ULYSSES, N.Y. — Some people go to church to add a sense of purpose to their lives. More rarely, it’s the other way around — some churches have people give them a new purpose in life. For the old Methodist church in Jacksonville, that new purpose brings a sense of hope to the hamlet that hasn’t been seen since parishioners filled its pews.

Photo by Jennifer Wholey

Out of disaster comes hope and renewal

For those who have been around the area long enough, the story of Jacksonville, a modest hamlet between Trumansburg and Ithaca, is something of a cautionary tale. Almost fifty years ago, after the hamlet’s Mobil gas station leaked copious amounts of gasoline into the groundwater, the toxic hydrocarbons percolated through the little burg and contaminated the wells of nearby homes; the water was no longer drinkable, and noxious fumes caused residents to collapse in their homes.

When Mobil (now ExxonMobil) was brought to task, the situation was hardly an improvement. In the process of cleaning the spills, Mobil purchased many of the impacted properties and eventually tore them down, decimating the little hamlet’s heart. The old Methodist church at 5020 Jacksonville Road, whose timbers were laid in 1827, was only saved after the town and the Jacksonville Community Association pleaded for it to be spared. Since then, Mobil had put only the minimum of maintenance into it, mowing the lawn and not much else. The church, once a symbol of religious grace and a community focal point, was now neglected and forlorn.

The hamlet and the town of Ulysses watched its condition warily. The town had long harbored hopes of revitalizing the hamlet, especially after the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s tests showed that the chemically volatile gasoline had finally diffused and disintegrated to safe levels in 2005. A public water line now services parts of the area, and rather than lose more fields and woods to homeowners encroaching from Ithaca, the town has long hoped to bring some life back to Jacksonville’s old bones.

Images courtesy of the town of Ulysses

In 2013, the town began discussing purchasing the church and other properties from ExxonMobil. The multinational corporation was warm to the idea, a chance to get rid of some excess assets whose purpose had been served as far as the company was concerned. By April 2017, the town had agreed to buy the church and two other properties for a modest sum of $5,001. One of the properties, 5036 Jacksonville Road, was a vacant lot that could serve as a parking and/or septic area for the church. The third, a vacant lot at 1853 Trumansburg Road, could be a few different options — housing, business, park and ride, and so on. The sale closed last July.

The old church may look worse for wear, but the structure is sound; some cleanup and a few modest repairs, and it was good to go on the market. The town listed with local realtor Margaret Hobbie and crossed its fingers. As time went on, the asking price slowly ticked downward, from $65,000 to $59,500, and then to $49,500. For the record, the town’s acquisition, repair and legal costs have totalled about $30,000.

“The challenges relate to the unfortunate neglect of this wonderful structure while it was owned by Exxon Mobil,” said deputy town supervisor Nancy Zahler. “While the structure is viable, there has been some damage and the new owner will need to adhere to both environmental and historic preservation deed restrictions while bringing it back to life. We lowered the price to make it possible for a new owner to purchase the building at a fair price, knowing that the larger expense will be in the renovations.”

Since going on the market, the property was shown about forty times, with four offers. The town scored them on financial viability and benefits to the community. One planned to simply sit on it, another a workshop and residence, a third suggested a spa; but the fourth offer was the one they liked the most.

Photo by Jennifer Wholey

“It feels like the next step”

“I just came across it online, honestly. At first, it seemed…I wasn’t really looking for something like it, but I immediately saw its potential,” said Cameron Neuhoff.

Neuhoff’s not your typical 20-something young adult. He’s a 2016 graduate of the Cornell architecture school. While there, he discovered that he loved building things as much as he loved designing them. That led to a student group he founded called “Building Community”, a network of Cornell students who collaborated with local community groups to organize and swap craft skills. The group also created a community building tool library to allow skilled crafters of limited means to carry on their work. The tool library is now managed by Ithaca Generator.

“(T)hroughout my 5 years (at Cornell), I developed a real passion for making things. I was in the shop a lot, making models, and I was working outside the classroom to increase that skill set. I had been wanting to make a case for practical skills and crafts and ideas of making in the design process. That wasn’t so emphasized at Cornell, so I had a desire to bring that to the forefront in my own practice.”

Currently, Neuhoff is wrapping up a grant-funded trip across the country, meeting other designer/builders as he explores the “maker” side of architecture, something that he says is missing from the schools and the professional practices. “The first person I met on that trip was someone who contributed to my research, (Trumansburg architect) Jonathan Ferrari, he was one of the first I talked to, and his way of practice resonated with me. That led to me applying for a job with him, and that led to me finding this church project. In my efforts to find somewhere to live, I came across this church, and thought it would be a really unique opportunity in terms of potential to learn from it. It’s also a way to create a positive community asset, and really offer something to the town and its residents, as well as a place for me.”

Neuhoff’s plan is to renovate the first floor for a residence, and turn the second floor into a community space, like a cafe, restaurant, or something else in that vein of a gathering place, depending on what the community says they want to see there. According to Neuhoff, the second floor is structurally better suited for a community space, and the processional staircase leading up to the second level is something that deserves to be honored and enjoyed by the public. The facility’s exterior would be restored to its historic appearance, and the interior would be brought up to code and made to be fully handicap accessible.

“My proposal had to do with really valuing the structure itself, first and foremost, as this really amazing testament to craft. The fact that it’s still standing after all these years, I was immediately captivated by it as a structure. It’s simple, elegant and approachable for someone like me, who’s proposing to do a lot of the work on my own, as both a learning experience, and a way to demonstrate my skills and capabilities, and through that process create a really unique community space…I’m a fan of small towns, the area is beautiful and worth putting effort into. ”

Neuhoff made it clear that the project was a long-term investment; he planned to steadily renovate the space as a labor of love, complementing his work as an architect. He will be working with Ferrari as he builds his credentials to obtain a professional architect’s license, a process he described as taking “a few years, five years.” Neuhoff sees opportunity to make the church a focal point once again in a revitalized Jacksonville, and to help jump-start neighboring plans as the hamlet looks to regain its former glory. In a nod to its more recent past, Neuhoff, who plans to someday get a master’s degree in landscape architecture, would like to include landscaping that supports and beautifies the process of environmental remediation.

Photo by Jennifer Wholey

A new start for Jacksonville

At this point, the sale paperwork has been prepared, but not finalized. Town law states that the sale is subject to a “permissive referendum”, meaning that if a group of residents choose to file a petition for a referendum, and it has enough signatures, the town is obligated to bring the sale up for a community vote. The referendum filing period ends April 12; if none are filed with the requisite number of signatures, the sale is then able to move forward.

“We hope to be able to proceed and believe that the proposal Cameron submitted is a good fit with the goals of our Comprehensive Plan for historic preservation and revitalization of Jacksonville,” said Zahler. “If we can finalize the transaction, we look forward to this exciting private re-development in Jacksonville.”

“I’m happy that my proposal is valued, I’m honored that I’m trusted with this thing that could potentially be a really positive space for people to engage with and for the community to have,” said Neuhoff when asked to describe how it felt to be tackling a project like this. Not many people his age can claim to own a property, let alone a nearly 200 year-old former church.

“You know, it feels natural to me. It’s because the church and this project and the interactions I’m going to be having with people in the community, it’s all really like the ultimate project, in the sense that everything I’ve been working towards, they’ve pointed towards a project with significance like this one, that I can have a hand in creating. To me, it feels like the next step, and I’m excited about it. It won’t be something that happens overnight, but I’m ready and I’m gonna show up and do good work. I’ve got the vision for it.”

Brian Crandall reports on housing and development for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at bcrandall@ithacavoice.org.