Seattle's First United Methodist Church broke ground on a new 26,400-square-foot facility near Seattle Center.

With the turn of a shovel, a long-running church controversy was buried Sunday and its congregation’s hopes reborn.

Seattle’s First United Methodist Church broke ground on a new 26,400-square-foot facility near Seattle Center. Its 98-year-old former building at Fifth and Marion, the focus of a two-decade historic-preservation battle, will be saved by the developer who purchased it. A new use has yet to be found.

“We loved the grand old building, but it was pulling the congregation down,” said senior pastor Sanford Brown. “The maintenance and repairs on the old structure were more than our congregation could handle.”

The new facility at 168 Denny Way will be significantly different. Where the old church could accommodate 1,575 worshippers, the new sanctuary will house about 450.

But where the original 1910 structure had no classrooms, the new one will have several, plus a 140-car parking garage.

Sanford said this new configuration is more in keeping with today’s church philosophy, which is less geared to sitting for a sermon and more to participating in learning.

He also hopes the new location will attract more congregants. In the 1950s, the old church drew an attendance of about 3,500. As its downtown location grew increasingly less residential — and parking became scarcer — its attendance dwindled to about 250.

With 50,000 people living within one mile of the new facility, Sanford says the church already is seeing an uptick in attendance at its temporary location at Seattle Children’s Theatre at Seattle Center.

Services will continue there until the new building is completed in late 2009.

Also part of the new church will be a 7,280-square-foot urban-ministry outreach center. It will be used as an overnight shelter and drop-in center for the homeless.

The new church is being financed with $2 million raised by a capital campaign, plus $32 million from the sale of its old building. It was purchased by the Seattle firm Nitze-Stagen. Bassetti Architects of Seattle designed the new facility.

Elizabeth Rhodes: erhodes@seattletimes.com