Two small-town churches find new life as arts centers
Slumping into a pew in mock boredom, Pam Broiles leans onto the armrest, pointing out the patina of a century of elbows propped there. “I can just imagine some farmer saying, ‘When is he going to stop talking?’”
It was details like these—or the wad of fossilized spruce gum stuck under a pew near the back of the church, the yellowed pages of hymnals printed in 1897, the names of long-dead workers scrawled in the belfry—that attracted Broiles and her husband, Lenny, to buy the Wells Baptist Church in 2012 and turn it into a performance venue.
Built in 1845 in the southern Adirondack town of Wells, on Lake Algonquin, the tidy Greek Revival church closed in 1950. The now-defunct Hamilton County Historical Society owned the building for several decades—it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1986—and had hired Lenny, a restoration carpenter, to do some work on it.
“We both really loved the architecture and history of one of the oldest churches in Hamilton County,” says Pam. “When it went up for sale, we were moved to buy it and bring it back to life.”
She and her husband rechristened the Wells church as The Revival—a play on its architectural style as well as its rebirth. The building was in rough shape when they bought it, with the ceiling falling apart and the roof in need of replacement. “We didn’t want to modernize it, but it needed to be functional,” Pam says. In lieu of air conditioning, Pam had paper fans printed with The Revival logo. She and Lenny did make a couple of concessions to modernity, installing a sound system and an RV toilet (the building lacks plumbing).
The interior is simple, with white walls and canvas dropcloths as window shades. “I just wanted an environment that was calm, not a lot of stuff in it,” Pam says. “I think you need that sometimes.”
In 2015, Adirondack Architectural Heritage honored the Broileses for their restoration efforts.
From spring through fall, Pam books a range of musicians for monthly concerts. One month might be a Gershwin tribute, followed the next by jazz, bluegrass or Americana. Lenny’s classic rock/folk band, the Dammed River Boys, is performing September 29. The Revival closes for the winter, with the exception of a Christmas carol singalong or another holiday event.
People come from as far as Gloversville, 30 miles to the south, but many of the concert-goers are Wells locals (about 700 souls live here year-round, plus many more seasonal residents). “People are so supportive,” Pam says. “They usually give a standing ovation, they buy CDs.”
Pam, who is the music director at the local Catholic church, St. Ann, says she has ideas for expanded programming at The Revival—a murder mystery night, staged play readings, an open-mic for old-timers to share their Adirondack tales—but admits her ambitions sometimes exceed the time she has available for what is essentially a volunteer position.
“Some people paint or sculpt, but my artistic expression is in creating cultural experiences using music, atmosphere and hospitality,” says Pam.
Seventy-plus miles away, in the High Peaks, Malcolm MacDougall felt a similar calling when he first entered the 1836 Keene Methodist Church, in 2009. “I’m not a religious person, but I love old things,” he says. “I could feel the collective amount of humanity here. So many things happen in a church—weddings, funerals. I didn’t want to see it torn down.”
Malcolm and his wife, Zizi, live in Dobbs Ferry, where he is a filmmaker and she is a teacher. In 2006 they had bought property in Keene Valley and were in the process of building a summer home there, as funds allowed. Then Malcolm told Zizi that he thought they should buy the building, which had been vacant since the church closed in 2008.
Zizi told Malcolm it made no sense to buy an old church. While he didn’t know exactly what he wanted to do with the building beyond some vague ideas about converting it to a movie house, he asked her to trust that it would eventually make sense, and to at least come look at it. “She says I’m the accelerator and she’s the brakes,” Malcolm explains—but this time, she was persuaded.
They removed the pews (some of which they used to panel the library in their Keene Valley house) and redid the floors, and in 2011 they opened the doors as Keene Arts, hosting gallery exhibitions, movies, musical performances and other events. “Nothing makes me happier than having this place filled with people,” Malcolm says.
He schedules an ambitious calendar of events, including weekly Thursday-night concerts—everything from Brazilian jazz to bluegrass—and month-long gallery exhibitions in July and August, as well as less frequent happenings the rest of the year.
Exhibitions have included a Harold Weston retrospective and a celebration of the recently retired Westport gallery owner Atea Ring, who represented some of the region’s most prominent artists. In 2018, Malcolm curated eclectic group shows that included Adirondack landscape painters such as Gary Casagrain and Cinda Longstreth, abstract rock sculptures by Matt Horner, of Keene, and quirky trout-themed collages from Wilmington fly-fishing guide Rachel Finn. “It’s kind of mind-blowing the amount of art here,” Malcolm says. “There are lots of people hiding in the woods.”
At a recent gallery opening, Malcolm circulates among the 50 or so guests admiring the art hung between the church’s original stained-glass windows. He says he loves the building’s simplicity, with its white clapboard exterior, pointed arches on the windows and doors, and classic bell tower, describing it as “like the church you’d draw as a kid.”
Then he does what anyone with his own church would do: he grabs the bell rope and gives it a good pull, sending the peals of the 180-year-old bell into the Keene summer evening once more.