The first time Matthew Bremer saw the listing for the church he would eventually buy in Phillipsport, Sullivan County, it arrived like so many unwanted emails, as inbox-clogging spam. But rather than immediately hitting delete he scrolled down the email while eating lunch and was intrigued by what he saw: a simple white clapboard church dating to 1823 that was so untouched by time its only bathroom was an outhouse.

“It was this sort of perfect, almost child’s drawing of the idea of a church,” said Bremer, 51, the founder of Architecture in Formation, a Manhattan-based firm. “The white Colonial box.”

Fantasizing about converting it into a private country escape, he and a friend took the two-hour drive north from New York City for a look.

“It was in this bucolic setting,” he said, and had impressive architectural bones, as well as 14-foot-tall, triple-hung, divided-light windows that gave it a magical sense of light.

The following weekend, he returned with his partner, Shaun Skura.

“I was like, ‘You’re crazy,’” said Skura, 40, a relationship manager at LinkedIn. “However, I also saw instant potential, and I knew he would do something extraordinary with it.”

The reality at the outset, Skura added, was clear: “We knew it was going to take a lot of blood, sweat and tears.”

Before committing to buying it, Bremer wanted to be sure that the church could legally be converted to a private residence and that a septic system could be added so they could have indoor bathrooms.

After studying the half-acre property, he came to the conclusion that there was nowhere he could reasonably add a septic system. But he noticed an awkward vacant lot across the street with only a billboard for Shadowland Stages, a theater in nearby Ellenville.

“I reached out and said, ‘Hey, is there any way that we could share this property,’” Bremer said. Eventually he struck a deal with the theater that allowed him to buy the property to use for his septic field for next to nothing, with the promise that the billboard would remain.

Then he spent the better part of the following year working on getting his unconventional plans approved by local authorities.

“It took a somewhat masochistic architect to go through and get four very specific variances to legalize the disused church to a residence,” Bremer said.

Two years after he first visited the 2,200-square-foot church — a United Methodist Church that had been vacant for several years — Bremer finally felt confident that a conversion was possible and bought it for $100,000, in the spring of 2017.

He and Skura had contractors largely dismantle it down to the enormous structural timbers, in order to add the insulation, HVAC, plumbing and electrical systems it needed.

“It was ostensibly an old pole barn, uninsulated,” said Bremer, who sought to keep the basic character of the building intact while “channeling Donald Judd, Gordon Matta-Clark and a little bit of John Waters.”

In addition to adding the basic systems the building needed, they cut a hole in the floor for a staircase leading to the basement, which previously had only an outside entrance. On the lower level, they carved out three bedrooms and a bathroom with a subterranean shower illuminated by a ground-level skylight.

Upstairs, they designated the altar as the dining area and cut a large opening in the wall, to create an enormous picture window that also reveals some of the building’s original framing. They tucked a stainless-steel kitchen under the loft, which they converted to an office and media lounge with a retractable projection screen. And they built a second bathroom behind the kitchen with a one-way mirror that allows occupants to look out over spice jars to see activity in the main living space.

Because there was no fireplace, they suspended a shapely steel Fireorb — a product more commonly associated with modernist glass boxes than old clapboard churches.

“I’m interested in how we, as a culture, have sort of moved beyond binaries of sacred and profane, and public and private,” Bremer said. “Of course, when converting a church, all of that comes to the fore.”

To furnish the place, Bremer and Skura repurposed many of the pews as headboards and footboards for beds. They scoured vintage stores and flea markets to find pieces like a large Harvey Probber sectional sofa and a walnut-and-galvanized-tin bathtub, which they installed in the open living space. To finish it off, they collected smaller, whimsical curiosities, including an old elevator sign from Macy’s and a black-velvet Jesus painting.

After about a year and a half of construction, during which they spent more than $500,000, the couple moved in just before Christmas last year, and invited about a dozen friends to celebrate.

“We had nothing set up, and the table wasn’t there, but we had a giant Christmas dinner with a lot of friends,” Bremer said. “It was sort of the christening.”

Still, the project, he conceded, isn’t completely finished. After rebuilding the exterior entrance to the basement as a black box holding a neon sign that reads “House of Dog” — Bremer’s employees gave him the sign as a 50th birthday gift, in tribute to the couple’s Italian greyhound, Geoffrey — he is considering building a few more black boxes in the landscape.

“One is a swimming pool, one is a raised planter bed and one is an outdoor shower,” he said.

“We will be working on it forever,” he added. “It’s the perfectly unfinished, forever project.”

New York Times

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