The former church that currently houses Second Stage Amherst, a venue of the arts, small businesses and coffee lovers, has been named to the Virginia Landmarks Register.
The honorary designation by the Virginia Board of Historic Resources recognizes the buildings as a place of historic significance. The sanctuary was constructed in 1882 with multiple elements of various architectural styles, including Italianate, Gothic Revival, Romanesque Revival and Colonial Revival, according to a news release from Second Stage.
“It is the second oldest religious structure still standing in the Town of Amherst,” the release said. “Five other extant buildings in Amherst County are documented examples of the Italianate style: two are residential, Sweet Briar House and Fairview, and three are churches, Amherst Presbyterian, Central Baptist, and Ivy Hill Methodist.”
Amherst County officials purchased the building with intentions to repurpose it for government office space but, after conducting feasibility studies, decided against it. The board of supervisors considered demolition to clear space for a metal office building in its place and at that time a group of concerned citizens inquired about alternatives.
In 2012, this grassroots group took the initiative to save the historic structure with the goal of providing a gathering place for public events such as performances, meetings, classes and workshops, community forums and a farmers market.
“The complete dream was to provide studios and offices spaces for small businesses to rent,” the release said. “All of these goals are now a reality.”
In spring 2015, Second Stage signed a lease with Amherst County allowing the nonprofit organization the opportunity to convert the historic building into a center for creativity and community. The nonprofit business of the year, as awarded by the Amherst County Chamber of Commerce in 2019, provides a place where the cultural, civic and economic vitality of Amherst County is encouraged.
“This accomplishment was achieved with the belief that historic structures anchor healthy communities, and that ready access to arts and culture enriches the fabric of life in the region,” the organization said in the release.
In 2019, the last year of full operations prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the venue hosted 27 performances and special events, 37 lectures and meetings and drew 12,220 visitors as customers, clients and guests, according to a report submitted to county officials.
Suny Monk, the nonprofit’s president, said it had to abandon its programming schedule for most of 2020.
The nonprofit partnered with Amherst Glebe Arts Response Inc. to hold a handful of outdoor concerts with social distancing in 2020 and musicians performed before empty seats in the venue’s main hall during live-streamed concerts.
“Virtual programming seems to be the only path right now,” Monk told the board of supervisors in February.
Second Stage will host outdoor Friday movie nights in upcoming weeks.
The historic landmark designation would help the nonprofit secure grant funding and donations, Second Stage leaders have said.
The former Amherst Baptist Church was constructed in four phases from 1882 to 1955 on a 1.14-acre lot adjacent to Second Street on a knoll, according to county documents. The property includes a two-story, Colonial Revival-style parsonage, which is used as additional county office space and a garage, both built in 1949.
In 2004, Amherst Baptist Church moved to a new facility just off U.S. 60 near the Amherst traffic circle and two years later the county acquired the building.
In 2019, a coffee bar was installed in the eastern end of the 1925 addition and Baines Books & Coffee opened. Many of the rooms have been renovated and rehabilitated to fit needs of the businesses using them and the farmers market is in its ninth season.
Elected officials in Amherst County and the town of Amherst have praised Second Stage’s leadership for making the venue an attraction and community asset.
John Patteson, who serves on Second Stage’s board of directors, said in addition to helping in securing grants, the historic designation provides a layer of protection for the building if it ever again faced a prospect of demolition.