Old church buildings have vast potential but present challenges

T he architectural landscape of Fulton and Montgomery counties is dotted with historic churches, and over time, more and more of them have ceased to be used for religious purposes.

Many churches have closed as their congregations consolidate or fade away, and while the venerable buildings are available for relatively low prices, they can be costly for private owners to renovate and maintain.

A for-sale sign hangs on the weathered front door of the former First Methodist Church in Gloversville’s Bleecker Square. The owner, Church of God of Prophecy Northeast Region, based in Albany, was ordered to pay fines totaling $60,000 after stained-glass windows and steeple clocks were removed from the 143-year-old church without the city Historic Preservation Review Board’s consent.

The legal case is still pending, but the building is listed for sale with the Scott Varley Real Estate Group for $75,000. The gaps remain boarded up where the church’s antique windows and clocks used to be.

In Johnstown, two former Catholic churches are on the market. In Mayfield, the former Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses is up for sale. And the list of available churches goes on.

Christian Klueg, owner of CMK & Associates Real Estate, says old churches are hard to sell, despite their historic value and beauty.

“They have limited use because of their design, and they’re expensive to heat and maintain,” he said. “The location of these buildings sometimes can make them hard to sell. A business might not want to be located where a church would be.”

Real estate broker Brian Miller, an associate of Klueg’s, said he is in the process of selling the former Zion Episcopal Church in Fonda. The ancient-looking stone building, on a steep hill overlooking Route 5 in the village, has had a number of owners since it was last used for worship purposes in the 1930s. The asking price was $30,000, but the actual sale price has not been disclosed.

“We should be closing fairly soon,” said Miller, who noted a building was on the market only about a year.

“A building like this sparks its own interest,” Miller said.

The former AME Zion Church on Prospect Street in Johnstown hadn’t been used for worship for about a decade when artist Tiffany Smith purchased it a few years ago. She converted the little white church into a gallery, art studio and residence.

“The church, first and foremost, met my needs, spacewise,” Smith said. “It was perfectly set up for studio space and gallery space and had potential to add on for dwelling.”

Smith, who lives in a residential space she added onto the back of the church, said the building is for sale now, but she continues to use the studio space and she hopes to host gallery events this summer.

“Overall, my experience of having a business in this neighborhood has been great,” she said. “My neighbors have been supportive of the art and artists I have showcased … .”

Like Smith, many who take on church renovation projects turn the buildings into arts venues. Perhaps more than any other kind of historic building, churches tend to have excellent acoustics and a special vibe that makes them excellent performance halls.

Eric Stroud, a chemical engineer and organist from New Jersey, purchased the former Sts. Peter & Paul Church in Canajoharie about two years ago and converted it into a secular performance venue, which they now call Upstate Chapel.

“I was shopping for quite a while,” Stroud said, noting the Capital Region and the Mohawk Valley have a large selection of vacant former churches, partly because the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany has closed so many churches here. Primarily, he was looking for a church with an excellent organ, and the Canajoharie church turned out to offer that and much more.

“It was absolutely perfect,” Stroud said, noting the building is small enough that heat and maintenance are not astronomically expensive, and it was in good condition because it was used by local parishioners until he bought it.

Stroud and his wife converted part of the building into an apartment and preserved the sanctuary as a recital venue, which he says has beautiful acoustic properties because of its domed and plastered ceiling.

“You can’t do that with dry wall,” he said.

Upstate Chapel will host a performance of the opera “Amahl and the Night Visitors” at 2:30 p.m. today, and at 7 p.m. March 15, it will present “A Celebration of Ireland,” a free concert of Irish music. For more details, see www.upstatechapel.com.

Karen Chaplin, who is renovating several historic properties in Fultonville, has done extensive work on the former Pilgrim Holiness Church on Main Street.

“It would be wonderful to have music in there again,” Chaplin said. She said she doesn’t have a particular purpose in mind for the future use of the building. Her main concern was to save it from the wrecking ball and save the neighborhood from losing an important landmark.

“Preserving historic structures is in my blood,” Chaplin said, but “churches in particular are special because they’ve been loved and had so many prayers said in them.”

For more details about her efforts, see fortroyal.org.

In Fort Plain, a nonprofit group is renovating the former Universalist Church of the Messiah for use as an arts and cultural center.

Tolga Morawski, treasurer and founder of Historic Fort Plain, bought the building in 2011 and donated it to the organization, which has a core group of more than 20 volunteers.

The 1896 building was last used as a church in the mid-1990s and had been used more recently by a medical supply company for storage.

“It has unique terra cotta features that aren’t really common in the area,” he said. “It’s the tallest building in Fort Plain and one of the biggest – It’s impressive.”

Morawski, who grew up in Fort Plain, now lives and works in New York City but makes regular trips home to work on the project.

Historic Fort Plain has received some small grants from the New York State Council on the Arts and from IBM, and the group hopes to use the funding for architectural studies that will help pave the way for larger grants. To offset the cost of utilities, the group hopes to install solar and geothermal energy equipment.

Unity Hall’s first public event, a concert on New Year’s Eve, drew a crowd of more than 100 people.

“One of the best fundraising steps you can take is just having people in the building,” Morawski said, so the group’s immediate goal is making the space welcoming and establishing a regular schedule of performances.

For more information, see historicfortplain.com.

Bill Ackerbauer can be reached at [email protected].

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