Stained glass Jesus stays as church is turned into apartments


COLUMBIA - Columbia's old Rosewood Baptist Church may never not look like a church.

This fall, when residents fill into modern new apartments inside the half-century-old sanctuary, they'll set their dining tables beneath 40-foot arched windows, once filled by colorful stained glass. Their decor will be flanked by the old church's dark oak panels; some will have the white-painted cinder block walls of former Sunday school classrooms. Someone's living room will sit roughly in the footprint of the former baptismal pool.

And one unique apartment will boast a 20-plus-foot-tall stained glass mosaic of Jesus Christ, arms and hands outstretched. (A construction worker on site cheekily referenced the apartment as "the Jesus Suite.")

Above it all still will tower the unmissable steeple.

"During the design, one of the first things we talked about was the steeple," said Frank Cason, whose Columbia development group is undertaking the church's transformation, along with Garvin Design Group architects and Boyer Construction, at the corner of Sloan Street and Rosewood Drive. "I was ... leaning toward, should we take that off? And our architect said, this is always going to be a church. It's always going to read as a church. Why would you take that off? It's not going to make it less of a church."

So they kept the steeple.

The apartments, dubbed 5th and Sloan, are shaping up as a carefully thought-out blend of old and new; even the name of the under-construction complex is an ode to the historic name of Rosewood Drive, 5th Avenue.

The apartments also represent, possibly for the first time in Columbia, the transformation of a traditional church sanctuary into something besides a church. It's a transition that's happened in other places - the current Church and Union restaurant in downtown Charleston, for instance, not to mention apartments, gyms, breweries, skate parks and a wide range of other new uses for churches, usually in places farther outside the Bible Belt. But it's still a novel concept in a region traditionally known for a proliferation of churches on every corner, figuratively (and sometimes literally) speaking.

In a number of ways, the church-to-apartments transformation represents a bridge between the past and the future of this spot in Columbia. And it's still a nod to a church community that hasn't disappeared but has relocated farther down the Rosewood corridor in a smaller space, as the congregation has shrunk in recent years.

Cason jumped at the opportunity to undertake the transformative project, almost as soon as the church building hit the market in 2019, believing the structure could be saved and repurposed. Some people in the community thought it should be turned into a brewery, while others couldn't believe Cason would even consider touching the sanctuary, the developer said.

Since work began at the site last October, it's been almost a daily task to decide what details can and should be preserved as construction progresses, Cason said.

"The big challenge is ... it's a new use for the structure, while maintaining the fact that there was a church, and we don't want to hide that, and we don't want to lose that," Cason said. "That's part of the charm."

Columbia as a city places a high value on historic preservation. And while the Rosewood church building itself does not have a historic designation, the structure and the congregation that once filled it have "significance" to the surrounding community, Cason said.

"It can be cheaper to tear things down and start from scratch," the developer acknowledged. "There's a place to tear down, and there's a place for keeping. Just because a building is old doesn't mean it should be kept, and just because it would be easier to tear down doesn't mean it should happen like that. ... This is the way we want historic properties to be, where you can blend them in with new; you can add to them."

The 49 apartments at 5th and Sloan are expected to open to residents in October. A mix of one- and two-bedroom units, some of them two stories tall, will be spread across the former sanctuary, classroom building and a newly constructed building between them. The complex will include a fitness center, a lounge for residents and an outdoor courtyard, and several apartments will have outdoor balconies. Rents will range from $1,425 to $2,400.