Pass by the old Praise Sanctuary Church near Ninth Avenue and Van Buren Street on the southwestern edge of downtown Phoenix, and you’ll encounter a property that, quite frankly, has seen better days.
Numerous patches of weeds, dying trees, broken fencing, and other signs of blight surround the former house of worship, which itself sports a shattered window or two and a fading paint job. In short, the historic building, which dates back to the early 1900s, is in need of some serious TLC.
And if local concert promoter and entrepreneur Charlie Levy has his way, the property will get such a makeover, as well as a new lease on life, over the next year.
New Times has learned that Levy recently purchased the church along with local entrepreneur and developer Erick Harrell, and hopes to transform it into an arts and cultural hub for both downtown and the surrounding neighborhood.
“It’s this amazing building that we couldn’t let go to waste,” Levy says.
The duo hopes the property will eventually host a wide variety of arts and culture events – including theater and dance performances, film screenings, storytelling sessions, spoken word gigs, guest lectures, and live music shows – while serving as a community center of sorts for residents of the Woodland neighborhood.
"The initial thought is to make it an arts center. So not only will we obviously have music but really focus on film, spoken word, theater, dance, community meetings, and discussions,” Levy says.
Levy stressed the fact that they're intent on having the venue be both community-oriented and community-driven. Overall, he hopes that it can be woven seamlessly into the multicultural tapestry of the neighborhood and downtown as a whole.
“[We] want to fully integrate as part of the community along with the rest of Phoenix as well,” Levy says.
Harrell and Levy closed the deal on the building about two weeks ago and are still in the initial stages of the project, including assessing the 7,940 square-foot property, determining what renovations need to be made, and meeting with both City of Phoenix officials and nearby residents regarding their plans.
"The next step, really, is to have a neighborhood meeting to really find out what the neighbors want and get their input and make sure it's something that really, really grooves with the neighborhood and [everyone] around us," Levy says.
If everything goes well, Levy, who also owns and operates the Crescent Ballroom and Valley Bar, estimates the venue, which is currently unnamed, could be open to the public in approximately a year.
“It's really at the beginning stages so I’d expect, if everything went great and we really got what we needed as far as the focus on the arts center and the permits going, it would be about a year before it opens,” Levy says. "Fingers crossed we're able to do this project, just 'cause a year is a long time and there's a lot of obstacles and moving parts involved.”
Levy and Harrell’s plans are just the latest chapter in the church’s long and unusual history. While portions of the building date back to 1908, the main worship hall was built in 1938 and it functioned as the Zion Lutheran Church for decades up until 1997. It’s changed owners several times over the last 19 years, and has served a number of roles, including being a coffee house and the headquarters of a Christian radio station. Most recently, it served as a nondenominational wedding chapel.
Levy first became aware of the church’s availability six weeks ago when Harell, a property developer who owns houses in the Coronado neighborhood, brought it to his attention.
“He’s my neighbor across the street and told me about it,” Levy says. “He said, ‘Have you seen this church? You gotta come see it,'” Levy says. “And I really wasn’t all that interested at first.”
Then Levy got a look at the mahogany-lined worship hall at the Gothic-style church and heard there was a possibility the property could have been demolished to make way for some future apartment building. Both helped convince him of its value.
“I walked in and looked around and saw it and was like, ‘How can we not do this? How could this building be torn down? It's amazing.’” Levy says.
The chance to own the church and transform it into something viable was an irresistible opportunity, he says.
“To save a building like that in Phoenix and introduce such cool programming, it was just too good to pass up,” Levy says.
And while the interior of the church is in great condition (“It has all the original fixtures and everything…it's beautiful”) and will remain largely unchanged, Levy says they plan to make a number or repairs and renovations to rest of the property, including sprucing up the A/C, bathrooms, landscaping, and exterior.
They're keeping most of the fixtures in the cavernous worship hall, however, right down to the pews. (The faded carpet, however, is going to be pulled out.) The altar area inside the hall will function as a stage. The adjacent parish hall, which Levy estimates is comparable in size to the Crescent Ballroom, also features a large stage.
Levy says both stages will be filled with equal parts music, film, theater, spoken word, concerts, and other creative endeavors, ranging from mariachi bands to avant-garde performances.
“It’s going to be all over the place. I think music's going to be all over the place. I think theater's going to be all over the place. I'd love to have some independent films and foreign films,” he says. “Just really a wide net of all the arts. It would be a great place to host everything.”