With 'flying church' renovations progressing, developer has high hopes

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GREAT BARRINGTON — The deconsecrated "flying church" on Main Street is no longer airborne.

The former United Methodist Church has landed, though it still is taller than ever.

Developer Paul Joffe already has one tenant, a marijuana retailer, in one of four retail spaces downstairs. And a slew of interested parties are showing interest for the rest of it, which includes three offices, a food kiosk gazebo and an 80-seat restaurant with music venue capacity.

Joffe says he's leasing the spaces somewhat raw so that tenants can finish them to their specifications and be up and running by next spring. Because of this, rent will be free for the first six months.

On July 6, he's inviting the public to an extravaganza with hard hat tours, a barbecue and a petting zoo. And gold diggers are welcome to search the grounds of the church, built in 1845 — he'll hand out metal detectors at 2 p.m. on a "first-come, first-served basis."

"There is no telling what lies just inches down," said his news release for the event, noting that this is a last shot at it before he finishes the parking lot.

"It turns out that the flying church is the oldest church [building] in Great Barrington and the parking lot has been undisturbed for over a hundred years," he wrote. "The owner has not searched the ground for artifacts but has saved that pleasure for the residents."

And finders keepers, "no matter how valuable, as long as they pose for a photo and record the find."

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On Tuesday, Joffe took a break from slating the gazebo roof due to rain and gave a reporter a tour in which he showed off window frames built with lumber from his 300-acre New Marlborough property, on which he and his wife live in a "shack with very nice appliances" that includes a Pull espresso machine.

"It is not charming at all," he said of his house, with its many mice and "disgusting" linoleum. "This is the money we could have used to build a fancy place to live."

He gestures at the church, noting his investment in the project, which he started in 2015, after buying the property for $425,000. He knocked down the parsonage after firefighters set it ablaze for a training exercise, then jacked up the church on steel stilts to raise it, creating a lower level for the retail shops. After that, locals began calling it the "flying church."

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But the project stalled a bit in 2017, after Joffe contracted Lyme disease and couldn't work. Joffe has subcontractors, but he does a significant amount of work himself. He has remodeled a church before, as well as about 20 other buildings in New York.

His love of adaptive reuse took him to the former town landfill to pick up the old Pumpkin Hollow Road bridge trusses after he bid on them for $500. They had been sitting there since the mid-1990s, said local historian Bernard Drew, who also noted that the 55-foot bridge was installed in 1888 and cost $1,172.

The trestles now flank the wheelchair ramp that will bring patrons into the building. The church's altar is now a stage, and Joffe has high hopes that a music/restaurant combination in the style of Helsinki or Infinity Hall will lease this space.

But he says he's always pleasantly surprised by imaginative ideas his tenants have had.

"You can't predict," he said.

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Joffe said he is pleased with how the work has turned out.

"There's no engineered lumber anywhere in the building," he noted. "It's the type that people don't build anymore. This place is really solid. I really tried to build for the Berkshires, for Great Barrington."

Joffe won't say how much the whole project will cost when all is said and done. He said his leases will help him recoup, and then some.

"It's not a killing," he said. "It's enough to pay off a mortgage ... enough to make a living."

Will he start a new project when this one is done? He said he's still recovering a bit from Lyme, something Berkshire County residents can relate to.

"I'm just gonna go to sleep," he said.

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.


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