BY MATTHEW HENDERSON
Formerly Mallory Baptist Church, the striking brick building with its pointed spire, green from oxidation, resembles an old middle school. Inside its heavy-set doors, a wide, curved stairwell displays paintings by local artists, while striking a note of nostalgia that defies obvious definition. It's somewhere in-between arriving at school after the bell, visiting the dentist, or indeed, perhaps most plainly, arriving at a church.
Involved in this re-envisioning were many sweat-infused renovations, countless consultations with technicians, tenants, and other interested parties, all manner of surprises associated with old building upkeep including roof leaks and boiler room mishaps, and a fire sale purging of many of the building's transfixing contents. It’s a testament to the church’s multiple past lives and the triumphs and failings of the building as a community hub.
What has emerged of late is Alberta Abbey, a mixed-use facility that embodies the diversity of the neighborhood that has helped to define it. The organization behind the project, Alberta Abbey Fellowship, consists, again, of the duo of Dennis and Justin, long-time friends who formed AAF in 2012 with a vision to revitalize the failing building in a way that could be replicated elsewhere. "The hope is to maximize this community asset by incorporating a diversity of uses," says Justin.
Beginning with just one primary tenant, a congregation called TGW which uses the sanctuary on Sundays and maintains offices there, Alberta Abbey has since become home to a political action non-profit, a seamstress, a mortician, two architects, an art therapist, a live-in caretaker, and a record label/recording studio/creative collaborative.
Additionally, AAF has partnered with Kitchen Commons to begin promoting the use of their underutilized commercial kitchen for communal use and rental purposes. AAF's approach has been one of embracing diversity, pragmatism, and openness. It has prioritized long-term leases and promoted among its tenants the building's communal ethic and philosophy of utility.
The sanctuary, for example, is laid claim to every Sunday for the congregation and their church service. But other times throughout the week, the sanctuary, which seats upwards of 400, has been used for family movie nights, hip-hop concerts, photo shoots, and an ambient music series called M.A.S.S.
Barring any uses deemed inappropriate or offensive, the sanctuary is available for rent, along with the kitchen and former gymnasium, which are both situated in the sub-level of this deceptively large and cavernous building.
Upon visiting the building recently, I encountered a frenzied scene of slightly uncanny construction happening in the basement gymnasium. Stick-strewn, earthy amalgams employing natural building techniques were being assembled atop the sheen of the Abbey's newly refinished wood floors. The forms were beginning to resemble a stage, a treehouse-like loft, and various kiosks. It was all in preparation for the annual Village Building Convergence.
Village Building Convergence is a ten-day affair promoting "placemaking," an idea sprouted by architect-activist Mark Lakeman, who has become well known for fostering transformations of public spaces through ecologically-oriented community projects. With any luck, the communal spirit of the VBC will linger and combine with the groundwork laid by Adams and Hunt, and the Abbey flock can continue to thrive.