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Home as a gift from the past

Bobbie Oliver and Frank Kitchens artfully restored an old church and grange

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This is the cover story of the first 2019 edition of Our Country Home.

For 50 years, the Rock Valley Methodist Church wasn’t officially used, Bobbie Oliver explained.

Sure, people went inside it. After all, the door wasn’t locked. They explored or worshipped in private. Maybe they took shelter from storms. Sometimes they got married inside. What they did not do: leave graffi ti. Deface the property. Treat it with anything like disrespect.

The community cared for the building. It, like the grange next door or the schoolhouse nearby, was a vital piece of the heritage of this village along the Basket Creek, just over the border in Delaware County. And then in 1992, a truck slammed into the church, jarring it off  the foundation. Residents looked over the damage and contacted the district offi ce for the Methodist Church, which then put the building up for sale.

Meanwhile, Oliver, an artist and, at that time, a fulltime professor of painting at the Rhode Island School of Design, was in Sullivan County with her husband, bakery consultant Frank Kitchens. In 1993, they’d rented a farmhouse in Cochecton and were looking for studio space for Bobbie. “Maybe a barn?” she’d suggested with a grin. The couple talked to an agent at Klimchok who knew just the property, and it was not a barn. It was a church.

“I thought church... graveyard... no,” Oliver said.

                                                                         The church and grange in Rock Valley, NY.

Turned out, the graveyard was in back of the schoolhouse. The church itself, built in 1893, was a wonder. “Basically we walked in and fell in love with the place. We lived in a loft  in New York City and were used to repurposed spaces,” Oliver said. “All the pews were there… a 21-foot ceiling. The craft smanship was incredible. The floor is made of chestnut from local trees. It’s all wainscoted.”

That is meditation built into the bones of the church, a building conducive to peace and prayer.

Everything used was the best, she said, every care was taken with the building, because the church was that valuable to the community. Building a church, one might say, was an act of worship. And so was caring for it.

Still, a 100-year-old, unlived-in place with no one financing necessary restoration begins to fall victim to its age. Buying a church was an act of faith. Restoring it was, well, a lot of work. First they had to replace the steeple. “The steeple was falling off  when we bought it,” Oliver said. Joey DiPane and Zeke Boyle repaired it; the heavy bell was taken down and donated to the Rock Valley Schoolhouse, where it can be seen in the front yard. The windows were colored glass, not stained glass, and needed to be replaced. “When we measured the windows for the new glass,” Oliver said, “they were exactly the same [as when the church was built]. It was perfect.” 

The inside of the church, now a living room, with big stained-glass style windows
Most of the colored-glass was replaced with clear glass, but the light still comes through the way it was designed to. 

The wainscoting in particular is incredible. Oliver and Kitchens didn’t touch it. “The angles are extraordinary and the dimensions are ideal,” Oliver said—horizontal lines that draw the eye to a single point. That is meditation built into the bones of the church, a building conducive to peace and prayer. “You can lie on the sofa and look through the windows—they’re 15 feet high—and you can see the moon.”

Some things did not stay the same, of course. A church is not meant to be lived in. But Oliver and Kitchens kept the changes to a minimum. The windows are still beautiful, even though the glass is clear. A backdoor was created in a raised area that had held a table and chairs (the chairs were donated to the nearby Basket Historical Society). Cabinets were added because previously  “there was no storage,” Oliver said. The church is strictly a summer living space. “We never winterized it,” Oliver explained. “But we fully winterized the grange.”

We have tea in the Grange building next door on a day in February, at a long table that once graced the Delaware Valley Central School. Oliver’s cat Luna purrs in her box, clearly trying to distract the humans from all that talking. The grange, a former community space and meeting room for farmers, dates back to 1886. It was not built as well, but then, it wasn’t expected to be. When Oliver and Kitchens bought the church, the grange was used as a hunting lodge. By the time the owners were considering selling it, in 2003, it was in serious disrepair. “The grange was sagging, it was just resting on stones,” Oliver remembers. Inside, “it was very rough. The floor was just disintegrating.” A large fireplace “was causing the building to sag.” The fireplace was taken down—a shame, Oliver notes, but there was no choice. They had to take down the interior walls to insulate. The church is now the couple’s summer home, where they host post-event potlucks after concerts at the Rock Valley Schoolhouse.

The studio in the grange, with one of Bobbie Oliver's paintings, "Vapors," on display.

The grange, completely renovated, is stunning. The ground floor  is used as an Airbnb rental and the upper story is Oliver’s studio. The floor there suggests dances held in the old days, or maybe roller skating. Oliver said it was certainly used for shuffl eboard. But now, it is covered with canvases as she prepares for two upcoming shows, one in NYC on March 14, and one at the Catskill Art Society on March 16. We head back downstairs. Light streams in through the windows and the snow outside is melting. Next door, light gleams off  the church’s windows.

“At first,” Oliver says, “we looked around and said, ‘What did we do?’ And then we moved in and we knew. We knew what we did.”

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