This story was originally written for The Spenardian.
The Church of Love is, quite literally, a church. Throughout decades, the name has changed from the original Lake Spenard Baptist Church, and has had different ministries fill its pews. Since the 1950s, the landmark on Spenard Road has transformed into what is now a creative space for artists and the community.
Sculptures were made, albums were recorded and other creative endeavors were born from where pews once stood in the old church. Initially, the building was bought by Cook Inlet Housing Authority with the intent to create additional parking. The plan was never to keep the building, but many local artists wanted to use the space to create.
“I love the history of this building,” Candace Blas, manager of the Church of Love Spenard and coordinator of events, said. “The Church of Love, we’ll see if that name sticks, but for now we’re embracing it. I hope we always keep the steeple.”
Evan Phillips, who has been a musician in Alaska for 20 years, recorded an album in April at the Church of Love. Because of the natural acoustics, it allowed him to perform without a PA system.
“[The Church is] a cultural hub that is a great multi-use space,” Phillips said. “I hope to see more events there.”
Phillips discovered the Church from Sarah Davies while she was working on The 100 Stone Project.
Sarah Davies is the project lead on The 100 Stone Project, an art installation that takes castings of real people and puts them in nature. The first year, there were 85 figures at Point Woronzof Overlook Park. Around two and a half years ago, Davies started working on her castings at the Church. Davies was awarded a grant from The Light Brigade for the 100 Stone Project.
“It was because of the Church of Love that we had the space that we needed to grow. Without the Church of Love, the project wouldn’t have grown as healthy as it did,” Davies said.
At one point, all 100 of Davies’ figures were in the basement.
“All of them were stored in there and when we went into production the second summer of the project, all of them were made under that outside overhang by the doors, or when it got cold around this time of year, we moved everything inside,” Davies said. “What’s incredible is that I see the same pattern with all of the different projects, it gives them the space they need to reach their full potential.”
Before 100 Stone Project and Evan Phillips’ live album, Bruce Farnsworth and Sheila Wyne found themselves in need of an art space while they were working on a large scale sculptural installation in 2014. Farnsworth and Wyne are key members of The Light Brigade, a local group of artists that create site-specific work in the Anchorage community.
The Light Brigade had been using an abandoned car wash in Spenard that was purchased by John Weddleton, an Anchorage Assembly member and a founding member of the Spenard Chamber of Commerce. The Light Brigade used the car wash to create their large sculptures for the art project, but Weddleton had told The Light Brigade that as soon as his permits and financing was finalized, that he would need the space back.
“It all happened a lot faster than any of us expected. He came over and we were working there and he goes, ‘I have bad news, you guys.’ So here we are, we’re in the middle of this thing, we have all of these tools and materials moved into this warehouse space. We’re like, ‘Oh no, where do we go now?’” Farnsworth said.
Farnsworth had asked Weddleton to send an email out to the Spenard Chamber of Commerce email list to ask if anyone had free or low-cost warehouse space that The Light Brigade could use to complete the project. Farnsworth heard back from Tyler Robinson, the Director of Development, Planning and Finance at CIHA, who told him that they had recently purchased a church in Spenard.
Robinson had told Farnsworth that the Church of Love was set to be demolished for more parking, but that they could use the space to complete their project in the meantime.
“I kind of feel like we sort of discovered [the Church] together, Cook Inlet Housing and The Light Brigade,” Farnsworth said.
While The Light Brigade was occupying the space in the Church of Love, CIHA had received their ArtPlace Community Development Investments grant. The grant is a three-year grant which gives the recipient $1 million each year.
Farnsworth had many conversations with CIHA about their grant and continued to give them his input.
“One of our thoughts was, ‘How about you not tear this church down?’” Farnsworth asked.
CIHA then began to regard the church differently.
“Because we started doing things in Spenard and started to invest in not just existing developments but future developments and planning, we said, “Ok, well we can use some of this grant money to support some very basic improvements, like roof patches and paint on the wall…let’s investigate what this space could be,’” Robinson said.
Robinson and Sezy Gerow-Hanson co-manage the ArtPlace grant. CIHA is exploring how to incorporate art and cultural strategies through the Church.
“The point of the grant was not art as the final output, but rather the artistic process and involvement of creatives or artists in resolving a community led project,” Robinson said.
Robinson said that CIHA has demolished multiple buildings in the area surrounding the Church. The former PJ’s strip club has become a conjoined retail and residential development building, with the upper levels consisting of 33 one-bedroom apartments. The former auto garage that sits across the street will also be redeveloped for space.
“Spenard attracts more and more entrepreneurs and talented people,” Blas said.
The Church is zoned appropriately, which means it isn’t in a residential neighborhood where parking is an issue. It allows CIHA to use it as long as it’s consistent with their mission.
The Church offers rooms for artists to rent called ‘Sunday School’ rooms, which are located at the back of the church. Artists use the rooms to create and teach in a secure space with 24-hour access. The Church is keeping the nave but will be tearing down the back rooms attached to the building.
“We won’t call ourselves an art center, but we’ll call ourselves a community center that builds community through art,” Blas said.
Since CIHA’s rethinking of the space, many artists have utilized what was available to them. Members from Perseverance Theatre have performed in the Church; the Spenard Jazz Fest this summer took place in the Church parking lot. Chad Taylor created the crack garden in front of the Church of Love by planting wildflower mix in the cracks of the pavement.
The Church continues to have a creativity flow through its space.
“It fills a really essential need in the community. There are lots of venues in town, but there are very few that really serve artists. Most venues, whether they’re maker spaces or music venues, whatever they are, they either primarily serve the owners or the nonprofit world. But, individual artists can’t afford market rate venue prices…this is a place that serves individual community members and small groups of artists,” Farnsworth said.