Last updated on July 3rd, 2019 at 07:12 pm
An investment group that includes Milwaukee developer Joshua Jeffers will purchase St. James Episcopal Church near Marquette University to convert it into a wedding and events venue.
Jeffers and his partners, Shawn Hittman and Oliver Hunt and Kate Crowle, who own The Hidden Kitchen, a catering company and mobile kitchen, will close on the 150-year-old church at 833 W. Wisconsin Ave. in November.
The plan is to immediately begin work on the $1.1 million to $1.5 million project to have the venue open by summer 2018, Jeffers said.
Jeffers is also considering building up to 40 student apartments on vacant land behind and east of the church that will be included with the $425,000 purchase.
“It is not a huge site, but we think there is a potential to build some student housing,” Jeffers said, adding that he will make a decision on housing by the end of the year.
Hunt and Crowle were searching for a permanent event venue for several months and found St. James, which had been on the market for awhile, Jeffers said.
Their mutual friend, Hittman, introduced the two to Jeffers, president of Milwaukee-based J. Jeffers & Co., who has spent much of his career specializing in converting historic buildings.
“I think because of my affiliation with the Grain Exchange, which is one of our venues at the Mackie Building (225 E. Michigan St.), we connected,” Jeffers said. “We had a really positive conversation last May or June, so we put the building under contract.”
The Rev. John Allen said the church has been for sale since he arrived three years ago. Membership has dwindled to only 30 people, Allen said, and the cost to keep the congregation going has become unsustainable.
The congregation started in 1840. The plot of land the church is built on was purchased in 1850 and a wooden church building was built, which later burned and was rebuilt.
The building is now insured for $10 million, which costs between $27,000 to $29,000 a year in premiums, coupled with $3,000 a month in the winter to heat, Allen said.
“Our congregation has three teenagers but the rest of the members are between 60 and 80 and you can’t build a church on that,” Allen said. “I’m sorry we are leaving but I’m not sorry. It would have been harder to just close the door and walk away.”
The final worship service will be held at 10 a.m. on Oct. 1 and the diocese will hold a closing service at 7 p.m. on Nov. 1.
Jeffers said he was he was pleasantly surprised by how well the sanctuary portion of the church has been maintained.
“The building was built in the 1860s and it is beautiful,” he said. “It has Tiffany stained glass windows that are in pristine condition, the original slate roof, the steeple and bell tower are all in great condition and intact.”
When he got to the parish house behind the sanctuary, it was a different story.
The building, which is where a new kitchen will be built and where the bride and groom rooms will be constructed, needs to be completely renovated.
“It is going to be quite a lot of work to convert all of that and bring it up to modern code,” Jeffers said.
Still, Jeffers believes the venue will be ready by summer 2018.
“Kate has already been in the market a bit talking to people and she has gotten some strong interest for events in 2018,” Jeffers said.
As far as the name, the group wants to honor the St. James connection.
“The building has an incredible history and even though we want to change the use of the building, we want to preserve it and give it a second lease on life,” Jeffers said. “We still want to see how we can incorporate the name into the building’s future.”