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Slowed by pandemic, iconic ‘Flying Church’ in Great Barrington nears completion

"It's pretty much complete now," Joffe said in an Edge interview. "I can see the light at the end of the tunnel."

Great Barrington — It’s a relatively recent phenomenon on Main Street that has become a legend in its own time.

Main Street’s “Flying Church,” so named for the period of time when the foundation was being replaced and the building was jacked up about eight feet higher than normal, is almost completed. And no one could be happier than owner and developer Paul Joffe.

“It’s pretty much complete now,” Joffe said in an Edge interview. “I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Paul Joffe working on the roof of the Flying Church. Photo: Paul Joffe

It has been quite a journey for the colorful Joffe, who, armed with a vision, purchased the former United Methodist Church, which dissolved at the end of 2011. Joffe snagged the church building and the land at the corner of Main and Rosseter streets for $425,000, with the goal of rehabilitating the 170-year-old structure into a mix of retail establishments and office space.

On Halloween Day 2015, Joffe held a party for the community. Near what will be the Main Street entrance to a planned restaurant on the first floor, Joffe and his supporters buried more than 100 stainless-steel time capsules.

The goal of construction has nearly been achieved, though there were bumps along the road. For one, Joffe fell ill with Lyme Disease for several months in 2018. Since Joffe is the project manager and performed much of the labor himself to save money, the project lay dormant, leading many to mistakenly suspect that he had run out of money. So, ironically, the fact that he got sick was both the good news and the bad news. Bad news that he fell ill, but good news that he was not bankrupt and, instead, it was the illness that had caused the delay.

The structure has become an iconic fixture on Main Street, attracting the curious-minded. Even Joffe himself is an attraction. He can be seen walking around the property daily, and is fond of working on the roof and posting his exploits, including drone video footage, on social media.

See drone video below of the Flying Church’s parking lot completion by Paul Joffe:

Right now, Joffe is focused on finding tenants for four remaining spaces. Five have already been rented to tenants, including Crossfit Great Barrington and Evoque Investments. Another tenant who recently moved in is popular Great Barrington photographer Stephen G. Donaldson, who has opened a new gallery on the ground floor. More on that later.

All businesspeople have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. For Joffe, the virus has made it more difficult to rent out the area that is the Flying Church’s showcase space: a 5,000-square-foot restaurant and performance venue.

Steeplejack: one of Joffe’s many talents. Photo: Paul Joffe

“That’s the main space,” Joffe explained. “Because of COVID, people aren’t doing that now, so my timing was really bad.” The self-effacing Joffe is confident he can find a tenant for the largest space in the church when the pandemic finally lifts.

“I’m starting to advertise the space to people who maybe want to move out of the city and open up a music venue restaurant in a nice place like Great Barrington,” Joffe added. “I can give them a really good deal now because they can’t open during the pandemic, so they would have a chance to have a place and build out and get everything ready, so that when the inoculations catch up with everybody, they will be ready to open.”

Joffe’s challenges in filling the space are hardly unique, of course. Restaurants struggled mightily. After Gov. Charlie Baker’s first executive order in the middle of March, restaurants offered take-out food only. They were gradually allowed to open for outdoor dining, and indoors with reduced capacity in order to maintain physical distancing. Some, such as 20 Railroad Public House, have closed altogether.

Behind the Barrington House on Main Street, landlord Richard Stanley opened the Barrington Courtyard, which allowed several eateries in his building to offer outdoor dining and stay afloat. That space — the parking lot between the Barrington House and the Triplex Cinema — closed after Thanksgiving because of the cold weather.

Joffe says he is convinced “there will be a big surge of interest in those kinds of venues,” in part because of pent-up demand from people who “haven’t had much human contact.”

“I think people are looking forward to that,” Joffe said. “We’ll be in a good place.”

An aerial view of the planned coffee shop. Photo: Paul Joffe

Also of interest is the space at the southeast corner of the property, where the demolished parsonage used to be. In its place, Joffe has built a detached kiosk that will function as Great Barrington’s newest coffee shop, which he hopes to open this spring. Among his other talents, Joffe is a coffee roaster and his strong suit is a “special dark roast” that he will feature for regular coffee and espresso-based drinks alike.

Joffe initially had trouble funding the coffee shop and had launched a GoFundMe campaign. He got a generous response from friends and acquaintances, but wound up returning the money to his donors because he sold a tractor trailer he owned. The proceeds from the sale were enough to foot the bill for completing the coffee shop.

“I didn’t want to take the money if I was able to find another way to pay for it,” said Joffe, who declined to say how much the entire Flying Church project cost him. “Over 20,000 vehicles a day pass by that spot, so you can’t miss it.”

This is not Joffe’s first foray into repurposing a church. He finished another church restoration in Kingston, N.Y., in 2011. That project included saving a 200-foot steeple and converting the church into a chapel for same-sex marriages, which, at that time, had just been legalized in the state. He has also renovated six buildings in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Stephen G. Donaldson. Photo courtesy of the photographer

Donaldson, the photographer, moved into the Flying Church last month after searching for years for the right place, while continuing to work out of the attic studio in his home in Great Barrington’s The Hill neighborhood.

He initially approached John Delmolino, who had redeveloped the former Betros Market, which had fallen into disrepair and had to be demolished. The new building at the intersection of Main and Cottage streets now houses Lennox Jewelers. Donaldson and Delmolino were unable to come to terms, so Donaldson continued his search until it took him to Joffe.

It dawned on him to consider the Flying Church, in part, because The Prairie Whale, a farm-to-table restaurant next door, was becoming more popular. In December, after a couple of years of back-and-forth, Joffe and Donaldson came to terms.

“On Dec. 14, he finally said, ‘Okay, let’s go for it,” Donaldson recalled. “It’s so perfect in so many ways. It has all the elements that lend itself to a gallery environment: visibility and parking in a hip Soho kind of area. It was a slam dunk. I made it work for how I wanted it.”

Donaldson’s forte is “landscape, travel-oriented location” photography. Or, as he put it, “images that capture the essence of a place.” Much of his speciality is borne of Donaldson’s extensive world travel experience.

The exterior of Donaldson’s new gallery at the Flying Church. Photo: Stephen Donaldson

After spending several years working in finance on Wall Street and in the electronics industry in Los Angeles, Donaldson gave all that up to pursue his passion.

“That’s when I planned this whole concept of saving my money and traveling around the world, to photo-document that trip so that I could use that body of work as a springboard to launch a career in photography,” Donaldson explained in an interview.

Donaldson’s biography says that, from 1995 through 1997, he traveled to all six inhabited continents of the world. The journey took him from Los Angeles, across the United States, through western, central, and eastern Europe, to Russia, China, and portions of Asia and South America. Donaldson says he visited 42 countries and logged in excess of 100,000 miles of backpack travel.

The gallery in Great Barrington is where Donaldson’s passions for travel and photography are on full display. Because of the pandemic, Donaldson has opted for a soft opening, with time slots available for by-appointment private gallery tours, and regular business hours for walk-in customers. For more information or to book an appointment, call 413-528-6252. Also, visit Donaldson’s Facebook page.


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