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Couple transform former church into arts haven

Since purchasing an abandoned church in December 2009, Courtney and Alex Perry spent a good portion of the next two and a half years renovating the 35,000-square-foot space. Sculpture by Joseph and Evonne Briones.

“If you aren’t an established artist in the city, it’s very hard to get into gallery spaces, and we would like to not have that be the case.” Courtney Perry

Arts Asylum

Where: 1000 E. Ninth St., near downtown

Contact: 816.301.7444

Website: theartsasylum.org

Rates: $200-$800 per month

Ink

When Alex and Courtney Perry were faced with the decision a couple of years back of whether to buy an abandoned church and devote their lives to transforming it into an arts emporium, there was no drawn-out discussion.

No wait-and-see hesitancy.

No overly analytical examination of the pros and cons.

One day while scouring the city for sites for a coming Tech N9ne video, Alex, then a tour set designer with the record label Strange Music, came upon the abandoned church at 1000 E. Ninth St. near downtown. It wasn’t right for the video, he determined after a tour of the property, but he figured it might serve another purpose. He picked up the phone and dialed his wife.

“ ‘Hey, you wanna buy a church?’ ” Courtney remembers him asking.

“Sure!” she responded.

Standing near the lobby of the building on a recent weekday afternoon, Courtney, 32, admitted there was a little more to the purchase than that — though not much.

Today, the couple’s impulse buy serves as Kansas City’s newest creative haven, the Arts Asylum, a collection of studios and galleries that brings artists of various disciplines together under one roof. Housed in a massive structure east of downtown, the Asylum features 35,000 square feet and four levels of rooms. Artists can rent studio spaces and display their work in one of two sizable galleries: one 990 square feet, the other 1,815 square feet.

“There’s a lot of arts community places around the country, but our goal is to bring all aspects of art (together),” says Alex, 30. “If what you do you call art, we would like to help you out.”

It’s a goal that, unlike the off-the-cuff nature of their initial purchase, required years of planning.

Alex and Courtney, who live in Hyde Park, are creative types who realized relatively early on that more traditional careers would probably fall short in the fulfillment department. Alex, who was raised in St. Louis before arriving in Kansas City in 2000 to attend the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s theater program, developed an early affinity for the City Museum, a St. Louis landmark known for its innovative nature.

Courtney had barely managed three months as a paralegal before leaving the profession and eventually starting a jewelry and accessory design business, House of Cochon.

Since meeting in 2000 as employees of the now-defunct Store of Knowledge on the Country Club Plaza, they had spoken regularly about the prospect of opening their own space if the opportunity arose. Talking about running a theater and actually doing it, however, are two very different things, and so when the paperwork went through and the couple finally had their own building, the real work began.

Not only was the church outrageously sized — “I used to get lost in here all the time,” Courtney says during a recent tour — but it was in an advanced state of neglect.

Designed by Daniel Burnham, the famed architect responsible for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, the Baptist church was built in 1888 in what was then a predominantly Italian neighborhood. The wood structure served as a neighborhood anchor.

In 1948, however, it burned to the ground. It was speculated that the mob, incensed over the church’s anti-organized-crime sermons, was responsible. Following the fire, during a time rife with Cold War concerns, it was rebuilt with concrete and continued to serve as a Baptist church. When the Perrys bought it, a makeover was long overdue.

Debris caked the floors. There wasn’t an elevator, so they cut a hole in the wall of the third floor so they could catapult stray junk down to the parking lot in the back. The walls had to be painted. Flooring had to be put in. An entirely new lighting system had to be installed.

Because the space was originally designed as a church, there was also the business of redesigning some of its inner workings to make it more user-friendly for the arts community. Doors had to be added so artists could work in private. Locks had to be put on those doors so work could be secure. Some walls were knocked down completely. It turned into a 2 1/2 year job.

Because Courtney is owner of her jewelry design company, and Alex is owner of Fire Designs: Scenic Arts, they worked on the gallery in their free time. They have averaged 20 to 30 hours per week during the past year, Alex says, and it wasn’t uncommon for them to put in occasional 40- to 50-hour weeks. This in addition to caring for their daughter, 14-month-old Isabel, who was born in the middle of renovations.

“There were several points,” says Alex, who also received renovation help from friends and co-workers, “when we were overwhelmed.”

The results, though, have been impressive.

The once-decrepit structure now gleams with an artsy sheen. Stained-glass windows provide considerable light. The building’s four levels are color-coded with elaborately painted hallways and studio walls, and a 4,000-square-foot sanctuary/theater, which anchors the main floor, can be rented out for weddings or theatrical performances.

During a grand-opening ceremony earlier this month, a crowd of roughly 400 came to watch Damian Blake and Annie Cherry perform a vaudeville/burlesque act. And as of last week, the Perrys had rented out 14 of the building’s 21 studios. Plus, multiple groups have asked to use the space for performances or rehearsals.

“I’ve never experienced anything like it,” says Blake, who will teach classes and have rehearsals at the Asylum as part of the New Century Follies National Conservatory of Vaudeville Arts. “It feels really unique. It feels like something you dream up in an ideal situation: Wouldn’t it be cool if we bought this huge, old building and we just put all of our friends in it? And there it is, they’ve done it.”

From a monetary standpoint, the Perrys’ goals are relatively modest. The hope is that it will one day be able to sustain itself financially.

But their ideas of what the Asylum’s general objective should be are very much clear.

“Our tagline is, ‘A safe place to create,’ ” Courtney says. “So whatever you want to make, make it, and we’ll help you display it. If you aren’t an established artist in the city, it’s very hard to get into gallery spaces, and we would like to not have that be the case.”

The Asylum’s artist lineup, then, is a conglomeration of different disciplines. Among the occupants are a potter, producers of a Web TV show, an opera singer and a spray-paint artist.

Though they do plan to have First Friday events about four times a year, the Perrys don’t expect to compete with the established arts scene in the Crossroads Arts District. But where the Crossroads represents a densely populated area in which it can be difficult for new artists to break in, the Arts Asylum provides a bounty of space and access.

“I think what this building is aspiring to do is blow open a dialogue between artists of all disciplines,” local actor Katie Gilchrist says. “We know that there’s a photographer here, or the photographer sees something we do and wants to shoot it. Or there’s a painting that inspires me to write a show. I’m excited for it all to begin.”

There’s still more work to be done, of course. The Perrys would eventually like to fix up the building’s exterior, which is majestic if not particularly aesthetically pleasing. They’d like to restore the stonework on the front of the building and redo the parking lot and fencing in back. They also hope to rebuild the bell tower that rises from the top and provides a panoramic view of downtown.

For now, though, they seem content letting Kansas City’s artists help dictate what the building becomes.

“We’ll see whatever it is that the community wants,” Alex says. “We’re kind of flexible.”

To reach Dugan Arnett, call 816.234.4039 or send email to dugan@inkkc.com. Follow him on Twitter at @duganarnett.

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