St. James 1868 project forges through COVID-19, with steady demand

An overhead view of The Abbey from the former church's choir loft.

Last updated on August 14th, 2020 at 02:52 pm

In March, Milwaukee developer Kate Crowle was rolling out big plans to celebrate the grand opening of her new wedding and events venue with a Kentucky Derby-themed party as work was wrapping up on the $7 million historic rehabilitation of the former St. James Episcopal Church, now known as St. James 1868.

And then, COVID-19 hit. 

Six months later, the 25,000-square-foot venue at 833 W. Wisconsin Ave. in downtown Milwaukee’s Westown neighborhood hosted its first-ever event– a 60-person wedding with socially distanced seating, mask wearing, and dancing that took place outdoors on the upper-level terrace.

It’s one of thee weddings on St. James’ calendar this month, amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, which has upended most in-person gatherings and large events planned for 2020.

Luckily, Crowle said, the project did not encounter any major road blocks due to the COVD-19 shutdown. Construction had been on track for its March completion and all materials, furniture and decor were already on site, having been ordered months in advance.

“There was just more of a delay because of workers and things like that, but very minimal,” she said. “It dragged out for a few months, but we also couldn’t open.”

The building has been renovated into two separate event spaces: 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. Due to COVID-19, capacity is limited to 50%.

As was the case for most venue operators, the COVID-19 outbreak forced Crowle and in-house event planner and caterer Gracious Events to rethink St. James’ business model as many brides pushed their 2020 weddings back a year.

“We have a lot of weddings booked for 2021 and now with more weddings shifting from 2020 into that year, that’s what started to make us think about how we can provide more services to be able to accommodate this new demand,” said Crowle. 

Inquiries over the past six months have steadily increased, mostly for 150- to 200-person weddings starting in June 2021. But the venue also received some urgent inquiries from people who wanted to get married in a church, but couldn’t pull it off because of local capacity restrictions.

Although St. James’ former church space is no longer used as a place of worship, Crowle purposefully maintained that look and feel with its original European-style architecture.

Now, The Abbey is blocked from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on weekends for wedding ceremonies only, with reception bookings start at 3 p.m.

So far, the new ceremony-only option has gotten a “significant response,” said Crowle.

She mentioned one bride who booked a ceremony at The Abbey for its visual appeal. The reception will take place at the Wisconsin Club across the street.

The Abbey is also available for memorial services on weekdays.

COVID-19 wiped out most of the large corporate events that had been booked at St. James this year, and Crowle is not sure when that side of the business will rebound with the nationwide transition to remote work. However, some local corporations have called to request space for a 25-person event in one the venue’s smaller spaces.

Crowle said it’s a good sign that people are booking larger weddings for next year, but in the meantime, St. James is in good shape.

“People have been thinking differently, and space is on our side and outdoor space is on our side, which I’m really grateful for,” she said. 

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Maredithe has covered retail, restaurants, entertainment and tourism since 2018. Her duties as associate editor include copy editing, page proofing and managing work flow. Meyer earned a degree in journalism from Marquette University and still enjoys attending men’s basketball games to cheer on the Golden Eagles. Also in her free time, Meyer coaches high school field hockey and loves trying out new restaurants in Milwaukee.

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