From the moment Maggie Brandt and Steve Pierce stepped foot inside First Congregational United Church of Christ in downtown Ypsilanti, they knew they wanted to repurpose the 130-year-old building as a new kind of community space.
Brandt remembers being instantly captivated by the illuminated stained glass windows in the church sanctuary. When she smelled the mold caused by leaks in the roof, she knew something had to be done soon to prevent the old church from falling into total disrepair. First Congregational put the building up for sale in 2007 because it had become too hard to maintain. Even though it clearly needed a lot of work, Brandt found it difficult to feign disinterest in the building.
She and Pierce, her husband, recently purchased First Congregational, 218 N. Adams St., a year after they first stepped foot inside the building with a vague interest in buying it. They plan to transform the building into an event venue called Ypsilanti Performance Space, or "the YPSI" for short. The venue will host concerts, weddings, and other special events. Individuals and groups will be able to rent a concert hall, reception hall, conference room, or the building's basement for their own purposes. The YPSI will organize and execute some of its own events as well.
Pierce and Brandt drew inspiration from The Old Church Concert Hall in Portland, Ore., a 136-year-old church that was saved from demolition and transformed into a music venue in the 1960s.
"I had this idea that maybe we could continue the legacy of what First Congregational has been doing for 135 years here, and that is a place of gathering," Pierce says. "It’s worked well for 135 years and I started thinking, ‘Well, why should we change that?’"
Pierce and Brandt purchased the property at the beginning of April through their new business entity called Save Old Buildings, LLC. They made a conscious decision to establish the business as a for-profit because it will require them to contribute to city services by paying taxes.
"I think if you’re going to have something that’s going to contribute to the community, it needs to contribute in all ways, and one of the ways is to help support city services," Pierce says. "So that was a big deal for us to put this back on the tax rolls."
The YPSI isn't the couple's first foray into historic preservation, but it's certainly their most ambitious. Shortly after they moved to Ypsi in 1999, Brandt and Pierce bought two historic buildings, the Kresge building and the Glover House, which hadn't been well-maintained by their previous owners. The YPSI is their sixth historic preservation project, three of which have involved putting a building back on the city's tax rolls.
The YPSI's property consists of two conjoined buildings and a parking lot. One building, known as "north hall" and constructed in the late 1800s, will continue to feature most of the church's original fixtures, including the stained glass windows, pews, and organ.
The north hall sanctuary will be converted into a concert hall that will seat up to 250 people. Its reception hall and basement can be used for additional space during events held in the concert hall, or to hold their own standalone events. Since the building is in need of extensive repair, especially on the roof, the YPSI's concert hall, reception hall, and basement likely won't be ready to host events for at least a year.
The newer building, known as "the annex" and constructed in the late 1980s, consists of a conference room, office space, and bathrooms, which have already been renovated. Mackmiller Manchester PLLC law firm has settled into three of the four rentable offices. The other office is still available for rent at $495 per month. The conference room, which holds 60 people, will be available to book this month at $75 an hour.
The YPSI will host its first event on May 16, when Dave Strenski of SolarYpsi will give a presentation on solar power in the conference room. Pierce plans to work with Strenski to install solar panels on the annex's roof.
Yen Azzaro, who's been helping with behind-the-scenes work at the YPSI, thinks the venue's seating capacity hits "the sweet spot" Ypsi has been lacking, since most of the city's existing venues are significantly smaller or larger. She points out that Riverside Arts Center seats about 130 people, while Pease Auditorium seats about 1,500.
Since the YPSI is nestled in a residential neighborhood near downtown, Azzaro believes the venue's seats could be filled every night if its variety of offerings attracts enough residents. She wants the YPSI to stimulate a cultural atmosphere that encourages people to drop in and see what's happening on any given night.
"I think it’s really important that there are venues in Ypsi and places for people to gather and listen to music," Azzaro says. "But in terms of the depth of experience, I think that we’re really hoping this space will fill this kind of cultural phenomenon that hasn’t happened."
Numerous community members have stopped by the YPSI to find out what's going on, share ideas, express excitement, and offer a helping hand. People have offered to connect Pierce to experts who can restore the building's organ and stained glass windows. He's met couples who were married in the church anywhere from five years to five decades ago. And he's received interest from musical acts, including Measure for Measure and RFD Boys, that want to be among the first to perform in the concert hall.
"All that buzz is all going on right here in Ypsilanti and people are just walking off the street saying, 'I want to be a part of this,'" Pierce says.
Local musician John Delcamp has hopped on the bandwagon and says he's been "building up some sweat equity" a few times a week by helping out with various tasks around the YPSI. He's excited about the new venue because it will encourage an atmosphere in which the audience actively listens. Delcamp thinks the YPSI has the potential to help musicians not just in Ypsi, but across southeast Michigan, because they need places to perform and opportunities to get paid.
"We’ve gone through periods where there hasn’t really been any place to play much in Ypsi. They sort of come and go," Delcamp says. "To have something that’s more of a permanent nature, I think there’s a great potential for that and I’m really looking forward to seeing this come to fruition."
Delcamp would like to create a variety show featuring local musicians, tentatively titled the Grand Ole Ypsi, once the YPSI opens. He would like to see it have the success of similar endeavors like Austin City Limits or A Prairie Home Companion.
Pierce plans to partner with other local venues and businesses, like Grove Studios, to contribute to the synergy surrounding the area's music scene. He also wants to get students involved by welcoming classes and summer camps for field trips and inviting school bands, orchestras, and choirs to perform.
Anyone who wants to get involved in the YPSI can get in touch by visiting www.ypsi.org, calling (734) 252-YPSI, or stopping by the building when the doors are open.
"We just want to open the doors and get people to start seeing the space and seeing the vision," Pierce says.
Brianna Kelly is the project manager for On the Ground Ypsi and an Ypsilanti resident. She has worked for The Associated Press and has freelanced for The Detroit News and Crain's Detroit Business.
All photos by Doug Coombe.