Great Barrington — The “flying church,” as the former United Methodist Church building on Main Street across from Rite Aid has come to be known, is coming back to earth. Construction on the Main Street historic structure is underway again.
“I’ve been waiting all winter for this,” declared Paul Joffe of GB Historic Preservation LLC, as he watched Northern Foundations, Inc. of Dalton pour a concrete floor. Joffe purchased the property two years ago, with plans to convert the church building into a retail hub.
In preparation, Joffe had the 1845 wooden structure — Great Barrington’s oldest church — raised 6 feet, 9 inches closer to heaven in late 2015, with the expectation that the reconstruction would be completed in 2017.
That goal has now been pushed back to fall 2018, Joffe explained, but progress is being made, including paperwork behind the scenes.
Plumbing infrastructure has been installed as well. Only after the town’s building inspector signs off on relevant drawings can Joffe proceed past the ground level.
“The bulk of the work will be done after this summer,” he said.
The new foundation level is slated for three retail spaces. Above, in what was once the sanctuary of the church, Joffe has planned a 79-seat restaurant. The third floor design includes two offices and a residence.
An outdoor food kiosk is planned for the corner lawn shared by Rossetter Street. The developer likened this to a toll house — “a small, old-looking building that will be inviting to people.”
“It won’t block the church,” he said, adding that the specific nature of each space depends on the tenants.
Joffe, a New Marlborough resident, purchased the land from the church for $425,000. Total project costs are not yet known, he said, though he told The Edge in 2015 he expected to spend $1.2 million when all was said and done.
Before New Marlborough, Joffe was based in Kingston, N.Y., where he redeveloped another church into a non-denominational wedding chapel. The bulk of his building career consists of restaurant projects in Brooklyn.
“This is a really good location,” he said of his choice to develop here. “I think it’ll be the most important building in the town … it’s still going to look like an old church when it’s done.”
The church had to be elevated in order to secure the foundation according to modern standards, Joffe said, and the developer saw this requirement as an opportunity to increase the building’s space. The maneuvre earned it the nickname “The Flying Church,” which Joffe has embraced as a designation by natural process.
“I didn’t name it, but the town kind of picked it and settled on The Flying Church,” he said, adding it would likely become official.
The development is represented online at 198mainst.com and the Facebook page “GB Corner.”
The problem of what to do with closed or abandoned churches is increasing. Numbers from the Roman Catholic Church diocese alone are telling. The Catholic Church in America has witessed 11 percent of its parishes close since 1988, from 19,705 to 17,483 in 2014, according to Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), a nonprofit research center at Georgetown University.
The National Catholic Register reports that new parishes are opening in the west and southwest — mostly on the strength of Latino immigration and relocations from other states. Still, in 2013 61 new parishes opened in the United States, but 190 parishes closed.
Some groups such as the Philadelphia-based Partners for Sacred Places, assist churches in staying open by helping them find ways to increase revenue, or find new tenants from the arts community or area food groups.
That’s pretty much what happened at Great Barrington’s St. James Place, formerly the St. James Episcopal Church at Taconic Avenue and Main Street. In 2010, St. James parishioners Fred and Sally Harris formed a nonprofit, St. James Place, Inc., and purchased the historic 150-year-old stone church to save it from demolition after a collapse of the sanctuary’s rear wall two years earlier had rendered the building uninhabitable.
St. James Place, which also worked with Partners for Sacred Places, now houses a cultural and educational center and the People’s Food Pantry, which recently relocated to the basement of St. James.
Just down Main Street near the intersection with Maple Avenue (routes 41 and 23) and atop a small hill sits the former First Church of Christ, Science. That church was bought in 2013 by McTeigue & McClelland, the upscale jewelry designers and manufacturers that subsequently relocated from a building south of downtown on Route 7 near Ward’s Nursery.
The old Trinity Church in the VanDeusenville section of Great Barrington is another fine example of adaptive reuse. Legendary folk singer Arlo Guthrie bought the church where Alice Brock (of Alice’s Restaurant fame) used to live. Guthrie turned Trinity into the Guthrie Center, which houses the Guthrie Foundation and supports cultural preservation and educational achievement.
The Clinton A.M.E. Zion Church, the historic African-American church, was recently purchased by a nonprofit as well. Plans for the future are not yet clear.
Sometimes closed churches are bought and reused … as churches. The Housatonic Congregational Church was sold in 2014 to the Unitarian Universalists of South Berkshire, which was essentially homeless and holding services anywhere its congregants could find. The Unitarians used a combination of savings, loans and a capital campaign to come up with the $225,000 purchase price.
Terry Cowgill contributed to this report.