Jan. 25 -- CLARKSVILLE , mo. When Kirk and Mary Ostertag first saw the inside of the church, vines were growing through the windows, water was leaking in and it smelled of mildew. ¶ "It was like a scene from 'Jumanji,' the movie," Mary Ostertag said. "But my husband and I looked at each other, and we just smiled. We fell in love with it." At the time, Grace Episcopal Church had been vacant for three years. It closed after the congregation dwindled to four and had been on the market for $115,000 . The couple, who were living in Ladue , looked at property in Clarksville a decade earlier. Kirk Ostertag , a contractor, was interested in the architectural history, and Mary Ostertag , a painter, in joining the artist community there. But the timing hadn't been right. Their children, Tom and Kari, were still in school, and they were concerned about the potential for flooding in the tiny Mississippi River town of 442. Things were different in 2011. Their children were grown. The church, at the corner of Howard and Third streets, was out of the flood plain. And despite its deterioration, the place had good bones. "A lot of the water issues were because of deferred maintenance," Mary Ostertag said. "They weren't cleaning the gutters out, but it's got a great drainage system." When the Ostertags closed on the property about eight months later, they painted over the robin's egg blue walls and pulled out the 22 pews. The former sanctuary is now one big room with several sitting areas and an artist's studio. They converted the lower level -- what had been the meeting hall -- into their bedroom. They've lived in the home full time for about seven months. They declined to disclose the sales price or the cost of their year-long renovations. The church was established in 1869, but the current structure didn't go up until 1940. Dr. Malvern Clopton , a St. Louis surgeon with strong ties to Clarksville and the Episcopal church, paid for its construction. Clopton hired noted architects Charles Nagel and Frederick Dunn , who designed several St. Louis churches during that era. The red brick building is in Georgian style, with dentil molding, a barrel roof, dual staircases leading to the front door and five-foot porthole windows. "One of the appealing things to me as an artist is that it didn't have stained glass windows," Mary Ostertag said. "I have all this natural light with northern and southern exposure." The couple took care to preserve as much of the original building as possible. The wooden steeple had rotted, so they built a new one. They kept the Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ and preserved the walnut wainscoting installed by a former church member. The original privy door is still in their guest bathroom, and a farmer's sink in the former kitchen is now in the laundry room. One of the pews provides seating at their 10-foot dining table. The Ostertags, both 53, used many of the local artisans in Clarksville for the work. An iron worker fashioned a railing and pot rack, a furniture maker built custom kitchen cabinets. Basket weavers and potters contributed to the decor. The space features Mary Ostertag's paintings and provides lots of hiding places for their five cats -- Ruffy, Tuffy, Larry, Azalea and Chip. They've added some personal touches, like 1940s-era Carrara marble in the bathroom and a sign in the garden that rededicates the building. "It says this is Mary's Kirk, which literally mean's Mary's church," said Kirk Ostertag . "This was my gift to her, so I wanted to do something special." The 2,800 square feet presented several challenges to turn into a home, he said, like routing additional electrical and plumbing through masonry. There's also very little closet space, so the couple rents a storage unit. While the Ostertags' home still looks like a church, it was deconsecrated before the couple closed on the sale. Mary Ostertag said a lot of people initially were not only sad to see the church close but worried what would happen to a building on the National Register of Historic Places . "I think they're happy now because we restored it, and it's just classic and beautiful, and we didn't do anything weird," she said. "We kept it to its original charm." Wayne Smiley , one of the last congregants and the church organist, said he thought the renovations were wonderful. "I'm delighted that it has been saved and has a new life as a home," he said. The Rev. Canon E. Daniel Smith , who signed the sale paperwork for the Episcopal church, agreed. "I've seen churches converted into restaurants and private residences and art galleries," he said. "Some of these smaller churches just can't keep going like years ago." Mary Ostertag said many people traveling through town still think Grace is an active church, not a private residence. So it's made for some interesting encounters. "I've had people taking pictures, photographers coming by and using my courtyard," she said. "And it seems like every time I walk outside to take the trash out, somebody pulls up to tell me a story about what happened to them when they were at this church." ___ (c)2014 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Visit the St. Louis Post-Dispatch at www.stltoday.com Distributed by MCT Information Services
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