Hymns and sermons haven’t risen to the oak rafters of the former Church on the Hill in St. Paul for years, but soon sweet music will once again filter through the nave of the century-old building.
Three years after the church closed, St. Paul developer John Rupp bought the building for $1.1 million from the Episcopal Church in Minnesota. He plans to turn it into a performing arts center and home of the St. Paul Conservatory of Music.
Pending city approvals, the building will be renamed St. Paul’s Center for the Performing Arts. In addition to being used by the music school, it will be open for other groups to stage concerts, spoken word shows and other performances.
The building, at the corner of Summit Avenue and Saratoga Street near Macalester College, has been a neighborhood landmark for years.
“I saw it was for sale for quite a while … I wanted to do something,” Rupp said.
The conservatory is planning to move into the building at the end of March. Cities Church, which has been looking for another church home since Minnehaha Academy in Minneapolis where it had held worship was rocked by a deadly gas explosion last summer, will use the building on Sundays and for other events.
Already, several performing arts groups, including the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, have been through the building to survey its potential as a performance venue.
“There is enormous potential in this space for organizations and performing artists to be really innovative and imaginative in what they do,” said Harry Chalmiers, former president of the now-closed McNally Smith College of Music who is helping with the process of converting the church.
As he stood in the nave, Chalmiers clapped his hands and marveled at the sound that echoed through the hall. “This was legendary for the acoustics,” he said. “That’s why these performing arts groups are kind of streaming back in here.”
The church, which was built in 1912, was designed by Emmanuel Masqueray, who was also the architect for the Cathedral of St. Paul and the Basilica of St. Mary. Some parts of the church had been salvaged from its prior downtown St. Paul location.
Its colorful stained glass windows and many of its religious artifacts such as its marble altar have endured, along with the remains of Father John Wright, a priest and rector of the church, who is buried under the building. But many changes will be needed to “dechurch” the building for use as a multipurpose performance space, said Rupp, who mentioned the possibility of alcohol being available at shows.
The pews have already been removed to make space for about 450 temporary seats that could be placed for performances. Rupp is looking at ways to alter the stained glass windows to allow more light into the building. The ornate wood beam that stretches across the front of the chancel will likely lose its crucifix and be outfitted with stage lights, Rupp said. But the artifacts will be preserved and even the backs from the pews will likely be reused in some way, he said.
“We are going to be very thoughtful about what we are doing to this building because the last thing we want is to end up having done something that is disrespectful to it,” he said.
Renovations are estimated to cost $400,000 to $600,000, Rupp said. Rupp’s architect surveyed the space Monday afternoon. Rotted plaster will be replaced and repainting will start next week. The roof, which still needs some improvements, has already been worked on. Workers still need to refinish the wood and tile floors.
The old church school will need to be repainted and finished to provide classrooms and offices for the conservatory. Several improvements need to be made to make the building accessible to people with disabilities. Rupp will also install air conditioning.
“I’m very, very excited about the project,” said Nils Halker, who used to be the music director and organist at the church in the 1990s. “Other than another congregation occupying it, I think it’s one of the best reuses we could have wished for that building.”
The St. Paul Conservatory of Music has been looking for a new home since its main location at the Exchange Building in downtown St. Paul was sold by Rupp last fall to a developer to turn into a boutique hotel. The music conservatory had been the building’s major tenant.
The location in downtown St. Paul hadn’t been ideal for the Conservatory of Music, which teaches about 230 adults and children, due to the restrictive parking in downtown and the lack of visibility for the music school. There is only a small parking lot at the church, but people can park on the street.
“By having the conservatory being part of this performing arts center and anchor here, I think it’s also going to be a new step in our development, attract more students and be more visible,” said Cléa Galhano, the conservatory’s executive artistic director. “I think that was the perfect storm.”
The building is in the Summit Avenue West Heritage Preservation District, which means Rupp needs to get approval for some modifications, Chalmiers said.
The conservatory, which recently signed a 10-year lease for offices and classroom space, has applied for grants to help with the renovation of the building. Galhano said she is excited about the potential the building offers, such as the possibility to provide organ lessons even though the old instrument is expected to need about $40,000 worth of repairs.
“It’s a communion of culture and community. … In the Twin Cities, you do not have a venue like this,” she said.