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Posted on Fri. Apr. 12, 2013 - 12:01 am EDT

Faded but grand Fort Wayne church about to get new life as museum

Karpeles Manuscript Museum plans move to former Fairfield church in May

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Even before the Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum opened in late 2008, founder and benefactor David Karpeles had his eye on the faded but still grand 86-year-old edifice at 2410 Fairfield Ave. After all, most of Karpeles' 12 museums nationwide are former Church of Christ, Scientist sanctuaries boasting a classically columned style.

The building wasn't available at the time, causing Karpeles to buy the former First Church of God at 3039 Piqua Ave. But the waiting was not in vain: If the city's Board of Zoning Appeals approves later this month, the library museum – part of a system comprising the world's largest collection of original manuscripts – will move to Fairfield as soon as May 1.

“The other (Karpeles) museums have events and are more part of the neighborhood, and he really likes this style of architecture” explained Director Lisa Olinger, who noted that the 2,000-square-foot entry hall that will house exhibits is 50 percent larger than the current museum. And that doesn't include the two large auditoriums in the 13,000-square-foot building that will allow the museum to host lectures and other events and can also be made available to the not-for-profit agencies that line Fairfield and also to the public for weddings and other events. The main auditorium alone can seat more than 1,000 people.

“But there are a lot of (wedding) halls already, so we'll have to be creative,” Olinger said.

Except for plaster damage, mechanical upgrades and some mostly cosmetic stonework deterioration, repairs should be minimal, Olinger said. The concrete-and-steel shell is solid, and most of the original fixtures, woodwork and terrazzo flooring remain unaltered. The pipe organ was removed several years ago and reinstalled in St. Peter's Catholic Church on DeWald Street.

“The building is in marvelous condition for its age, probably because it only had one congregation for so long,” Olinger said. Built in 1927, the Christian Scientists used the building until the mid-'80s, she said. It was last occupied by the non-denominational “Hope Center.” Karpeles paid about $125,000 for the property, she said. The current location, which Karpeles bought for about $68,000, will be offered for sale.

In its current location, tucked away on a side street off South Calhoun, the museum attracts between 500 and 1,000 people every month. Olinger expects the new building's features, size and higher-profile location to boost those figures.

If all goes as planned, the first exhibit in the new museum will focus on spirituality, but the timing depends on the BZA's decision – and how quickly Olinger can get everything ready.

Karpeles is a real estate investor who was working for General Electric Co. when he created the first operational optical character-recognition program. He also developed an artificial intelligence program that allows people to question computers in plain English. But it was his four children who sparked his interest in original manuscripts. While visiting the Huntington Museum in San Marino, Calif., in 1978, they became fascinated by the handwriting of famous people.

“They said, 'Look, George Washington made mistakes just like I do,' ” he told The News-Sentinel in 2008. “They stood there for 45 minutes, and that gave me a sense of purpose: to help show that great people are no different than the rest of us.”

That motivated him to search the catalogs of auction houses. His collection now includes an original draft of the Bill of Rights, a 1503 copy of the Magna Carta and a Thanksgiving proclamation signed by Washington. Exhibits at the museum are rotated regularly.

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