Leap of Faith: How a Baptist Church Became a Climbing Gym
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Bloomington, Indiana. A small college town 50 miles southwest of Indianapolis, sprinkled with limestone-wrapped buildings, dogwood trees and bike paths. Since last year, Bloomington is home to the newest adaptation of Hoosier Heights, located in a mid-century church.
After entering the church basement and checking in with the front desk, past the retail and party rooms climbers find a bouldering island centered between a wooden pitched roof, the rising sides conjoined to a point 25 feet above the climbers. Sets of pentagonal windows line the sides of the former chapel, allowing raking rays of light to paint the interior a glowing shade of amber. Original lantern-shaped pendants drape from the ceiling and cast shadows on the outside pews. Where a congregation once sat to worship their lord, climbers now don rock shoes through puffs of drifting chalk dust.
The church-to-gym project involved many challenges, including structural and spatial logistics, addressing the needs of a historically-listed building and, of course, the costs of transforming a house of God into rock walls with plastic holds.
From 2002 to 2009, Joe Anderson settled into Bloomington, Indiana life. In between classes at Indiana University, where he was getting his Ph.D. in psychology and clinical science, Anderson discovered climbing in an old warehouse building located 15 minutes from downtown. With fake “rock-like” walls for bouldering and ropes, the original 1998 Hoosier Heights was once upon a time a forward-looking gym. After falling in love with the sport, Anderson became an investor in the gym.
Between Anderson’s home and Hoosier Heights, the McDoel Baptist church sat mid-commute in a historic Indiana neighborhood. “I always saw it and thought it was a cool building, but I didn’t think much of it,” says Anderson.
After further investing in the gym, Anderson took over as owner. A year later, the Hoosier Heights warehouse needed an upgrade, while the McDoel Baptist church conveniently went up for sale.
“Adaptive reuse” is converting an existing building for a new purpose. For Anderson, this chuch-to-gym transformation was that and more. “Rather than thinking of it as a purely economic decision, I like to call it my love letter to Bloomington,” Anderson says.
While churches don’t typically lend themselves as good spaces for secondary purposes, Anderson was inspired by the building’s aesthetics and by the fact that it was already a communal space. While not a churchgoer himself, he saw the potential the building had as a different kind of community focal-point. Plus, because churches typically are so difficult to repurpose, they’re cheap to buy. But before purchasing, Anderson sought the input of local neighbors.
Paul Ash, 68, has lived two doors down from the church since 1991. He recalls Anderson showing up to a neighborhood meeting, which was in the basement of the church. “Joe was telling us he was thinking about buying the church to turn in into a climbing gym,” says Ash. “All we could think was, ‘Goody!’ because we were afraid the church was going to become a shopping center or just sit vacant.”
During Anderson’s presentation to the neighborhood association, a large brown bat took flight in the belfry. “I thought, Oh no, this will kill the deal! But Joe wasn’t deterred at all,” says Ash.
After getting the neighborhood’s stamp of approval, Anderson reached out to longtime Hoosier Heights member Loren Wood. Wood’s company, Loren Wood Builders, is one of the best high-end home-building and design companies in Bloomington, according to Anderson. Wood was willing to lend his expertise at a highly discounted rate. Together, Wood and Anderson blueprinted the gym to meet customer needs within the building’s structural limitations.
Anderson also worked closely with the City Planning Commission and Historic Planning Commission. Because the church is a historic building, Anderson would have to take extra precautions when beginning renovations. “If somebody broke a window, we would have had to replace the window with exactly the same type,” says Anderson.
Other church-to-gym transformations have failed in the wake of hidden costs and politics. “I’ve looked at quite a few churches,” Adam Koberna, president of U.S. operations for Walltopia, told Outside. “And they rarely work out.”
The most difficult part of Anderson’s project proved to be convincing the City Planning Commission to allow construction of a stand-alone box for lead climbing next to the chapel. “People were mad that it was an eye-sore,” says Anderson. “But luckily most of the neighbors in the community were saying, ‘We want this,’ and, ‘We know this is better than whatever else could go into this place.’ Those people who really stood up for me at the city council level made the project able to move forward.”
Anderson based his designs on his own preferences as a customer. He was interested in not only creating a welcoming climbing space, but also preserving as many elements of the church as possible. The choir loft would become the training area, with a Moon Board and systems boards. The original chapel, inlaid with pine hardwood floor, became the yoga studio. Almost anywhere a climber is going to sit is an old pew.
The most important thing Anderson reused was the lighting. “For me, a church feels like stained glass and warm lighting and the way the light interacts with the space,” he says. “I wanted to build the climbing walls in a way to both be good for climbing and maintain the airy, light-filled feeling of a church.”
Anderson went with Walltopia for his walls. He had a construction box for lead climbing built 10 feet from the chapel and, to the detriment of the climbing, but as a sort of compromise to the neighborhood, he pitched the roof of the construction box to match the pitch of the chapel. The pitched roof gave “the big ugly building,” as Ash affectionately called it, a slightly more aesthetic appeal.
In addition to climbing space, Anderson added offices for Hoosier Heights and a party room that doubles as a community space. The neighborhood association continues to convene, quarterly, right where it always has.
“While someone like the 85-year-old woman that lives down the street probably isn’t going to use the space for climbing, that doesn’t mean she can’t use a positive space,” says Anderson.
The church’s history goes way back. It’s members’ grandparents and great grandparents went there. While the congregation needed to find a new, more manageable space for the aging affiliates, Hoosier Heights has comfortably taken up the church’s communal legacy.
Feature image by Loren Wood Builders