Things were not looking good at St. James Episcopal Church, 833 W. Wisconsin Ave., when I visited in 2013.
Don’t get me wrong, the 1868 building was beautiful and full of interesting history (which you can read here), but the congregation had dwindled to just a few dozen and was shrinking all the time.
So, it came as little surprise four years later when news emerged that the church was closing and being sold for renovation into a wedding and events venue.
When I returned in January to have owner Katie Crowle show me the work she was undertaking – with Greenfire Construction – to transform the former church complex into that venue, I was amazed by her energy, drive and seemingly unflappable determination as she was in the third year of the project.
Then, just as she was reaching the finish line of a massive renovation project that hit multiple snares – like that unexpected $200,000 sewer line replacement price tag – that didn’t sink her, the coronavirus pandemic hit Milwaukee.
"It’s been pretty upsetting," she says as we stand in the former sanctuary with the project basically finished except for a few touches still taking place.
"And then with no DNC. ... We thought we would get some things off that, but we didn't and that was pretty detrimental. It's been pretty bad."
Either fortunately or unfortunately, the St. James 1868 project was so far along by March, that Crowle couldn’t really pause the work and expenses. But, at the same time, because most of the work was done already, the shutdown didn’t hamper completion.
"On one side it was good, because it was pretty much done," she says now. "There's still a lot of little extra things that took forever and just didn't stop. But to be able to start giving tours and have it look like this, people could finally see the final.
"Now, if they're booking for next year, or for 2022, they feel so much more comfortable. So I'm glad we're not under a construction site anymore, because it was so hard to get bookings."
Despite the lost business this year, Crowle says that there has been no loss of interest in terms of people seeking to book for 2021 and 2022.
"We’re giving a lot of tours," she says and they tend to be for fairly large weddings given the current atmosphere.
"The tour inquires that we're getting are not less than a hundred people. So it's between 100 and 250. I haven't seen any difference in the requests for the size of the events. I know right now the whole small petite weddings thing is trending, but we really haven't gotten any inquiries on that. Very few."
At this point, though she does have some weddings on the books for this year, there aren’t many, but the calendar is booking up for the next two years, she says.
With so many churches closed to weddings these days, St. James offers couples the chance to have a wedding in a church-like setting and even at 50 percent capacity, the venue can host events up to 168 people in the main room.
Plus, there is a smaller room upstairs, as well as a large patio and an elevated deck with a great view of the Downtown skyline.
Crowle also points out that the various luxe support rooms – like bride and groom rooms (pictured below) – can be rented for smaller events, too, like showers. All of the spaces are available for corporate events (which aren’t happening these days) and end of life celebrations.
"That's one thing that COVID helped me started thinking through: other revenue ideas," Crowle says. "I started offering ceremony-only packages. I'm getting more inquiries for fall, because churches are closed. You can only have 10 people in a church, if it's even open. So they're looking at how can we still have a church wedding but have the capacity."
And the venue has space.
"We could easily spread people around, you can easily social distance, which is great," says Crowle. "We have a lot of space and we have two outdoor spaces. That ends up being on our side."
We walk through the space and the transformation is remarkable, but so is the fact that Crowle was careful to preserve the things that make the church so beautiful: the woodwork in the sanctuary, called The Abbey, and the upstairs room, called The Hyde.
There are historical photos from the church congregation framed throughout, and the vibe is classy English feel. Shelves and tables (pictured above and below) have been crafted by a skilled carpenter from some of the many wooden pews that once filled the sanctuary.
The brides’ rooms look like fairy princess spaces and the grooms’ rooms like old world men’s clubs.
One of the latter spaces is named in honor of Harrison Ford, who reportedly married his first wife Mary Marquardt at St. James in 1964.
In the basement is a giant kitchen space for caterers.
Crowle currently has a partnership with Gracious Catering.
Despite it all, walk through the building with Crowle and you'll not only marvel at the transformation, but at her own determination and optimism for the future.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in an episode of TV's "Party of Five," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.