A Conversion Story

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Former Church Building Takes On New Life Becomes Law and Realty Offices

The Calvary Baptist Church building, located along Portsmouth’s Hutchins Street, is not what it appears. Architecturally, it resembles a medieval castle. Historically, it was the home of an active church congregation for more than 100 years. Currently, it holds the law office of attorney Jeremy Burnside and the headquarters of Rutman Burnside Realty Group, a business owned by his wife Maddie and her brother Nick Rutman.

“I’d outgrown my old office, and when I saw photographs of this place, I could visualize what it would become. I really wanted it,” Burnside said. “Maddie’sresponse, right away, was ‘No!’ She said, ‘What are you thinking? You don’t want that! What’re you going to do with that big open area?’ It just popped into my head – ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’”

Church-thumbnail-picThe former sanctuary has been transformed into a balconied mock courtroom that very much resembles the one so prominent in the 1962 Gregory Peck film. Clients are able to practice giving testimony and being cross-examined before appearing in court. The attorneys are able to rehearse and receive feedback on their opening and closing statements.

The couple also plans on using the space for student mock trials, community events, and social gatherings. Additionally, the baptistery has been converted into a jury box and legal reference books line a shelf in what was previously a choir loft.

Other selling points of the building included the location and style of the building. Burnside believes being situated between U.S. 52 East and West is more convenient for his clients and the residential neighborhood is more comfortable for them than being near the courthouse.

The almost yearlong renovation stayed true to the architectural integrity of the building, making only cosmetic changes including adding new doors and carpeting, removing paneling, and updating hardware. They kept some of the stained glass windows and original light fixtures. There was no need for structural changes as the “bones” of the building were solid. The modern décor lends a clean, bright environment. The selling point for Maddie was the chance to decorate the offices. “There’s a fine line. We don’t want to offend people who have so many memories in this church, but we don’t want people to feel like they’re in church when they’re here.”

Jeremy studied at the Appalachian School of Law in Grundy, Virginia. After practicing for five years in his hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, he determined there was a need in Appalachia for attorneys specializing in personal injury, wrongful death, and nursing home abuse and relocated to southern Ohio. Shortly afterward, he met Portsmouth native Maddie Rutman at a chamber of commerceevent, and the rest, as they say, is history. They believe their investment in the church to be a professional one as well as an investment in the region and its history.

The Burnsides report that their shared interest in local history has increased since purchasing Calvary Baptist as they became better acquainted with the building’s origins. In the late 1800s, another church building stood on that location, but burned down. During renovation, Jeremy and Maddie found a brick room with the original door and hardware they think might have belonged to that early structure. They’ve also spoken to members of the church’s congregation to learn about renowned preachers and various social events hosted onsite.

The Burnsides believe Calvary Baptist is only the second church in the United States to be converted into a law office, the other being in Kansas. The church’s congregation, still alive and thriving in another building, has consistently been one of the prominent religious groups in the area. “We have found the congregation to be very supportive of this being an office. Everything has been positive. I’ve heard of other churches being converted into nightclubs or breweries, and I can see where that might be upsetting, especially if the church had closed down instead of moving into another building,” Maddie stated.

The couple expect the uniqueness of their office to attract clients as well as give it character. A partner at the law firm in Kansas told them some clients had driven hundreds of miles because the practice was in an old church, reporting that they felt safe and protected there, as if God were on their side.

The completion of the renovation coincided with the achievement of another goal – the publishing and release of Jeremy’s book, “Look to Your Left: A True Story of Surviving Law School in the Face of Impossibility, Murder and an Appalachian Apocalypse.”  The book is an account of his turbulent spring semester during which Burnside lost his home to an explosion, the town of Grundy was flooded, and three people (including the school’s dean) were murdered. Jeremy Burnside’s goal now is to have the best personal injury law firm in all of Ohio. “I think this building gives me the opportunity to spread my wings, to be able to accomplish my goal. With the greater building comes greater responsibility. I take the work I do for my clients seriously, and I feel that now I have a better space for that, for more staff, and for more resources. The building will allow me to step up and really do a good job for my clients.”

Info:
To learn more about the two businesses residing in the church building, go tojburnsidelaw.com or call (740) 370-6117 or go to rutmanburnside.com or call (740) 354-HOME. Otherwise, visit the offices at 1118 Hutchins Street,Portsmouth.

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Chaille Holt

Chaille B. Holt is a freelance writer and editor residing in Flatwoods, Ky. A former reference librarian and bibliographer/editor for Duke University's Environmental History, Holt has a master's degree from Louisiana State University and a bachelor's in English from Morehead State University. On a perfect day, you would find her poolside, happily scribbling poetry and plotting great escapes while listening to classic rock.

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