The little church that could: Longtime East Lawrence church undergoes aesthetic resurrection

Tom Harper has restored the 137-year-old former church at 10th and N.Y. Harper a realtor with Stephens Real Estate now is renting the property after the renovations. He’ll hold an open house from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday.

It started life as a German Methodist Episcopal Church in 1872.

In the 137 years since, it has seen the death of at least five churches, was home to an indoor basketball court and nearly became a foreclosed-upon ghost.

The small white building at 1000 N.Y. is nothing if not the little building that could.

It has outsurvived a rotation of church congregations, the modern era and the recent microburst to make it into the hands of Tom Harper. Harper, a Lawrence real estate agent, sees a lot of homes — but he has seen none exactly like this one. The 1,700-square-foot living space is open and loftlike — the sanctuary now a living room, the balcony a bedroom, the kitchen in place of a pulpit.

“I use the analogy of ‘the ship was sort of sinking’ and just from lack of money or apathy, just sometimes people can’t keep up — just for whatever reason,” Harper says. “And this, it kind of felt like it was sinking and I just kind of got it afloat again.”

Life as a church

Wanting to learn more about the building’s former life, Harper came across a 1993 master’s thesis by Kansas University student Katja Rampelmann. It told him when it was built and what the original congregation was like, but the church’s history became hazy after World War I.

Filling in the blanks is the Polk’s Lawrence City Directory. According to the directory, by 1919 the German Methodists had made way for the Seventh Day Adventists. By the 1960s, the church had become the Full Gospel Christian Assembly. Halfway through that decade it switched to housing the Pentecostal Holiness Church. In 1977, it became its final incarnation as a house of God: The Faith Southern Baptist Church.

Members of that church in its early days included the family of Harper’s termite professional, Dale Roubison. Roubison’s mother, Donna, became a member in the late 1970s after hearing about the church at a Weight Watchers meeting. Today she jokes, “The church took, the diet didn’t.”

“It was wonderful. We had a great fellowship going,” she says. “I remember we had a small group, naturally, it wasn’t a very big church, you know … and we had great music, terrific music.”

But more than a decade after the Roubison family had moved on to another place of worship, the music had all but stopped. By the early 1990s, the tiny congregation, which had been up in the 30s during Roubison’s time, dwindled and put the building, then rife with rot and in need of repair, up for sale.

Life in the land of Birkenstocks

Coming to the rescue of 1000 N.Y. was Lawrence businessman Mick Ranney. For Ranney, the owner of Footprints, 1339 Mass., the chance to own the building was more the matter of answering a dream rather than a bold move to save a piece of Lawrence’s history.

“I had long had this desire to own a church,” says Ranney, who bought the property about 14 years ago. “It was a relatively cheap way to get it out of my system, because I don’t really want to buy a church anymore, I’m sure.”

During the time that Ranney owned it, he returned it to its German roots in a way by storing German-made Birkenstocks shoes in the space. He also turned it into his own gym, installing a basketball goal at one end of the sanctuary and a rock-climbing wall at the other. He says the building became a clubhouse of sorts for him and his employees. After a year, he chose to sell it.

“I thought (the) worst-case scenario is I’d fix it up as a single-family house, which would be a very cool space and that it wouldn’t be very hard to sell, which it wasn’t,” he says, “Obviously, it’s not going to appeal to everybody, but it’s going to strongly appeal to some.”

Life as a home

Strongly on the pro side of things is Harper, who nabbed the space from foreclosure a few months ago without a second thought.

“I saw the sign and I was like, ‘Wow,'” he says.

When it came time to find a tenant, he set up an open house in March, hoping to drum up interest from renters. It turns out he didn’t have to look far after putting in a call for the catering services of Tina Bell Stamos.

“I live a block from the church now and I’ve always loved it and so … when he called about the catering, I was like, ‘Wooooo!'” says Bell Stamos, who moves into the building next week with husband John. “And I actually said to (Harper), ‘Why don’t you forget the event and just rent it to me?'”

At that point, she’d only seen the outside from walking her dog around the neighborhood, in which she has lived for four years. Now, she says that she’s as enamored with the history as its airy interior and has plans to dig deeper into the record books — once she finds the perfect dining room table.

“I think we’ll look into that (the history),” she jokes, “once we get the living room figured out.”