Resurrection Part 2: More local churches find useful second lives

Back in May I wrote about three former churches that found new lives through “adaptive reuse,” the process of taking a building created for one purpose and turning it into something new and more contemporary. The three I explored have been recent eye-popping successes.
Taft’s Ale House (1349 Race St., Over-the-Rhine) is bustling and brewing (and canning some of its on-site products) in the one-time St. Paul’s German Evangelical Church, dating from 1850. It’s open daily and seems to have a steady flow of customers. I had a two-hour wait in mid-summer to get a table for four on a Saturday night.
The Transept, a gorgeous addition to the southwest corner of Washington Park, is up and running as an event center in what was once St. John’s Church at 12th and Elm streets in OTR. Since early September, this extensively renovated 1868 building has been hosting weddings and parties in an array of spaces large and small. It also has a street-level taproom open daily.
Urban Artifact is drawing crowds for music and on-site brews at what was once St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church (1662 Blue Rock St., Northside). It’s operating in the 1890s structure’s downstairs social hall, hosting the Blue Wisp Big Band on Wednesdays and music other evenings. Without the substantial financing that made the conversions of Taft’s and the Transept possible, the rest of the church remains a work in progress. A production by New Edgecliff Theatre in mid-September had to move elsewhere because the sanctuary space wasn’t ready. But work continues.
Digging deeper, I’ve found more area churches being reused. Each was created as a space where people came together in communal activity, and that purpose remains central to their existences even as the activity has changed.
Southgate House Revival
Morella Raleigh and her father Ross, longtime operators of Southgate House near Newport on the Levee, moved a few blocks south in 2012 when they relocated to the former Grace Methodist-Episcopal Church (111 E. Sixth St.), dating from 1866. Other congregations in Newport were worshiping in German, but this congregation preferred English. One of the congregation’s founding members was Ann Winston Hinde Southgate, the wife of Richard Southgate, the namesake of the Raleighs’ previous venue.
“We were definitely crazy,” Raleigh admits regarding their move to a deserted building. “It was a lot to undertake. Practically everything had to be fixed.”
The church operated until 1993 but stood empty for 16 years before the Raleighs acquired it.
Southgate House Revival, Newport
“Old buildings like this benefit from continuous use,” she says. “But even as this was still operating in the 1980s, it wasn’t being kept up to date.”
The Raleighs installed new flooring and an energy-efficient heating and cooling system. In the Sanctuary (space for as many as 500 people) they built a stage in the south end; the choir loft above as adapted into an open green room for musicians. The first-floor Lounge, with bar service, offers free small performances. Upstairs is the “Revival Room” seating 150, with a small stage probably once used for Sunday School programs.
Musical acts are scheduled at Southgate House Revival four to seven nights weekly, so the building needed to be brought up to code for public assembly. Significant investment was required for increased electrical needs, lights and sound, for musical acts.
“We say it was 10 months of renovation, but it’s really been ongoing,” she points out.
Raleigh’s pet project is to renovate the pipe organ in the Sanctuary.
“It’s still here in all its glory,” she says. “We could use it for organ concerts, maybe old Vincent Price movies with musical accompaniment.”
The pipes of the Koehnken & Grimm Organ, installed in the 1880s, are visible over the bar. A dozen stained-glass windows along the walls miraculously remained intact even while the building was abandoned.
“What’s the other choice for these old churches?” she asks. “Tear them down? Places like this were built for people to come together for joyous events. I like to say that music is a very spiritual thing, not just gospel. When we had to close at the old location — which was not a church — we saw how spiritual music was for many people in this area. That played a role with us wanting to reopen.”
In addition to music, Southgate House Revival has been a venue for weddings and even a monthly church service.
Monastery Studio
The facility Ric Hordinski operates in Walnut Hills (William H. Taft Road at Stanton Avenue) is much smaller, but it’s still a gathering place where music is the focus. The musician, composer, arranger and producer (he’s been a Grammy nominee) was part of the indie band Over the Rhine in its early days; since then he’s worked with everyone from local musician Kim Taylor to singer-songwriter-guitarist David Wilcox as well as members of the Grateful Dead and My Morning Jacket.
He calls the modest 1904 church he acquired about a decade ago “The Monastery.” It’s a recording studio and occasionally a performance venue. Hordinski lives nearby and personally maintains the property.
It stood empty for 18 months or so, apparently abandoned abruptly by its African-American congregation.
“I’m not sure what happened, but they basically walked out one Sunday and never came back,” he says. “I suspect that the members had been aging and just couldn’t keep it up. The pastor’s notes were still on the pulpit.”
Ric Hordinski, The Monastery 
Hordinski did what needed to be done to bring the building back to life — like re-plumbing water pipes and setting up power sources and acoustical treatments needed for recording.
But Hordinski had another motive. Beyond his recording business, he wants The Monastery to be a place where neighbors come together.
“It’s a pretty big priority for us to do community things here,” he says. “We have a community meal every two weeks or so. Sometimes we show movies. Recently a family we know couldn’t afford to have a funeral elsewhere, so they did it here. We’ve had weddings. We like to make the space available. Walnut Hills has such a diverse population, and that’s why we love it being here.”
Activity generally happens in the one-time assembly room, which Hordinski calls the Tracking Room. It has a small stage packed with musical equipment — and a motorcycle he restored from scratch. There are some pews and a few chairs. He’s set up an apartment with kitchen and a bathroom adjacent to the room for musicians to use when they come to record.
The building’s sanctuary is a warehouse at the moment, full of old equipment and reminders of church activity. A biblical verse over the pulpit says, “Write the vision. Make it plain.”
Hordinski might be waiting for a vision, but right now it’s a matter of money. His work on the building has been a labor of love, financed out of his own earnings and personal loans.
“It could have been torn down if we didn’t do this,” he says. “The neighborhood needs a place to bring people together. I put a high priority on making it available, especially to make music, which is about community building.”
Church of the Assumption
Preservation was Justin Poole’s inspiration when he learned that the Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (2622 Gilbert Ave.) might be on the market.
The artist who sculpts models of mannequins for department stores was working in the Walnut Hills neighborhood, not far from the 1885 structure. Poole and his partner Laura Davis, a potter who operates Core Clay nearby, kept wondering what was happening with the defunct church building. The rectory had been torn down, and it was apparent that vagrants had moved in and scrappers were pillaging the place.
For more than a century, Assumption was an active facility serving Irish-American Catholics for worship, weddings, holidays and funerals. By the 1990s its congregants dwindled and their parish was absorbed elsewhere, closing for good in 1998.
In 2012 Poole approached the Archdiocese about buying it.
Church of the Assumption, Walnut Hills 
“It was very easy to do,” he says. “One of the easiest things I ever did. They wanted to get rid of it. I suspect the price of demolition was prohibitive.”
He spent $52,000 earned from his sculpture — making mannequins has proved to be a lucrative craft — and now owns the vast structure, which serves as an immense work space populated by the elongated, stylish mannequins Poole creates. He works mostly by himself with the company of two sleepy dogs and occasional interns.
“It’s not a fabulous studio,” he says. “It’s too dark, too big really.”
The high ceiling with wood paneling darkens the space. The sanctuary costs too much to heat in the winter, so he works in a section of the basement where he has a heater. “It’s a bitch. Five months is long time to be in a dungeon.”
He has a long-range improvement plan. First step is to create a kitchen area where the altar once stood before the congregation, “a heated space with a stove and a washing machine, enclosed somewhat, not too obtrusive to the building, with doors that open up, like a storefront. It would be something affordable, not necessarily permanent.”
Poole sees his role as a temporary protector of a historic place.
“It would be so much better as a communal gathering space, maybe an event venue,” he says. “I thought it would be romantic to have this place. It was so cheap, and I could afford it.”

He’s had a historically appropriate wrought iron fence and gate installed that cost more than the building itself.
“My main thing was just don’t let it get torn down,” Poole says. “I’m pretty sure it would be gone by now if I hadn’t done this. It’s a caretaking thing. But I’m too clingy about it. I’d like to see someone like Urban Outfitters take it on and do a fabulous retrofit. That would be incredible. Either my business will be able to afford to restore the property (‘not likely,’ he chuckles) or the neighborhood will improve enough that somebody wants it.”
He’s made the space available for neighborhood gatherings. Architect Brad Cooper did a show there about the tiny houses he’s developing, and there’s been an art show with a beer garden that raised funds for neighborhood activities — kind of a latter-day church festival.
The next ones to watch
St. George Roman Catholic Church (1873) on Calhoun Street on the edge of UC’s campus has been adapted several times. Built in 1873, it was closed by the Archdiocese in 1993. Purchased by the Christian Ministries Center and dubbed “Old St. George,” it served as a community center, hosting events and retreats, music, art shows and more. In 2008 its twin steeples caught fire and collapsed, and the building again fell into disuse.
Now it’s on its way to being a place of worship again, owned and managed by Crossroads Church. It will still be a community center, featuring an 800-seat auditorium and a space for outside events. There are plans to replace the steeples.
Another facility that has evoked speculation for years about its future appears to have new life. Towne Properties acquired Holy Cross Monastery and Church in Mount Adams when it closed in 1977. Part of the facility has been used for the real estate company’s offices, but the 12,000-sq.-ft. church has remained vacant. Towne now plans to lease it to Receptions Inc. for use as an event center for 350-500 guests.
It’s been reported that Towne will invest $3 million to restore the building.
Perhaps there’s an abandoned church in your neighborhood, maybe in your future? Let me know: [email protected]

Read more articles by Rick Pender.

Rick Pender is an Over-the-Rhine resident with many years of writing, editing, fundraising and public relations experience. He is the theater critic and contributing editor at CityBeat and a regular contributor to WVXU's "Around Cincinnati." Follow him on Twitter @PenderRick.