A Private Sanctuary

A downtown church becomes a haven for art, found objects and eclectic style

Chele Isaac calls a historic church home. SEE MORE PHOTOS OF THE HOME IN THE SLIDESHOW BELOW.

Chele Isaac calls a historic church home. SEE MORE PHOTOS OF THE HOME IN THE SLIDESHOW BELOW.

Chele Isaac wasn’t looking for another church.

The artist was living in Chicago and using a former church in DeKalb, Illinois, as a studio when she met her husband, Madison venture capitalist John Neis. When Isaac moved to the city, she figured she’d find a warehouse for her art making.

“One thing leads to another and we hear this church is for sale,” she says.

The church was the Swedish Lutheran Gloria Dei Church, built in 1922 with an annex added in 1957. Realizing it could be a space for working and living, Isaac and Neis bought it in 1999. Today, they share the colorful, art-filled home with their border collie mix Maia.

The ten-thousand-square-foot Gothic Revival building was barely habitable when the couple first moved in. But they jumped into a years-long rehabbing process, fixing the foundation, upgrading the electrical system, replacing floors and windows, building a new staircase and closets, creating a new kitchen and bathrooms and adding a loft and deck, much with the help of carpenter and remodeler Patrick Crean.

Isaac and Neis chose the basement level for most of their living space: A kitchen, dining room, bathroom, and master and guest bedrooms are located in an open, industrial-style area. “We started calling it a subterranean loft,” she says. “Even though it’s a basement, it has eleven-foot ceilings.”

In the old choir loft, the pair set up an office for Neis. Isaac has an office, too, as well as an expansive studio for creating art. It’s complete with a colorful kitchenette and bathroom and a cozy sitting area by windows.

On the top floor, the couple carved out more living space, building a loft with a bed tucked up in a corner and a streamlined deck that sets them at eye level with treetops and roofs. Both here and in the downstairs living room, Isaac showcases her fondness for contemporary style accented with a variety of art, furniture and found objects.

“It’s eclectic,” she says. “Most of the stuff, you just kind of run across it or you find it in your travels.”

Isaac’s own art is on display throughout the house, as well as works by friends and other artists. Furniture pieces might come from stores, but more often they’re items handed down from family members or picked up at SWAP (the university’s Surplus With A Purpose) or thrift shops.

But one of the most distinctive spots is the church’s sanctuary. The cavernous room houses a large-scale beehive Isaac built, plus a trapeze for performances and practices by local aerial dance troupe Cycropia. The couple have hosted other performances, parties and events here, including fundraisers for Jim Doyle, Tammy Baldwin and the Urban League of Greater Madison.

While some homeowners would never see potential in a historic church—and she resisted taking on another one at first—Isaac always knew she could make it a home that’s comfortable and suits the style she and Neis love.

“I could see precisely how this building would function,” she says.

Katie Vaughn is associate editor of Madison Magazine.

Find more House of the Month features here.

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