Old Church, New House

For those in this industry, familiar with the potential of reuse, it is difficult to witness the destruction of a historic building full of memories, only to be replaced by uninspired construction lacking those connections and stories. A structure such as this sat just outside of Balsam Lake, Wis.
Built in 1910 at a cost of $2,700, the building served as home to the East Balsam Baptist Church through several expansions and modifications. When the congregation outgrew the limits of this space, the building was left behind. A remodeler for over 30 years, Jim Landreth of BLDG ART, Almena, Wis., saw it as a unique opportunity to re-purpose this old church into a magnificent country home.

Landreth was intrigued by the challenge of working with such a large vaulted space (over 20 ft. tall) and adapting it to the needs of a modern household. As designer, builder and owner, he saw a chance to test the practicality of the versatile and adaptable loft style of living. According to Landreth, the objective was “to create a residence that was innovative in concept yet conventional in construction; allowing the building to remember its past, while securing its future.”

Designed for Entertaining

A key objective of this project was to find a format suitable to the fluctuating space and privacy requirements of a hypothetical couple who do and don’t entertain family and friends on both a grand and intimate scale. Operating within the confines of the pre-existing footprint, the contrary goals of accommodating large gatherings while still retaining an intimate feel for a twosome, presented a challenge. The solution began with the insertion of four 5-ft. wide pocket doors, positioned to allow the homeowners to modulate the “great hall” space. The result was the continuity and flow of a single room combined with the ability to zone off distinct spaces as desired.

The grand fireplace room serves as an area for warm greeting and conversation. Here, Landreth chose to stick with simple materials and products, but use them in innovative ways.

“We took uncomplicated pine woodwork, pickled it a light blue to increase its purity and used a shellac finish to give it a very distinctive look and touch,” says Landreth. “We chose unpretentious slate tile for the fireplace wall, but offset its dark character with the decorative sparkle of a pattern of copper roves, which are rivets typically used in wood boat construction.” With a keen sense for details, Landreth used “rather simple exterior fixtures, turned 180 degrees with compact fluorescent bulbs to suggest flames and torches” for the fireplace up-lighting.

The kitchen, which connects to the fireplace room by means of two of the 5-ft. pocket doors, was also designed to entertain. Responding to the contemporary feel for a “social kitchen,” Landreth incorporated two islands which allow the home-owners and their guest opportunities for face-to-face conversation. Acknowledging the desire homeowners have to display their collections, extra-wide soffits were installed above the kitchen cabinets which also provided definition for the room and allowed the use of recessed fixtures to solve the dilemma of lighting a work area with a 17-ft. ceiling.

“We wanted the potential for gatherings to flow between both levels,” says Landreth. “It was therefore crucial that our design themes remain continuous, so the experience is one of connected space.” A second living room, kitchenette, wine bar with fireplace and game zone, along with a third bedroom, were designed for the lower level, so it easily hosts another level of entertaining, while containing the potential for extended visits.

Two-story Master Suite

The unique styling of the master suite incorporates a lower level dressing area and an upstairs loft sleeping area. “Historically, rooms for dressing were the norm. The idea of warehousing our clothing in the sleeping chamber is a more modern, and I think, uncivilized concept” explains Landreth. Here, he used basic copper tubing enhanced by a torch to serve as a closet rod, another example of simple materials used in an elegant fashion.

Lighting played a big factor in the design of this home. Natural light and cross ventilation flows throughout, as all rooms have windows on two sides. The side jambs are splayed on the south windows to better expose the sunlight. The master bath was positioned on the east where it is flooded with morning light. Use of 8-ft. tall partition walls in this room with a ceiling height of 10 ft. kept the space from feeling chopped up and provided opportunity for indirect lighting.

Reuse, Renew and Recycle

All throughout the home, Landreth made certain to reuse as much of the nearly 100-year-old building as possible. “I believe that if an unusual design element came with the building, I am obliged to find a way for it to stay with it,” says Landreth. “We salvaged the original light fixtures from the church, rewired them and added some paint.” In the master bedroom, one of the two arched windows found within the walls of the church was reused to complement the fireplace. The second arched window is used to bring light into the powder room. The fireplace cabinetry was crafted of the fir wainscoting reclaimed from the original building. The flooring is the original Southern yellow pine which was carefully removed and rejuvenated. “Admittedly the cost is on the order of twice that of using new materials, but I believe the end result speaks for itself.”

Once a vacant building with no purpose, Jim Landreth and the BLDG ART crew turned this space into a contemporary home that remembers its past and demonstrates respect for our resources and history.

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