The Pews Went, but the Spirit Stayed

Posted May 9, 2018 9:16 p.m. EDT
Updated May 9, 2018 9:19 p.m. EDT

In 2016, Peregrine Honig climbed into a steeple of the Greenwood Baptist Church in Kansas City, Missouri, a 1927 Gothic Revival-style building that had been abandoned by its congregation a few years before. She hoisted herself through a crumbling drop ceiling and into a space with steel trusses. Light filtered through the building’s cracked walls.

“I just started yelling,” Honig said of her surprise at the discovery. “That’s when I decided I wanted to live here.”

Honig, 41, is a multidisciplinary artist whose themes are pop culture, sexuality and consumerism. Settling in Kansas City after attending the Kansas City Art Institute, she later opened a lingerie store called Birdies with a business partner. At 22, she became the youngest living artist to have work acquired by the Whitney Museum of American Art. In 2016 she designed a bathroom sign with a hermaphroditic half-trousered, half-skirted figure and the slogan “We Don’t Care.”

Since March 2017, the church has been her home and studio. She also uses it as a public art and performance space called Greenwood Social Hall. There are also two basement apartments in the building.

The church’s former occupants belonged to an African-American Baptist community dating from 1892. When the church was built for the congregation in the late 1920s, there was only a single floor. The church grew according to the designs of Waverly T. Thomas, a local African-American architect. It acquired a nave under a raised roof, and a pair of steeples, and was completed in 1945.

By 2014, the members of Greenwood’s aging congregation were finding it difficult to maneuver around their home, which lacked handicap accessibility and was showing signs of stress from an overweight roof. They sold it to a couple who intended to convert it into a private residence. Expecting a baby and feeling unequipped for the job, the couple approached Jamie Jeffries, a custom carpenter. Jeffries eventually bought the property for $110,000 and introduced his sometime collaborator and then-girlfriend, Honig, to it.

That was when Honig began yelling.

After gutting the 4,400-square-foot space and disposing of a leftover baptismal font, Jeffries reconstructed the building with an emphasis on symmetry and natural light.

He uncovered the original exterior siding and dentil trim, repaired the brick and restored several green milk glass windows. The raked floor of the nave was leveled. The vaulted timber ceiling now soared a little more than 20 feet. Honig moved a claw foot tub into a bathroom in one of the steeples and made her bedroom in the other.

But the church’s consecrated status never changed. According to Honig, Mike Carroll, Greenwood’s pastor, wanted the spirit that had accumulated to remain long after the congregation left. He chose not to perform a ritual that would have converted a sacred space into a secular one. “I really curate the space with a Baptist preacher in mind,” Honig said. Her first project was a “Nasty Folk” auction for which artists donated modestly priced works, with proceeds donated to the American Civil Liberties Union. She hosts the biweekly Monday night drawing class “Bubbles and Bodies” (BYOB) and has organized a concert series featuring emerging black musicians like Calvin Arsenia, a guitarist and golden harp player, and Julia Haile, who sings soul. She invited Dylan Mortimer, a visual artist who has cystic fibrosis and recently underwent a double lung transplant, to “testify in the space about being given the gift of new lungs,” she said. Currently, she’s hunting for grant money so she can invite the Greenwood Church Baptist Choir to return for a performance.

Because the church was never deconsecrated, “it has a really amazing feel,” Honig said. “But also there are certain things I haven’t done here because I just don’t think the spirit would like it.”

For example, she doesn’t allow sage to be burned. At one of the earlier events, Oracle, a local shop, donated the herb and some small stones. When Honig tried to light the sage to cleanse the space, it wouldn’t ignite.

“It wouldn’t cooperate,” she said. “I realized that there wasn’t really anything to ‘clear’ in the space and when you live in a wooden box, you consider fire with reverence.”