Last updated on February 4th, 2020 at 02:50 pm
When it comes to selecting a venue to host a corporate event, Milwaukee-area companies have plenty of options.
Hotel ballrooms, conference centers and banquet halls have traditionally provided standard-rate, turnkey spaces for large groups. For those seeking something unique, Milwaukee has seen an increase in unconventional event spaces popping up in recent years.
Some are newly constructed developments, such as the 350-person Good City Commons at the brewery’s new downtown location, and some have taken over and modernized existing buildings, such as a former industrial warehouse now home to The Ivy House in Walker’s Point.
Milwaukee’s newest events space will open in May in one of the city’s oldest community gathering places: a 152-year-old church.
Construction is currently underway to convert the former St. James Episcopal Church, located at 833 W. Wisconsin Ave. near Marquette University, into an event venue and business called St. James 1868.
The $7 million project aims to preserve the bones of the building and the church’s original European-style architecture, which is what owner and designer Kate Crowle believes will set it apart from other venues in the city.
With 50-foot ceilings and original accents, such as Tiffany stained-glass windows, 15th Century hand-carved monastery panels, hardwood floors and antique lighting, the space speaks for itself, she said.
Crowle, who is a real estate investor and former director at Macy’s and Kohl’s Corp., left a longtime career in retail to take on her dream of renovating an old church.
“I’ve traveled a lot throughout Europe and you see all of these historic buildings being repurposed,” she said. “I think this property now will have new life and bring new people to the church.”
She has flipped a number of residential properties through her business Hidden Homes Interiors LLC, but those renovations were not nearly as extensive, she said. As a female entrepreneur, Crowle said, she has a unique perspective on how the project should be carried out, from securing partnerships with other female-owned businesses to paving the outdoor patio with stone that won’t be an issue for walking in high heels.
The ability to utilize St. James both as a ceremony and reception space is a huge selling point for weddings, Crowle said. But the venue is also designed to accommodate corporate functions, meetings, themed parties and other “unexpected” events.
“What’s very unique about the project is there’s two venues in one location, so we can have two events going on simultaneously,” she said.
The 25,000-square-foot property includes the former church, now known as The Abbey, with a 250-person seating capacity, and the second-floor parish hall, or The Hyde, which can seat 150 people.
Each space includes a designated outdoor area as well as smaller rooms that could function as bride and groom suites, VIP lounges or meeting rooms depending on the nature of the event.
And groups won’t have to worry about finding a caterer, florist or renting equipment because Crowle recently hired Gracious Events as St. James’ in-house catering and event designer. The Milwaukee-based business is owned by sisters Vesna and Marija Madunic and has been around for 25 years. It operates Wauwatosa restaurant and event space Firefly and puts on weddings, and corporate and private events at a dozen venues in the area.
“Everything is under one roof,” Crowle said.
The St. James project has been in the works since February 2017, when Crowle said she found the property. It had been on the market for a few years as the former church’s membership declined and operating costs increased.
Milwaukee-based developer Joshua Jeffers had been involved in the initial purchase of the property, but Crowle purchased Jeffers’ share in July 2018 for $514,018, according to state records.
The project has picked up financing along the way from private investors as well as an SBA loan and federal and state historic tax credits.
“Historic building owners across the state have really embraced the fact that there’s a 20% federal income tax credit and an additional 20% state income tax credit,” said Jen Davel, deputy state historic preservation officer at the Wisconsin Historical Society. “So 40% of their rehab costs will be returned to them in the form of tax credits, which makes great economic sense.”
She said historic rehabilitation projects in Milwaukee and across the state have been successful, in part because they attract visitors.
“People inherently love historic buildings,” Davel said.
And an influx of visitors means more development and economic growth in the area.
“Ultimately it just leads to more attractions for people, for tourism to highlight some of these venues and still get people interested in the whole history of Milwaukee,” said Megan Makowski, rentals manager at Villa Terrace, another historic venue and art museum on Milwaukee’s East Side.
Makowski said the city’s handful of 19th century restored event venues, such as Villa Terrace, St. James, the Grain Exchange and Best Place at the Historic Pabst Brewery, are icons that set Milwaukee apart from other metros.
“You can see how Milwaukee has aged gracefully,” she said.