Once a house of worship: Couple preserve history, make their home in a church

Bill and Diana Bartley took into consideration their future needs as they age when looking for a new home, but the antique lovers and renovation veterans didn’t buy the typical two-bedroom ranch in a retirement community.

Instead they bought a church.

Diana, 54, is a factory worker at Boyer Candy Co., Altoona, for 24 years, and Bill, 52, is the owner of B&B Sewer & Drain Cleaning, Altoona. The couple has two children, six grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

They are trying to to keep the former St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, North Sixth Avenue and North 16th Street, Altoona – in what was Juniata, as original as possible, Bill said, noting such history is getting torn down.

The most striking example of their preservation efforts is the stained-glass windows.

“I fell in love with the windows,” Diana said. “I tell you, to get up in the morning and to see that sun shining through. I mean, whenever I was praying that we would get it I said, ‘Oh, Lord, if I can go to bed and think of you last, and get up and think of your first, that would be so awesome.'”

The Bartleys, members of the Fourth Street Church of God, have restored three Altoona homes and prefer to re-purpose. They paid $30,000 for the property in the summer of 2011, and have invested about $10,000. They moved in on March 4 this year.

The structure, which also housed the Juniata Food Bank, established in 1998, was the second church building for its congregation after a fire on Jan. 5, 1919 destroyed the first that was at Sixth Avenue and 19th Street, according to a centennial anniversary historical overview pamphlet.

The congregation’s new church, and now the Bartley’s home, was a Red Cross building from Camp Merritt, N.J., that was reconstructed at its current location and dedicated on April 24, 1921.

“I mean I just love the history of the building and sometimes I just picture the beds up there, and the nurses and the war going. It’s just all exciting,” Diana said.

She also wants to “honor the building” where funerals and weddings have taken place and people were saved.

Bill said they discovered online the building was used in World War I by the Red Cross, was once a library for soldiers and an entertainment hall. President Harry S. Truman also was said to have stepped foot in the building, Diana said.

The church, with only nine members left, couldn’t afford to keep going, they said.

Robin Emswiler of Altoona had her youngest daughter baptized in the church. Emswiler is the daughter of the late Rev. Walter J. Emswiler, who was the vice pastor at the church at one time.

Robin said she’d rather see anything repurposed than torn down, and could see the aesthetic appeal of living in a church.

Neighbor Sandy Barr applauded their purchase and decision to move in.

“I thought it was great because it was just sitting there empty and … they made something out of it,” she said from a porch across the street.

The entire structure needed some TLC, said Diana, whose grandfather, Paul Mauk, built the Mill Run Faith Chapel.

The Bartley’s removed the pews and sold some of them for $29 each to the Boone Mountain Emmanuel Church, DuBois. They also gave them a sound system and hymnals. They left the first floor an open space with no walls, the large stained-glass windows bathing the long narrow room in sunlight.

“Thunder and lightning’s awesome because the lightning gives you a light show … through the windows,” Diana said.

After entering into the room through the church’s former main entrance, to the right is what Diana called a “mini-chapel,” set up with items the church left behind such as an altar and chairs. Bibles from 1873, 1897 and the original Bible dedicated at the opening of the church are tucked away in a cabinet for safe keeping.

The couple have set up vignettes of their antiques along the walls.

Near a side entrance on the left, Diana has a crafting corner where she works on her hobbies of scrapbooking and making greeting cards.

Nearby furniture is grouped together to create a separate living room space in the room. The master bedroom, which replaced the altar area, is at the far end of the room.

Of course, the plan isn’t completely open – the bathroom remains private.

They used a pitcher they found as the bathtub’s faucet. A separate shower is beside a doorway leading to a closet with a washer and dryer inside. And a second doorway off of the closet leads back to the bedroom landing.

Back toward the main entrance, a staircase leads down into what was the church’s basement and now houses the Bartley’s kitchen and other rooms.

They plan to put a kitchen upstairs to make a single-level living space for when they are older.

In the current kitchen, 1939 hymnal pages with titles such as “Saved to the Uttermost” and “Joy to the World” line the ceiling. The couple used existing cabinets from a kitchen that was already there.

A large open room next to the kitchen, houses, among other items, teapots from Diana’s collection and a pair of rocking chairs marked “His” and “Hers.”

Down a short hallway, is a spare bedroom and bath, which someday may accommodate family members with special needs.

At the end of the hallway is a door to the outside. The couple eventually plan to extend a brick landing into a brick patio.

The fact that they accomplished what they did for the cost that they did makes it even better, Diana said.

While the couple is still in awe of their new surroundings, Diana has also found what many others have most likely found within those walls.

“I just feel at peace,” she said. “I feel peaceful here. I don’t miss my other house at all.”

Mirror Staff Writer Amanda Gabeletto is at 949-7030.