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Otis wins $200,000 grant to transform the former St. Paul's Church into a cultural center

Two people stand in front of chruch

Lynne Geane, left, and Gail Gelburd are pleased that the Massachusetts Cultural Council has awarded the Otis Historical Commission $200,000 toward work to transform the church into a cultural center — right in the middle of town.

OTIS — The Massachusetts Cultural Council has awarded the Otis Historical Commission $200,000 toward the restoration and transformation of the historic St. Paul’s Church into the Otis Cultural Center.

The injection of capital will help the Otis Preservation Trust and the Otis Historical Commission pay for work to reopen the building as a cultural center in the heart of town, an historic district.

The money will be put toward the church building’s foundation and its upper structure. It will also address an infestation of powderpost beetles, which bore through wood.

The Preservation Trust and Historical Commission have the matches needed to accept the $200,000 from the Cultural Council.

Sign of St. Paul's Church

Otis is planning to transform the former St. Paul's Church into the Otis Cultural Center. A $200,000 award from the Massachusetts Cultural Council will help.

“Now what we have to do is send out an RFP to get contractors to bid on the project,” said Gail Gelburd, co-chair of the Otis Historical Commission. “And basically, we will have $500,000 to spend on this stage of the project.”

Eventually, once the inside is ready and the building is ADA-compliant, it will be used as a venue for music, art, theater, dance, lectures and meetings.

Gelburd said results from a town survey showed residents wanted the space to be used for cultural events, thus the name, the Otis Cultural Center.

“We don’t have any place to do any of that in Otis,” Gelburd said.

“We have the school gymnasium,” said Lynne Geane, president of the Otis Preservation Trust. “It lacks a little character.”

The balcony of St. Paul's Church with empty pews

The balcony of St. Paul's Church in Otis used to contain an organ, an instrument the town would like to acquire to place in the former church.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Gelburd explained, “We said, OK we want to build this cultural center. We want to show people what we’re going to do once we have the cultural center, give them an idea.”

To do so, Gelburd launched the Notice Otis series, chiefly on Zoom. One of the first lectures was about the transformation of churches into other uses. There was a presentation about Native Americans and another about ghosts in the Berkshires. There have been several author interviews and artist demonstrations. Typical of the pandemic, there were also outdoor events, including one for children featuring the Robbins-Zust Family Marionette Co.

Gelburd explained how the town acquired the church, which had belonged to the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts.

“In 2017, the group that was meeting there basically had gotten smaller and the diocese ... took it back,” Gelburd said. “There was an outcry from the town that we wanted it to stay in town. They were going to sell [the church building] and, after some negotiations, it was donated to the town.”

That transfer, at the cost of $1, took place in October 2019, re-energizing the Otis Historical Commission and sparking the launch of the Otis Preservation Trust.

Prior to the most recent award, the Massachusetts Historic Commission had awarded the town $100,000 for the building, which was matched by a prior grant of $98,000 from the Jane and Jack Fitzpatrick Trust. In addition, the Martin Foundation awarded the project $80,000. About 200 private donors have also contributed more than $100,000.

Picture of gothic windows looking up

St. Paul's Church has arched gothic windows, typical of Country Anglican churches.

The architecture of the building includes pointed gothic windows made from 1,000 panes of glass. The cornerstone was laid in 1828. The turrets on the top of the church were falling off. They have been removed and are now being stored in the sanctuary.

“The first thing we needed was emergency repairs to save the building,” Gelburd said.

“There was structural damage inside,” she said. “The building had to be shored up and squared.”

When the Otis Cultural Center opens, Gelburd said, she hopes the venue in the center of town will be a destination for people in Otis and outside it.

“We want the little town of Otis to be noticed,” Gelburd said.

Jane Kaufman is Community Voices Editor at The Berkshire Eagle. She can be reached at jkaufman@berkshireeagle.com or 413-496-6125.

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