Vacant churches transformed into other gathering spaces

As published in Berkshire Magazine, Issue 9, July 2013

All photos by Jane Feldman


The former Sweet’s Corner Baptist Church in Williamstown, Mass., now home to Rick Spalding and Peter Bubriski.

Up and down the county, the number of vacant churches continues to rise as attendance in mainline denominations dwindles.

“People are looking for new churches. They don’t want to go to their grandparents’ church,” says Steve Abdow, finance officer for the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts, which has sold five of its churches in the past three years and has three more currently on the market. “There’s also some redundant locations. You have churches five minutes apart, let alone miles. I think this issue of empty churches is going to be exponential. This is the beginning.”

New life is breathed into many of the vacant edifices, so they don’t stay empty for long. While the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield has closed over 50 churches and chapels since 2000, spokesperson Mark Dupont is optimistic about the fate of the properties. “We’ve had fairly good luck in many instances in finding reuse for these properties,” he says, citing churches in North Adams, Pittsfield, and Williamstown that have been repurposed. A diocese will typically work with the local government when it closes a church, giving preference to non-profit or community groups that may have a use for the building. But when no local resource presents itself, the church will be put on the open market. So far, it seems that buyers, who’ve made everything from homes and businesses to music venues and art galleries out of the former places of worship, are intent on preserving both the splendor and spirit of the former holy places they occupy.

As Rick Spalding, chaplain at Williams College, tours a guestroom in his home on Green River Road in Williamstown, he makes sure to point out the BB holes in one of the surviving stained-glass windows, tiny reminders of when the building lay abandoned for several decades. Spalding and his partner, communications consultant Peter Bubriski, live in what was once the Sweet’s Corner Baptist Church. Built in 1832, the church was open for just under a century before the Baptists moved to a bigger space in the center of town. The building, which consists of the main sanctuary and a parish house attached at the back, sat empty for almost 40 years before Williams professor Milo Beach converted it into a multi-level home.

“We’ve lived here since 2000, and we do feel like we have a historic responsibility to take good care of a remarkably creative piece of work when this was transformed into a house,” says Spalding. “And really, by extension, to take care of a building that was built with the blood, sweat, and tears probably of the Baptists whose first home this was. So in a real way, we feel as though we are inheritors of the legacy of the first members of the Sweet’s Corner Baptist Church. And so we want to try and be faithful to that, too.”

From the outside, the “Old Stone Church,” as it is fondly referred to by its occupants, looks practically untouched by time. The inside, on the other hand, is a work of contemporary, architectural genius. Beach managed to retain the capacious feel of the church while simultaneously creating intimate spaces by splitting the former nave area into several levels. On the floor level where pews once sat, an expansive bookshelf rises up behind the dining-room table. To the right, lines in the floor marking where the church dais once stood are partially covered by a cozy corner of benches; just behind them, the first raised level is the living room. Up the stairs to the highest level is an office and catch-all seating area, under which are two guestrooms. In the former center of the church was once a meditation platform and children’s playhouse, now transformed into a lookout seating area and clever hiding space for the television.

Remnants of church life can be found throughout this modern design. A walk down the hallway from the front door to the former dais is the same route countless brides, grooms, and even caskets took on their way to the altar. And hidden away in the attic is the pulpit itself, a tangible reminder of the building’s past life. But the church artifact that Spalding and Bubriski use the most is the bell, which they ring “as part of our ritual of giving thanks before meals when we have company.” As it turns out, that’s quite often—Spalding says that the building is never happier than when it’s full of people. “There’s no good reason for two people and a dog to live in this much space,” says Spalding. “The only real justification for it is if you use it as a gathering place. I feel strongly that that essential purpose is still completely intact.”

At the opposite end of Berkshire County, Will Schillinger is also welcoming a community of people—musicians, particularly—into a former sanctuary. He owns Pilot Recording Studios, housed in the former Methodist Church on Main Street in Housatonic. After deciding to move from New York City to the Berkshires a few years ago, Schillinger found the perfect place to set up shop in the church. “This place seemed to be laid out as if it were set up to be a recording studio,” Schillinger explains. “Our live room [a studio where musicians perform], formerly the chapel, is lined with Celotex acoustical tile that was installed back in the 1950s. As a result, the room’s acoustics are beautifully controlled.”

In 1923, the Methodist Society donated the proceeds from the sale of the Lenox Methodist Episcopal Church toward the building of a church in Housatonic, which officially opened in 1928. Materials from the Lenox church were also salvaged for use in Housatonic, and many of them have become integral parts of Pilot Recording Studio.

The chapel was a “near perfect recording environment in its own right,” says Schillinger, so little was done to change its original appearance and structure when it was transformed into the live room. A fully functional 1865 E. & G.G.hook-pipe organ dominates one corner of the room, and expansive stained-glass windows “emanate amazing colors on a sunny day,” says the studio owner, casting ethereal light over microphones and recording equipment. Schillinger also had the church pews repurposed into speaker soffits for the all-new, state-of-the-art control room—a reminder that this space is a marriage of old and new.

He has plans to further utilize aspects of the unique space by converting the bell tower into a variable-reverb chamber, similar to those used in iconic studios such as Abbey Road. “We will be installing a speaker on a moveable floor with fixed microphones to create the variable-reverb chamber. Pilot has all of the standard forms of reverb, but this tower calls out to be used in a creative way,” Schillinger says.

Pilot offers a unique space for all types of performers, including jazz pianist-composer Ahmad Jamal, Steely Dan guitarist Jon Herington, and singer-songwriter Shawn Colvin. “It is a beautiful space, and I hope people find positive energy within it. I know that we do,” says Schillinger. “Most of the artists that have worked here have expressed their appreciation for the warmth and welcoming atmosphere.”

Just up the road in Great Barrington, George Laye, director of the Guthrie Center, shares a similar sentiment. The center, made famous by Arlo Guthrie’s Thanksgiving musical monologue, “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree,” now serves as both a music venue and community center. “Because it was a church, it already had wonderful vibes in it, and it’s just a great feeling to have that happening all the time,” says Laye. “Ninety-something percent of the people that come here eventually comment, ‘Wow, there’s just something about this place.’”

The center occupies what was originally St. James Chapel, built by the Dutch in 1829 and later expanded and renamed Trinity Church in 1866. Ray and Alice Brock were the first to live in the church in the 1960s. A few owners and decades later, Arlo Guthrie bought and converted it into the Guthrie Center, a non-denominational, interfaith meeting place or, as Laye describes it, a “bring-your-own-god church.”

The Guthrie Center is a large, glittering-white building tucked into the corner where the Housatonic Railroad meets Division Street. Through the large, wooden front doors, visitors are greeted by walls covered in photos and posters of musical acts that have played there. Straight ahead, a sign over the door to the sanctuary, where concerts are held, offers a dedication from Ma, Arlo’s guru: “One God, Many Forms / One River, Many Streams / One People, Many Faces / One Mother, Many Children.”

Every year from Memorial Day to Labor Day, the center hosts its Troubadour Concert series, proceeds of which go to funding the center’s free community lunches every Wednesday. Artists play at the center without monetary guarantees, Laye explains, “because of the good work we do. We don’t have any money, but we’re happy about getting by with what we do without having it.” In order to boost revenue for its community efforts, the center has plans to convert the sanctuary back to its original layout by removing walls that were added when it was a home, thus allowing for larger shows. It is also currently fundraising to add a heating system so that the space may be used year-round.

“We’re here to help people,” says Laye. “There’s just a spirit of goodness in this building, and we portray that in all the music that we do.”