of a situation, and I need to raise funds to basically restore it to a workable building," he said.

Larson said he was concerned someone would buy the property with its stunning view only to tear down the church.

"It's too beautiful of a building, and with all its history, that would have been such a shame," he said. "So despite its problems, I thought it was worth the gamble."

David Woodward, chairman of Duluth's Heritage Preservation Commission, said he welcomed news of Larson's plan to reuse the church building. The structure was built by local masons of Italian descent in the heart of a community once known as Duluth's "Little Italy."

The commission's efforts to recognize and protect the church as a local historic landmark were rejected by the Duluth City Council earlier this year, when parish officials objected to the proposed designation. The Rev. Peter Muhich warned that landmark status could encumber the future use of the property and hinder its sale.

At the time, Muhich estimated that repairing the damaged church would likely cost in excess of $3 million and suggested the building had quite likely reached the point of no return.

Larson was born in Two Harbors but grew up in the Twin Cities, where he trained as a member of the Atelier Lack, under the tutelage of its namesake and founder, artist Richard Lack.

With 35 years of experience working as a professional artist, Larson plans to instruct students at the academy alongside his 25-year-old son, Brock, who recently graduated with honors from the same atelier his father had attended.

Larson plans to turn the sanctuary into a classroom space.

"The building is about the right size with the tall ceilings, and the windows are pretty much north-facing. We paint everything from natural light, and so it was really just ideal, with the icing on the cake being that it was a hand-cut stone church built just after the turn of the century," he said.

In a mission statement describing his proposed Great Lakes Academy of Fine Art, Larson wrote: "There is a growing excitement behind this project and through donations and our capital funding campaign, we hope to soon make this dream a reality."

Larson said he aims to launch his fundraising effort in the next week or two, using his website — jeffreytlarson.com — to offer limited edition prints for sale with the proceeds directed toward saving St. Peter's.

The school would begin operations ideally in the fall of 2016, Larson said, but acknowledged it could take longer to put the building back in working order.

Larson said the academy will be highly selective, drawing students from near and far to enter a four- to five-year intensive training regimen. He said the school would operate with a maximum student body of maybe 20 people at any given time.

"It will be a hands-on apprenticeship," he said.

"We'll advertise internationally right off the bat to bring in students. I've had people emailing me for years from all over the world, saying that they'd like to study with me if I ever opened a school," Larson said.

Larson said he feels certain the school will be self-sustaining and is confident artists interested in contemporary classical realism will be attracted to Duluth as a study destination.

"The pace of Duluth and the outdoor setting and all that it has to offer really is appealing," he said.

"It was the case in years before that you had to go to the big metropolitan areas to make a living as an artist. But that really has changed. Now, people are living just about anywhere and doing really well, just through the Internet and through working with galleries and traveling. So I can see Duluth becoming a real center for the arts, to be honest," Larson said.

Initially, Larson said the school will focus on a small selective group of full-time students, but he said it will eventually offer classes to other area artists interested in less intensive study.

After purchasing the church, Larson plans to seek historic landmark status for the building. He said the designation would allow him to operate a school out of the building, despite its location in the middle of a neighborhood that's zoned for low-density residential housing.

Woodward said the historic landmark status could also open the door for state and federal tax credits that could help redevelop the property.

However, Larson won't be able to seek the designation immediately.

In the wake of the city council's earlier refusal to designate St. Peter's a local historic landmark in January of this year, Woodward said the property won't be eligible for reconsideration of that status again until the 2016 anniversary of the initial decision has passed.

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