Old churches find new uses in creative renovations.

When the Architectural Alliance design firm began looking for new digs in the fall of 2016, it hoped to find a distinctive building to call home that also presented an opportunity to showcase some of its in-house expertise. It had worked out of an older building in Downtown Columbus' Warehouse District for 25 years and hoped to find another historic property in an urban setting such as the Short North, where it has worked on several projects for client Elford Development Ltd. “We wanted a fresh start,” recalls President Brad Parish.

The firm's owners soon came across the Columbus First Free Will Baptist Church, at 49 E. Third Ave. just a block from the North High Street entertainment corridor. “We walked in one day last fall as a group and just said, ‘That's it,'” Parish says. “For us, the building offered a lot of potential.”

Planning for the repurposing of the 89-year-old property began in January after the congregation relocated to Minerva Park. Parish said churches can offer opportunities for redevelopment. “They're great adaptive reuse opportunities,” he says. “They offer a lot of space—a lot of volume—and natural lighting for offices or retail or a restaurant. It creates a great social environment.”

In the case of the Third Avenue church, Architectural Alliance carved out a section of the floor of the sanctuary located on the second floor. The opening allowed for the addition of a center staircase from the first floor lobby to the design firm's open office and a spacious area up to the original roofline that had been hidden over the years by an acoustic tile ceiling in the sanctuary.

The firm opened up the Mount Pleasant Avenue section of the church by cutting out windows, a process that also revealed the first of a few arched doorways hidden during previous renovation. “We kept on finding more and more treasures to save as part of our offices,” Parish says.

Rescuing Historic Structures

The cost of catching up on deferred maintenance of the historic church—which opened in 1928 as a Christian and Missionary Alliance Church—and a 1950s office addition played a role in the Columbus First Free Will Baptist congregation's decision to relocate, says Pastor Billy Parson, even after renovations as recently as 2012. “When the bones (of the building) began to rattle,” he says of the property serving the congregation since 1963, “it becomes expensive to maintain and we didn't have the funds.”

Columbus has plenty of examples of churches renovated into other uses.

For example, Village Bookshop at 2424 W. Dublin-Granville Road operates out of a structure built in 1910 that served as the Linworth United Methodist Church before the congregation built a new church nearby in 1955. A few miles away, the tony Refectory Restaurant and Bistro has operated at 1092 Bethel Road since the 1980s in a church dating back to the mid-1800s.

More recently, developers spent $5 million to transform the First Baptist Church at 583 E. Broad St. near Downtown into the Bar of Modern Art mega-nightclub. It has operated as the Bluestone event and concert venue since 2010 after four years as a nightclub.

A few blocks away, the Eclipse Real Estate Group development affiliate of the Edwards Cos. in late 2014 completed the $2.5 million adaptive reuse of the historic Welsh Presbyterian Church at 315 E. Long St. Downtown into a spacious community center for residents of its adjacent Normandy apartment complex. The church, built in 1887, had served as offices for Faith Mission, a nonprofit which provides the homeless with shelter and meals. Faith Mission bought the building in 1989.

Columbus architect James Rudy says the design project he led while at the Lupton Rausch Architects firm consisted of removing most of the second floor built above the original sanctuary for offices as well as a dropped ceiling that had hidden the original roofline and support structure for several decades. “It was just a maze of offices and corridors, built out as (Faith Mission) needed,” Rudy says. “We pretty much gutted everything and worked within the existing structure.”

The property received a listing on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. That designation from the US Department of the Interior qualified the property to seek federal and state historic preservation tax credits during its renovations. But Rudy says the costs the credits covered are limited to design and construction aspects that preserve or restore original details of the building.

The sanctuary that now offers a business center and several sections where residents can meet in groups or read in quiet nooks has returned to its “stately” beginnings. Rudy adds, “Sanctuaries are marvelous spaces.” A back loft section of the second floor remains and is used by Eclipse as a sales office for its Neighborhood Launch condos nearby.

CAPA Bides Time

The sheer size of some sanctuaries can make them difficult to repurpose, says Peter Krajnak of the Rogers Krajnak Architects Inc. firm in Downtown Columbus. “The key is to find the right scale for the potential future use,” says Krajnak, a specialist in the design, expansion and renovation of churches. “So many spaces are so cavernous they become difficult to illuminate and to provide proper climate control.” That can make redeveloping a property for residential particularly difficult and expensive.

Krajnak said sanctuaries also are designed to carry sound well. “To create a quiet space can be a challenge,” he says.

Krajnak will not have to figure out how to mitigate that aspect of the sanctuary of the Central Presbyterian Church at 132 S. Third St. as a consultant to performance arts venue operator CAPA. The nonprofit bought the property for $589,000 in June 2013 as a future concert hall.

CAPA, the owner/operator of the venerable Palace Theatre and Ohio Theatre Downtown, bought the property about 19 months after the congregation ceased worshipping in the building, the original use dating back to 1857.

CAPA CEO Chad Whittington says the arts organization has yet to ask designers to put together a detailed plan for the property as it first concentrates on fundraising for the 2018 renovation projects at the Ohio and Palace. “It's important to have a good plan in place,” Whittington says, comparing the venue to the Southern Theatre restoration and renovation completed in the late 1990s.

The former church will, after eventual renovations, have seating for up to 400. “The structure itself is set up verywell for how we operate in the performing arts arena,” Whittington says. “We can take the hall (sanctuary) and freshen it up for use in smaller concerts and recitals.”

Meantime, Architectural Alliance expects to move its staff of 26 into the former Baptist church by late November as contractors continue working on the project. Parish says the firm has tentative plans to renovate a 900-square-foot space on the second floor of a 1950s expansion wing to the church and an 1,800-square-foot space on the third floor.

“We definitely have the room for growth,” Parish says.” For now, he hopes the firm can attract an interior decorator, a small engineering firm or another creative services business to lease the space. “We'd like this to become a design center.”

Brian Ball is a freelance writer.