BRATTLEBORO — “I like solving problems,” says Vermont businessman Robert Johnson.
His latest conundrum is what to do with a white elephant of a church in downtown Brattleboro.
Under Johnson's initiative, the First Baptist Church on Main Street is undergoing a major renovation that will transform the site into Epsilon Spires, a center for the arts that will be opening later this year.
“With its Estey organ, double balcony, and exemplary acoustics, this historic church building has served the town as a sanctuary, performance hall and, in recent years, the site for winter meals and an overnight warming shelter for the homeless,” writes Jamie Mohr, creative director of Epsilon Spires, in a news release.
But, primarily, First Baptist Church had long been a place of worship for its religious community.
“As weather and age took their toll, Baptist Church and community members became aware of the building's increasing maintenance and capital needs,” Mohr writes. “Approached by church members for his help, and aware of the potential for expanding the building's role as a space for innovation and expression in arts, education, and civic discourse, local physicist and businessman Robert Johnson purchased the building in December 2016.”
Johnson has a history in transforming churches. Several years ago, he bought the former All Souls Unitarian Church on Main Street for development.
“My son, Robin, spearheaded that endeavor,” Johnson says.
The renovated Victorian Gothic building, now called the Stone Church, is a live music and entertainment venue primarily for younger audiences.
“In contrast, this Baptist Church project will present music and events that are more avant garde, exploratory, and intellectual,” Johnson says.
Johnson was approached by members of the Baptist Church when they found they couldn't keep up with the rising cost of the building's maintenance.
“They wondered if I might want to purchase it,” Johnson says. He was certainly intrigued. “The building is a beautiful structure, and I began to consider ways to repurpose the church.”
Designed in the High Victorian Gothic style with a central steeple and a three-story sanctuary, the 1868 First Baptist Church had a major 1889 renovation, which added a rear three-story section and two dramatic front-entry towers in the Late Gothic Revival style.
The sanctuary was further altered in the 1890s with the addition of detailed stained glass windows and again, in 1906, when the monumental Estey-3 manual pipe organ was installed.
To take on the Baptist Church, Johnson felt he needed to first confront the biggest challenge the building faced.
“Since heating the place was one of the most pressing, if not the primary, concern of the Baptist Church, energy was clearly a significant part of its future viability,” Johnson says.
He should know.
Johnson is founder of Omega Optical Inc., which with its Delta Energy Group works with residential and commercial building owners to improve energy conservation.
“So we began to look at the loss of utilities, as well as preservation, in order to figure out what to do with such a large space,” he says.
After two years of study, a two-tier plan for the building emerged.
The first tier involves interior and exterior renovations to refurbish and re-purpose the historic building, create studio spaces or offices for artists and innovators on the second and third floors, and make accessibility and construction upgrades on the first floor.
“Our goal is to use the rental of offices to help cover the costs of maintaining the entire building,” explains Johnson.
“Those offices will be quite spectacular spaces,” adds Mohr. “Each will be 300 to 500 square feet, with 20 foot ceilings and beautiful lighting. These offices should be very desirable to artists and trailblazing developers we hope to rent them to.”
Much of the demolition of areas to be renovated occurred in 2018, and the refurbishing and restoration of the building is now under way, having begun at the beginning of this year.
“The work seems to be moving along surprisingly efficiently,” Mohr says.
The second tier of Johnson's plan to revitalize the Baptist Church is the creation of Epsilon Spires, Inc., a nonprofit organization devoted to exploring multimedia platforms “to foster communication and illuminate the relationships between creative arts, natural sciences, and sustainability,” Mohr wrote in a news release.
The word “spires” in the title of this nonprofit organization refers to the church origins of the building, while “epsilon” is a moniker that Johnson has often used for his outreach projects that, as he puts it, “push the envelope.”
Making it happen
To get Epsilon Spires off the ground, Johnson hired Mohr as the organization's creative director.
Mohr has broad experience in the arts and creative community.
“Like Bob, I too am attracted to problem solving, but in a different way than he is,” Mohr says. “My goal is to sustainably develop Epsilon Towers as an arts organization that will be around for the long haul. It was fun working with Bob. We would discuss the possibilities of what should be and how to achieve our goals. In short, we hoped to breathe new creative life into this already very rich arts community.”
First of all, both knew they were working with a very special space.
“Remember that this building was constructed before external means of amplification, so it has reverberations that are unique, which is great for a performing space,” Mohr says.
“The sanctuary is built in a similar fashion to European opera houses: It is tall and shallow, allowing for both soaring acoustics and good views of the stage area throughout,” Mohr writes. “Full scale choral and opera productions have been comfortably accommodated. Featuring ornately carved antique pews on three levels, the seating capacity is 425."
But Epsilon Spires promises to be more than just a concert hall.
The third balcony is being repurposed as a multimedia art gallery with a curatorial focus on interactive installations that, as Mohr puts it, “merge art and science to investigate the political implications of perception and subjectivity.”
“Our curatorial mission is to explore the political implications of subjective perception through interactive art installations,” Mohr says.
Epsilon Spires will feature a cafe and conference space where audience members can socialize and exchange ideas during intermission and gallery opening events. In addition, this space will be an active performance venue and incubation lab in support of experimental music and performance, educational lectures, and sustainability workshops.
The Weather Warlock
In collaboration with Quintronics, the church bell tower will house a permanent installation, The Weather Warlock: a weather-reactive synthesizer that will be live-streamed on the internet.
Embodying an interactive collaboration between art and nature, and using transmission arts and climate science, anyone anywhere in the world with web access can listen to compositions produced by the Weather Warlock.
Mohr says the Weather Warlock's inventor, Quintron, is an electronic musician from New Orleans who has collaborated with Neil Young, Laurie Anderson, and Jack White of The White Stripes.
“No one will hear it from the street or within the building unless we choose to amplify it,” Mohr says.
And there is yet one more feature to this complex project.
“In celebration of physicist Bob Johnson's scientific achievements, celestial images captured by the Hubble will be projected onto the vaulted ceiling of the sanctuary,” Mohr says.
Although Brattleboro has a vibrant arts and performing community, Johnson believes Epsilon Spires will fill a special niche.
“Epsilon Spires will bring cutting edge performances, rarely screened films, and exceptional art installations to the sanctuary, while also filling the studios and offices with both established and up-and-coming artistic and technical innovators,” Johnson says. “I also intend to support lecture series by progressive thinkers and endorse civic and civil discourse.”
Johnson would like to promote the discussion of contentious topics to broaden the opportunity for the community to engage in potentially difficult conversations.
“My vision is to revitalize this exceptional facility by developing a new purpose that can serve the entire community,” he says.
Although still under construction, Epsilon Spires is already planning future events.
With opening activities for Epsilon Spires scheduled for this fall, Mohr has reached out to Alloy Orchestra to perform a live soundtrack to Dziga Vertov's 1929 film, Man With a Movie Camera, an exuberant, self-reflective celebration of the possibilities of cinema from the master of Soviet surrealism. A theremin concert and workshop weekend is also being planned.
Mohr wants to invite other arts organizations to consider collaborations with Epsilon Spires. The Brattleboro Literary Festival has already contacted Mohr about using the space next year.
In addition, the sanctuary and Social Engagement space will both be available for rent to outside groups for performances and events.