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Religious Conversion

Innovative reuse by local businesses and nonprofits puts the lie to claims that vacated churches have no potential

by Ann Morrow on August 30, 2012 · 1 comment

St. Bridget’s church in Watervliet has two towering stained-glass windows on either side of the sanctuary. These beautiful portraits of the church’s namesake saint and the holy mother gaze serenely toward the sanctuary, as though bestowing their blessing on the stacks of ink buckets that now occupy the altar stage. And why shouldn’t they be radiating benevolence? After all, when Wicked Smart Apparel bought the 1851 church last year, it probably saved the vacated building from decades of neglect—or worse.

And there’s another reason, as Todd Van Epps, who owns Wicked Smart with his wife Marcie, is happy to relate: When the custom clothing company outgrew its warehouse facility in Menands, Van Epps began looking for a larger one. He happened to see the St. Bridget’s campus for sale on an MLS listing, and thought the gymnasium-auditorium might be suitable. But when that building was sold, he was encouraged by his realtor to consider the nearly block-long church.

“My wife and I are both Catholic,” he continues, “and when we looked up St. Bridget, and saw that she was the patron saint of printing presses, we knew it had to be.”

Todd Van Epps photographed by Ann Morrow

It wasn’t until the company’s large-scale equipment—including a screen printing press—was moved in, however, that Van Epps realized just how perfect a fit the church was. “It suits our needs to have a main aisle with two lanes,” he says, referring to the nave, now the production floor. The aisle provides a center walkway while the modular machinery (most of it with innumerable moving parts) operates unhindered.

“And it’s absolutely gorgeous,” he says, looking up at the rows of stained-glass windows that flank the floor. “The staff appreciates having such a beautiful place to work in.”

The closest thing to a challenge for this easily adapted reuse (which received an economic development package from the city of Watervliet) was upgrading the electrical system to handle heavy machinery. Energy-efficient lighting was installed in partnership with a National Grid small-business program, while heating costs, Van Epps reports, have been moderate, due to the church’s solid construction and the heat given off by the equipment.

Van Epps also bought the attached 1886 school behind the church, facilitating the company’s “single source approach” and providing amenities Wicked Smart didn’t have space for before, such as a showroom, conference room, and a break room for the staff of 17 (with more being added), and ample storage, along with a cloistered area for the embroidery department. The church-school building is triple the square footage of the warehouse.

Wicked clients include Christian Brothers Academy and other high schools, and the company also designs its own clothing, including a line of stylish athletic socks. Van Epps is headquartered in what was once the most feared of all sancta sanctorum: the principal’s office.

St. Bridget’s 400 congregants had relatively little time to adjust to the church’s closing—final mass was held less than a year ago—a fact that Van Epps is sensitive to. “The doors are always open,” he says. “And it’s always been our intention to keep the exterior as it is.” (The spire was destroyed by lightening in 1948.) The only indication of the church’s repurposing is a small logo painted on the window of the school’s (now the company’s) entrance on Fifth Avenue.

“A church isn’t for every business,” he says, “but for us, it works.”

 

For St. Bridget’s, the path to renewed purpose was short and sweet and perhaps preordained. For St. Theresa of Avila in Albany, passed over as the new site of the New Scotland Avenue library, and whose middle school recently was demolished for a Mormon meetinghouse, it was a stroke of luck. Vacant since 2009, the Spanish monastery-style church had few prospects. That is, until its distinctive gothic-arch doorway caught the eye of Dan Dinsmore.

Best known to many locals as the powerhouse drummer for the Clay People, Dinsmore was commuting from his home in East Berne to his business, Overit Media, in Albany’s Robinson Square, when he noticed a “for sale” sign on the church door. He got out of his car and walked around the edifice, impressed by its manageable size and solid brick construction.

“I thought, ‘It’ll never happen,’ ” he recalls. “It just seemed impossible.” Though he was already searching for a larger space for his multimedia company, he didn’t see how a Depression-era house of worship could be transformed into a 21st-century temple of technology. But his wife, Michelle, did.

“I’m a realist, and Michelle sees everything positively,” he says. “She’s the yin to my yang. I couldn’t have done this without her.”

Michelle Toch Dinsmore also had some prior experience with historic rehab: Her mother, Lise Toch, had converted a small stone church in Grafton into her home. “We all have an appreciation for old architecture,” says Dinsmore.

Overit Media, interior, photographed by Leif Zurmuhlen

The clincher, he explains, was the church’s steeply pitched, timber-beam ceiling. “It has grandeur, but not overwhelming, not like a cathedral,” he says. “I walked in, and I immediately had a vision of it with a giant video screen, and lots of open space and clean lines and colors. That when you entered, there were would be a sense of marvel. That it would have a grandiose feel. And that’s exactly what it has.”

Has now, that is. Dinsmore closed on the property in November, and began renovations with the assistance of Capitalize Albany, which helped with getting a second loan and with city permits. Since then, Dinsmore and his staff (and associates such as Jasen Von Guiness, who milled salvaged wood from the pews into desk tops and wall panels) have been engaged in a design odyssey that maintains the building’s integrity while giving it state-of-the-art audio-visual capabilities.

“We didn’t do anything to harm the church. In fact, I think we enhanced it,” Dinsmore says.

With the predominant paint colors—especially a warm shade of pumpkin—picking up the hues of the church’s Mission-style stained glass windows, and giant Ikea light fixtures that echo the original chancel lamps, the interior strikingly integrates the aesthetics of 1940s ecclesiastical with sleek contemporary. And that was the easy part.

Challenges for the company’s technical requirements were literally groundbreaking: Sections of the concrete floor had to be separated down to the ground to prevent even the slightest vibrations from entering the audio room, which has a “floating” floor. “I’ve never seen another room like it,” says Dinsmore. “Its not even attached to the building, it could be fork lifted out.”

Tech requirements for rooms for motion-capture graphics and 3D animation, recording, and editing (called the whisper room) were similarly demanding. The video room has a cyclorama, and a custom-made, gigantically oversized and virtually silent ventilation and air-conditioning system, along with a handicapped-access railing crafted from broken church banisters. Specially insulated for soundproofing, the walls are actually partitions: The entire retrofit conforms to the historic preservation standard of reversible impact.

The choir loft now serves as an intimate conference room with a view. There’s a larger room for video conferencing where thought-leadership meetings will be streamed online. “We’re excited about that one,” Dinsmore says. Only half joking, he points out an old confessional as the accountant’s office.

In the kitchen “hang-out,” a communion table with hand-carved embellishment is complimented by a colorful abstract painting. If that seems a bit irreverent, consider that the dining table formerly was a conference table that once belonged to Dinsmore’s father, who died when he was 12. “He had a plaster and lathe company, and he worked on churches sometimes,” Dinsmore says quietly. “He was very respected in his field.”

While the church was being converted, the CEO was flying back and forth to Los Angeles for practice sessions with his band, Owl. The trio’s lineup includes Chris Wyse, whose day job is bassist for the Cult, and with whom Dinsmore has been playing since they were 15. Last month, Owl played the Nassau Coliseum. And that was a mere two weeks after Dan and Michelle Dinsmore welcomed their second child into the world.

“I would wake up at night in a cold sweat wondering how I was going to do it all,” Dinsmore says. But the move was imperative: Overit doubled in size last year, and St. Theresa’s is almost three times larger than the previous location. “We have national clients, and anything they need we need to be able to do internally.”

The wide-ranging client list includes Trump Vodka, the Chicago Bulls, and the Columbia-Greene Humane Society. The growing staff (currently at 36) will increase by one more next week when Overit announces the addition of a nationally prominent social-media strategist.

“It took a long time to build this staff,” he says. “These are the most creative people that I know, and I wanted to make a place with them that’s as creative as they are.”

Though small compromises had to be made—Dinsmore admits to being so detail-oriented that he spent an hour just choosing a faucet—the location on bustling New Scotland Avenue makes up for it.

“I don’t leave this small area hardly ever,” he says. ‘It’s a nice neighborhood with thriving businesses.”

The neighborhood returns the compliment, according to Debra Schramek of the Helderberg-New Scotland Avenue Neighborhood Association. “We’re glad an important business is taking over the church. There were concerns about it going through another winter, and we didn’t want another vacant building.” She also mentions the advantage of having Overit’s employees in the area, eating and shopping and boosting the neighborhood economy.

As St. Bridget’s and St. Theresa’s illustrate, the preservation tenet that historic buildings attract innovative businesses is undeterred by the recession. Though expecting abandoned properties to handle the additional requirements of not only being worth preserving for their historic, social, and architectural significance, but for their ability to add to the tax rolls and generate jobs, seems onerous, it is especially so now that there’s a glut on the market. Catholic dioceses began consolidating parishes and closing churches at an accelerated rate in 2009, and there are approximately 30 vacated churches in Albany alone.

Meanwhile, the down economy seems to have led to the determination that nonprofit repurposing—such as community centers and arts and performance spaces—are no longer feasible, despite the diocese’s assertion that nonprofit reuse should be the first option.

Even so, pioneering adaptive reuse spaces such Schenectady Light Opera Company (formerly St. John’s), the Grand Street Community Arts Center (formerly St. Anthony’s) and a few other nonprofits are still going strong. St. John’s is SLOC’s second worship site location; since its 2010 move to the bigger church, the community theater company has been developing into its school and rectory, while the Grand Street Arts Center continues to expand its youth and community outreach programs.

Still, many churches are either disintegrating by neglect or at risk for demolition (most controversially, St. Patrick’s in Watervliet) despite the likelihood that new and advantageous uses not yet anticipated may be just a few years away.

St. Joseph’s Church, a large gothic revival structure on Albany’s Ten Broeck Street that at one point barely escaped the wrecking ball, may be approved for a commercial venture. During the nine years its been owned by Historic Albany Foundation, the picturesque church has periodically hosted art and performance events that attracted hundred of attendees, as well as being rented for the occasional wedding.

But as HAF executive director Susan Holland explains, the church needs to be owner-occupied year-round. “It needs an owner to keep it up, and that will generate enough income to maintain it for those stitch-in-time kinds of things,” she says.

In an e-mail sent Aug. 28 to nearby residents and others concerned with the church’s future, Holland states that funding for its reuse as a community center may be too tough to come by, and that the organization is officially exploring the church’s potential for conversion to a craft-beer brewery and café by Ravens Head Brewing Co., with its majority owner, Brennon Cleary.

A brewery is one of the few reuses for which the building’s lofty vertical space would be an asset instead of a liability. “It wouldn’t ruin the building, and it would be an 11-to-11 operation,” Holland notes before explaining that some of the neighbors aren’t totally for it, and some are adamantly against it.

“More facts need to be on the table. Craft beer has an intensive, middle-income appeal,” she says, distinguishing potential patrons from beer-guzzling students who might commit public nuisance crimes in the historic Ten Broeck Triangle area.

“This is a huge opportunity for St. Joseph’s to become a destination,” she adds. “Albany has the ability to draw from a 100-mile radius when it’s doing something cool.”

If the church were to become a brewery and cafe, it would answer another need by providing an affordable venue that could host more than 300 people for nonprofit fundraisers, as well as providing public access to the church, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. Deed restrictions on the building will carry over to any new owner, and changes to the exterior would have to be approved by the Historic Resource Commission.

“What we’re trying to do is have a production facility for self distribution,” says Cleary, “and [a place] where people can sit down and eat and sample the different brews that are available. In New York state, the only way I can do it is to have a restaurant, and a restaurant-brewer license, otherwise known as the ‘brew pub license,’” he explains. “When you’re dealing with alcohol, it gets very convoluted.”

Cleary already has more than double the number of contracts required by his business plan, and has applied for a building permit from the city of Albany and a permit from the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. He’s also in the process of relocating from New Jersey to the greater Capital Region.

“The reason for St. Joe’s is that I saw the building and fell in love with it,” he continues. “I love this quiet little street, and the mission statement of HAF, and everything that’s going on. It seems the only way to maintain the building is for it to somehow make money.”

Cleary is considering a 100-person seating capacity for Ravens Head, with a single turnover per day. “That’s all we really need to be profitable,” he says.

And as the brewer is becoming aware, there are some perks to doing business in an old church that can’t be calculated on a balance sheet.

“We wanted to do something insane and we did,” says Dinsmore of retrofitting St. Theresa’s. “We hope it inspires other people to get creative.”

“It’s an incredibly positive experience,” says Van Epps, who describes how St. Bridget’s former congregants and curious neighbors have been stopping by for “tours.”

“People like it that the church is adapted,” he says. “They’re really happy about it.”