Abandoned church reborn as office space combining old, new

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — The free coffee bar, standing desks and sleek lines mark Audible’s new office space as decidedly 21st-century. The pews, historic pipe organ and dazzling stained glass provide a backdrop that is anything but.

When the audio book and entertainment company wanted a site to expand its headquarters, it traveled about one block south and 200 years in the past, taking over an abandoned church in the heart of New Jersey’s largest city that began serving congregants 50 years before the Civil War.

The result, to be officially unveiled Friday, is a pastiche of old and new that is at once visually arresting and functional.

Every inch of the former Second Presbyterian Church seems to have a purpose, whether for alternative seating, quiet spaces or glass-walled conference rooms — one of which sits right next to the pipe organ and its 3,400 pipes ranging in size from 6 inches (15 centimeters) to 16 feet (5 meters).

On a recent morning, a small group of employees convened in a meeting area underneath the 640-square-foot (59-square-meter) stained glass array that was the former church’s centerpiece, above a balcony where a choir once led the congregation in song.

The church congregation dissolved in 1995, according to the Philadelphia-based Presbyterian Historical Society, and the church was unused and in disrepair when Audible began looking for a new space in 2013. Former senior vice president Wayne Nash recalled someone jokingly mentioning it as an option.

“It was flooded with water, the roof was open in multiple locations, the birds had set up nests,” Nash said. “There was a considerable amount of trash. But if you took the time to look through it you could see there were things that could be restored.”

Nash, a pastor’s son from California who managed the expansion project, said he initially was hesitant about turning the sacred space to a secular use, but consulted his father and “prayed over it” before he recommended going ahead.

Restoring the 80,000-square-foot (7,432-square-meter) space was a tall order. The stained glass alone, which was sent to a studio in Indiana for cleaning and re-coloring, took more than two years to refurbish.

“You couldn’t even see through it, it looked like there was crud from 100 years, which is what it was,” Audible founder and CEO Don Katz said. “The light wouldn’t even go through it.”

The bottom floor features a full kitchen, cafe and a refurbished, four-lane bowling alley that was part of the church’s community center. Employees can reserve time between 5 p.m. and 8 p.m.

Katz said the project is in keeping with the company’s commitment to aid the resurgence of Newark’s downtown, where new office buildings and other amenities including a Whole Foods have replaced vacant lots and abandoned storefronts. Among Audible’s programs are internships restricted to native Newarkers and a stipend to employees who relocate to Newark.

The church “is a metaphor for our embrace of the comeback of a great American city,” Katz said.