GREAT BARRINGTON — "It's more a transformation than a restoration."
That's how Fred and Sally Harris describe the process of developing the new downtown Great Barrington performing arts center St. James Place. The converted church, on the corner of Main Street and Taconic Avenue, boasts three performance spaces and five offices.
St. James Place opened on Jan. 27 with the Berkshire Playwrights Lab's Radius Playwright's Festival.
The church was built in 1857. It was the home to the town's Episcopal community until 2008, when the rear wall of the church, behind the altar, collapsed. The building became uninhabitable and the congregation began having services at Crissey Farm on the north end of town instead.
In 2010, the Harrises became involved in efforts to save the building.
The Harrises had an attachment to the church already.
"We were members," Sally said.
Sally has had a house in the Berkshires since 1974, she said. The Dallas native met her husband in New York. They've been married for 23 years. Fred, from Columbus, Ohio, was in computer software.
They moved to the Berkshires full time in 2012.
The congregation decided not to pursue its interest in the church going forward, the Harrises said.
"It set us free," Sally said.
They set up a nonprofit to redevelop the site. The Harrises spent the next six and a half years juggling the demands of federal historic preservation rules and the realities of redeveloping a 150-year-old church.
"We had every issue," Fred told The Eagle. "The walls were moving, there was deterioration of the church's arches."
But they kept at it. And as time went on, their energies increasingly became directed at repurposing the church as a place for Great Barrington community organizations to host performances.
"It's a secular conversion," Sally said.
The largest of the performance spaces, the sanctuary, required extensive work. The Harrises kept the original flooring and pews — though not without some modification.
"This was all taken out and put back in," Fred said, gesturing down the raised center aisle leading to the stage.
The flooring was restored and left in place. The pews were extended 2.5 inches to make them more comfortable. Cushions are on the way.
Seating was raised to a grade up to 26 inches. This puts the back row of seats at an equal height to the stage, giving the audience a clear line of sight to the stage.
"When this was a church, you couldn't see to the altar from the back row," Fred said. "So we changed the sightlines."
The center also has five office spaces, two of which are already taken up by Flying Cloud Institute and the Berkshire Playwrights Lab.
Downstairs in the basement to the southwest of the building's footprint, the Harris' have set aside space for the People's Pantry, Great Barrington's food pantry. The pantry began at the church over two decades ago. It has moved around to different places in town since then.
"We wanted it to come home, so we're giving it a space," Sally said.
The work continues. Now that the center is open, the Harrises are looking to the future of St. James Place — and how to make that future stable.
"We're climbing the next mountain," Sally said. "We have to make it sustainable."
Reach staff writer Eoin Higgins at 413-496-6236 or @BE_EoinHiggins.