Repurposed St. Louis churches, synagogues find ways to feed soul
St. Louis is a town of believers: in traditions, in community and, perhaps most especially, in second chances.
That grace is extended to its buildings as well as its people.
“St. Louis likes to save old things, not tear old things down,” says Chris Hansen, executive director of the Kranzberg Arts Foundation.
The nonprofit runs the Grandel, built in 1884 as a First Congregational Church, which now includes a 600-seat theater and the Dark Room, a bar, music venue and gallery.
The Grand Center structure is one of dozens of leftfor-dead houses of worship across the region that have been resurrected as entertainment venues, fitness centers, high-end lodging and even a skate park. For many, the reinventions echo their original callings as spirit-lifters, celebrationholders and champions of history and the arts.
In Webster Groves, a century-old church that had cycled through at least five congregations was reborn in 2018 as the Tuxedo Park STL Bed & Breakfast Inn, following a rescue effort by owners Bill and Maureen Elliott.
In Granite City, the nucleus of a downtown makeover is a genre-expansive establishment — the old Niedringhaus United Methodist Church — that's slated to open early this year as the Mill.
Last summer, the burned-out National Memorial Church of God in Christ finished its transformation from an impromptu, though precarious, rendezvous for picnicking, pop-up weddings and photo backdrops with the help of a Grandel Square neighbor, the Pulitzer Arts Foundation.
“We saw potential,” says Kristin Fleischmann Brewer, the deputy director of public engagement.
The foundation spent about two years shoring up the structure but didn't replace the roof, which had been consumed by a fire in 2001.
The new Spring Church is open to the sky — and open to the community, every day from sunrise to sunset.
Abby Frohne, director of marketing at the Center of Creative Arts, doesn't like to credit divine intervention for COCA landing its striking University City location, but she doesn't discount it, either.
“It was a fortuitous situation,” she says.
In the mid-1980s, as the idea for the nonprofit was taking shape, the B'Nai Amoona Jewish congregation was preparing to leave Trinity Avenue for a new home in Creve Coeur.
The congregation moved out, and COCA moved in. Developer Richard Baron remodeled the midcentury modern synagogue, designed by Erich Mendelsohn in the 1940s, converting the altar into a theater and offices into classrooms and workshops.
One element was left untouched: the windows. The sweeping walls of glass allowed light in on the Sabbath, when traditional Jewish practice prohibited the use of electricity.
“It comes in from above,” Frohne says. “There are windows in places and spaces you wouldn't think.”
Now, they illuminate students learning to dance, paint, act and sing.
Work on the building can seem never-ending. Roof repairs are up next. But rehab headaches are worth it, Frohne says.
“It was created as a hub of the community and a place for gathering,” she says. “It still is.”
When Stray Dog Theatre was founded in 2003, “we were truly stray dogs,” says artistic director Gary Bell. Plays were staged around town, with the goal that, eventually, the offbeat performance company would find a forever home.
Then, the congregation at the United Church of Christ, next door to Bell's house in Tower Grove East, started dwindling. Stray Dog began putting on shows there, and in 2007, the pack of actors took over the church entirely.
Physical changes were minimal. Bell was skeptical when the architect suggested the pews stay but figured he could change his mind later.
“Sitting together is very community-oriented,” Bell says. “And our mission is very community-oriented.”
On a smaller scale, Jeff Scally of south St. Louis was thinking about his Lindenwood Park neighbors when he purchased an old church that came on the market in fall 2020. Immanuel Congregational had closed a decade prior.
Scally envisioned the dilapidated Jamieson Avenue property as a members-only club for nearby folks who share his interests: tabletop games and golf, beer tastings and book discussions.
“It's a 9,000-square-foot mancave, essentially,” he says. “There's a space for a bunch of my hobbies.”
Renovations, hampered by pandemic and supplychain hiccups, have been a slog. But Scally expects Lindenwood Park Place to open this year. He aims to stay small, no more than