OLD CHURCHES, NEW LIFE (Part 1): Framed for the Arts

Writer’s note: When thinking of Wheeling’s scenery, it’s hard to turn a corner without marveling at one of the city’s many churches. Whether it’s the architecture, history or fellowship that draws you in, the buildings are something to admire. While many of these spaces are occupied by churchgoers and clergies, some have been repurposed for new ventures. Through this adaptive reuse, the community gets to experience a new type of fellowship as spaces for entertainment, creativity and beauty. Let’s check out a few churches in Wheeling that have stood the test of time through adaptive reuse. Today, we look at a church-turned-theater and a church that is now a framing and photography studio.

2118 Market St.

Original Occupants: Zion Lutheran Church

Current Occupants: Oglebay Institute’s Towngate Theatre

Today, Oglebay Insitute’s Towngate Theatre provides the area with year-round entertainment, but it was originally the home of the First German Evangelical Lutheran Zion Church of Wheeling. The property was purchased for $5,000 in 1852 and dedicated by the Rev. Friedrich Zimmerman.

Towngate Theatre is located in the former First German Evangelical Lutheran Zion Church.

At that time, the congregation was made up of 69 male members, many of whom followed the Rev. Zimmerman after cutting ties from the nearby St. Johanne’s congregation on 18th Street to create his vision of a “true” Lutheran ministry.

The most noteworthy incident that happened at the Zion Church took place on May 21, 1862, when a tornado struck the edifice of the church. The storm collapsed the second-story auditorium, killing three children and injuring 10. The architecture is what was ultimately blamed for the collapse, as the Gothic rafters extended to the ridge of the roof, providing less than sufficient bracing. During the rehabilitation of the building, safety was of the utmost importance.

Other additions that were made to the church throughout the years included the addition of a gothic-style steeple in 1887 to help beautify the building’s facade. On the 50th anniversary of the Zion Church, council decided to add 13 large windows and freshen up the interior and exterior with a fresh coat of paint. The congregation pulled together to add other decorative touches, including a crystal chandelier, crucifix, altar and carpeting.

After over a century of calling 2118 Market St. home, Zion Lutheran Church’s council decided to relocate in hopes of growing the congregation while addressing concerns over parking and available public transportation options. This presented an opportunity for Oglebay Institute to relocate its theater program to the church, which they have occupied since 1969.

According to Tim Thompson, OI’s director for performing arts, the institute paid just $1 rent for the building prior to purchasing it for $15,000 one year later. Hal O’Leary was the theater’s original artistic director, serving for over 43 years. O’Leary, along with Augusta Evans, Wade Hamlin, Betty Steele and Snookie Nutting were instrumental in providing the support and expertise needed to build a community theater that brought people together.

Standing inside the Zion Church are, from left, Wade Hamlin, Hal O’Leary, Betty Steele and Augusta Evans, who were instrumental in creating community theater at Towngate. The four are pictured in the inset above many years later.

While Towngate’s mission is rooted in community theater, it’s expanded to be even more inclusive of different arts genres.

“We’ve evolved over the years to better serve our community, because that’s what it’s all about,” said Thompson. “We want to be able to give more, grow our programming to get more people engaged in the arts.”

Today, Towngate offers not just theater, but it also provides the community with an art gallery, cinema, local music, high school and adult improvisation comedy, poetry readings and immersive theater education for children across the Ohio Valley.

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535 Fulton St.

Original Occupants: Fulton Methodist Church

Current Occupants: Design & Image Studios and Hall of Frame

Fulton Methodist Church has a history of receiving generous support from the community dating back to the late 1800s, but it’s location on 535 Fulton St. held its first service on Dec. 26, 1929.

The former Fulton Methodist Church is now home to Design & Image Studios and Hall of Frame.

The church was formally dedicated on July 10, 1927. The dedication sermon was led by Dr. Harry C. Howard, who was able to raise over $2,500 for a new furnace with plenty of money to spare. Notable early financial supporters included Albert and Kathleen Schenk.

In 1965, various aspects of the church were updated, including the sanctuary, new flooring, relocating a fire escape and moving the chancel from the front to the back of the church. The congregation also decided to make some aesthetic changes to their beloved space with a new organ, carpet and lighting. The last church service was held in 2003.

Today, the building that once housed Fulton Methodist Church is owned by Neal Warren, who purchased the building in 2005 for his two businesses: Design & Image Studios and Hall of Frame.

For Warren, the building is more than just a workspace, but a small part of his own history. Because he had grown up in the neighborhood, the building has always been familiar to him. In fact, when he was 18 years old the church served as his local polling place!

Back in the early 2000s, Warren wasn’t specifically seeking out an older building for his business. He came about purchasing the Fulton Methodist Church quite by chance.

When he learned that the church was no longer holding services, he was immediately curious about the building’s future. After reaching out to a church trustee who lived in the neighborhood, he was motivated to put an offer in on the building before it was even on the market.

According to longtime church member Ed Bise, Warren was not the only interested buyer. However, the church trustees were adamant that their church not be repurposed for anything that would involve alcohol, which quickly eliminated some potential buyers. Another factor that gave Warren the upper hand was that he was a Fulton resident.

Neal Warren makes good use of church artifacts at his framing business and photography studio.

“Everyone figured that he [Warren] would put the building to good use,” said Bise. “When he first opened his studio, we were invited to the open house, and it was amazing to see what he had accomplished. We are glad to see that building being used and not sitting idle.”

While operating in an old church was not in his original plan, Warren recognizes how it brings a special element to his businesses.

“Old churches are interesting places to transform into a modern business,” said Warren. “Clients seem to really enjoy doing business in an old, repurposed church. I get a lot of comments from clients saying ‘this place is really neat.’”

Neal Warren’s photography studio is located on the top floor of the former church.

Part 2 takes a look at two more former houses of worship in Wheeling.

• Alex Panas is the Program Manager for Wheeling Heritage, where she works with artists, small business owners, and community stakeholders to provide technical assistance and create meaningful programs that enhance Wheeling. She also serves as the managing editor for Weelunk. Alex lives in St. Clairsville with her husband where they raise four cats and four spunky backyard chickens.