October 28, 2016

How a Ballet Theater Helped Transform an Old Baptist Church

  • By: Lauren Walser

Sunday mornings at the Old Cambridge Baptist Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, are full of worship, prayer, music, and all those usual sights and sounds of a church service.

The scene is a little different during the rest of the week. That’s when the dancers, teachers, students, musicians, and everyone else with the Jose Mateo Ballet Theatre fill the space with dance.

That the church has so many vibrant uses is thanks to lots of vision and ingenuity.

Jose Mateo Ballet Theatre

photo by: Susan Young

Dancers with Jose Mateo Ballet Theatre practice inside the Old Cambridge Baptist Church.

For years, the church had been deferring maintenance. The National Register-listed building was in desperate need of repairs, but finding the funds was tough. In 2000, the church ramped up its efforts and secured funding through private donations and grants, and by reaching out to the Jose Mateo Ballet Theatre and proposing a tenancy agreement.

It proved to be a transformative partnership for both the church and the dance company—but not one that was immediately obvious.

“I lived in that neighborhood for 13 years and would walk by [the church] on a daily basis,” says Scott Fraser, managing director of the Jose Mateo Ballet Theatre. “It was creepy. It was in really tough shape.”

Jose Mateo Ballet Theatre

photo by: Flickr/Ken Lund/CC BY-SA 2.0

Old Cambridge Baptist Church was completed in 1870.

Hidden behind the rough exterior of the church, completed in 1870, was something beautiful. There were soaring 50-foot ceilings, vibrant stained glass windows, and thick stone walls. After the church contacted the Jose Mateo Ballet Theatre, local architect Brad Bellows, who had long worked with the dance theater, saw the potential in the American Gothic-style structure.

“He saw what no one else could,” Fraser says.

Over time, the church was stabilized and restored. And inside, four studio spaces for the Jose Matteo Ballet Theatre were created. Studio 1, built in the original 1867 sanctuary, features 25 stained glass windows, 50-foot ceilings, and a bank of tall mirrors. Studio 2, in a space within the church that was restored in 2007, features one of the oldest Tiffany windows in the country, along with portable sprung flooring system and a grand piano. The Little Sister Studio is tucked in the eaves of the church overlooking Studio 2 and is used for early beginner classes. Studio 4 is used as a children’s ballet studio, with stained glass windows on three walls, a special type of dance floor, and an upright piano.

It’s an inspiring space for dancers of all ages. And it’s a unique space for anyone who attends a performance there.

“There’s a close proximity between the artists and the audience,” Fraser says. “The audience can see [the dancers] breathing and see their athleticism up close. It’s all much more personal. Much more intimate.”

Creating a system for transitioning the space from a practice and performance venue into a worship space took thoughtful consideration and careful planning. All the pieces of the performance space are easily movable, stackable, or otherwise incorporated into the church service, like the lighting, which was designed both to illuminate the dancers during performances and the choir during worship services.

“Our whole life is on wheels,” Fraser says. “The conversion from a Saturday night performance to a Sunday morning service takes 15 minutes. It’s amazing to watch.”

It’s not just the dancers and the congregants who have benefited from the partnership between Jose Mateo Ballet Theatre and the Old Cambridge Baptist Church. The surrounding neighborhood has gained much from the church’s transformation, as well. The church now holds regular community events, open to all. And the site’s grounds, once prone to vandalism and plagued with litter, now have an English garden with benches and other places for people to gather outdoors.

Says Fraser, “It’s a welcoming space that everyone in the community uses and respects.”

The Old Cambridge Baptist Church is one of many adaptive reuse projects featured in Stephanie Meeks' new book, The Past and Future City: How Historic Preservation is Reviving America's Communities, published this year by Island Press.

Lauren Walser served as the Los Angeles-based field editor of Preservation magazine. She enjoys writing and thinking about art, architecture, and public space, and hopes to one day restore her very own Arts and Crafts-style bungalow.

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