On the northeast corner of Diamond and Hermitage in the East Hills neighborhood of Grand Rapids sits an old church with broken stained glass windows and chipping paint on the siding. Built in 1875 by Dutch immigrants, it was home to a Third Reformed congregation until 1968, followed by an African American congregation and finally a Hispanic congregation. Today, it sits empty, an eye-sore to some around town.
But lately, neighbors have noticed a transformation taking place with the church, all thanks to local preservationist Carol Moore.
“To me, preservation is the arts,” Moore said. “I think it’s also the environmentally-sensitive thing to do.”
Moore is two years into the five-year project of restoring the old church. This isn’t her first restoration project — she’s been renovating buildings in Grand Rapids for over 40 years.
In 1978, Moore was laid off from an administrative job in education. She saved her unemployment checks to buy her first property, which was her own home on Eureka Avenue and a house nearby on Virginia Street.
In 1986, she bought 209 Diamond SE, which would house Gaia Cafe for 33 years.
“I restore things completely and rent them out at a reasonable rate to people who will be there for a long time,” Moore said.
She continued to buy a handful of properties in the area: two brownstones on Wealthy Street in the building that is now Sparrows Coffee & Tea & Newsstand, two brick apartment buildings on Wealthy Street, a duplex on Virginia Street and a bungalow in Savannah, Georgia. She also played a critical role in renovating Wealthy Theatre.
“We started on Wealthy Street when no one wanted to go near it,” Moore said. “We’ve got pictures of Wealthy Street when it was all boarded up.”
Over the years, Moore has seen the neighborhood grow from a high crime area into one of the most trendy, upcoming places in the city.
“Most of my neighbors are artsy people, and we put roots down a long time ago,” she said. “I was shot at, was broken into, was punched in the teeth. But, you know, we had to fight for our neighborhood.” Moore says it was well worth it to stick it out through those hard times.
“That’s the thing about preservation,” she said. “Once you start setting good examples for people to see, they see the beauty.”
Most of Moore’s renovations have been in her neighborhood, East Hills — the same area that Dutch immigrants settled in Grand Rapids more than a hundred years ago.
“That’s what’s so forgiving about these old buildings,
they’re built so well,” Moore said. “You can abuse them — not that you want to — and then you can bring them back to life. They’re well built to start with and they’re built out of old-growth wood — that’s serious timber that you’re dealing with.”
Not only does Moore enjoy learning the history behind the buildings and encountering relics from another century, but she wants to preserve space and make it accessible for the community.
“I just believe in these projects that have a public use,” she expressed. “Because it benefits everybody, and that’s just what the public good is all about.”
Which, she says, is why she is transforming the Third Reformed Church into a nonprofit community arts center where there will be performance, class, residential and commercial kitchen space.
“It’s been a church for 144 years — it does not need to be a church anymore,” Moore said. “It could be, but that’s too proprietary, it’s only for a small group of people. Let’s expand the audience, the population, and the arts is the liquid that makes it happen.”