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Central United Methodist Church fights obsolescence by working with Lansing artists

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With its original Ionia stone exterior, colossal stained glass windows and four-story communal center, the Central United Methodist Church is a magnificent structure in downtown Lansing. By opening its doors to the community and groups like the Peppermint Creek Theatre Co., the church is more than just a religious landmark.

For 170 years, the Central United Methodist Church has served as a place of worship for Lansing residents. In the ‘20s, it developed a second arm for entertainment. Paul Walker, the full-time facilities manager, said with a declining congregation, renting facilities helps offset the costs of maintaining the massive and ornate church. He said having a five-production contract with Peppermint Creek is one way to alleviate costs.

Walker added that during the church’s earlier years, it served residents beyond their religious needs during an era without TVs, malls and modern amusements.

“What did people do?” Walker asked. “They went to the church. That was their entertainment.” 

The cornerstone for the modified Romanesque-style sanctuary, including its 33-foot high ceiling, was set in 1889.  The designer was Elijah E. Myers, the same architect for the Capitol Building across the street.  “I am very much in awe of the craftsmanship that went into the construction of the building at the time it was built,” Walker said. 

To serve more than parishioners, the community began drafting plans for a community center in 1921. Two years later, the Temple House was built under the vision of designer Lee Black.

The Temple House features a basketball court, bowling alley and a 200-seat social hall with a large kitchen with a 10-burner stove.  “There are four floors to the Temple House portion of the church, and all are used in some fashion,” Walker said.

A nursery, elevator and a full library are part of the church’s features.  Although homeless lodging is no longer affordable, the library sometimes becomes a respite for them.

Since the auditorium is so close to the Capitol, Walker said it is often sought as a meeting place for lobbying groups to strategize.

The main floor, Fellowship Hall, boasts a 22-foot-wide and 20-foot-deep stage with a curved back wall. Its original, movie theater-style floor seating is gone.  In the balcony, 90 of the novel seats with top hat racks remain intact.

“There are actual metal brackets on the bottom of the seats that you slid your top hat into to keep it up off the floor and free from damage,” Walker said.

Throughout the runs of its plays, Peppermint Creek Theatre Co. leaves its sets onstage.  Unlike the Miller Auditorium, which housed the theatre company for its last seven seasons, there is no storage space. With many groups renting the hall, 24/7 stage access can be an issue. “The church has been tremendously flexible and accommodating,” said Chad Swan-Badgero, the founder and co-artistic director for the theater company.

He added that the church’s central location, accessible parking and proximity to several bars and restaurants makes Central United an ideal location for art organizations to host their events.

Staging plays at the church has also afforded Peppermint Creek a chance to experiment with the hall’s unfixed seating arrangement.

“A space without anchored seating allows us flexibility for staging productions in a variety of ways,” Swan-Badgero said.

When the company was looking for a new place to perform, a congregation member — and a supporter of Peppermint Creek — made the contact that led to its current contract with the church.  “That’s how we found it,” Swan-Badgero said. 

In September, Peppermint Creek’s first production in the new space was “Bright Star” in which he utilized the entire Fellowship Hall floorplan with movable set pieces and lined the audience in folding chairs along the walls.

The second play, “The Humans,” featured an exposed, two-story house that fit easily on the expansive stage. “The venue is about three times as large as our previous space and allows us a lot of diversity as far as staging,” Swan-Badgero said. 

The company’s last show of the year is “Gloria,” a 2016 Pulitzer Prize-winner written by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins.  It opens on Jan. 16 for a two-week run including onstage gun-slinging and “a shocking twist of events,” Swan-Badgero said.

He added that in January, a decision will be made about negotiating a new contract with the church. 

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