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Old First Baptist Church in Natchez will be reborn as shops and condos

For more than 25 years, the old First Baptist Church on Main Street in Natchez has been vacant. In later years, vagrancy was a problem at the church, which sustained major roof damage from a tornado in 1998.

But what was a blight is now being slated for a major renovation that will take the huge structure and turn it into elegant, upscale accommodations for offices, a coffee shop, retail and luxury condominiums.

Judith Weatherly, owner of Dream Homes Inc., bought the building for $78,000 before even inspecting it, originally thinking she would use it to expand the business run by her mother, Addie Thompson. Addie’s Antique Mall opened in August nearby on Franklin Street and is 100% rented out with a waiting list.

“I bought it sight unseen,” said Weatherly, who closed on the building three days after making an offer on it. “My brother, Jim Thompson, went to look at it and said, ‘This thing is huge!’ It is about 30,000 square feet. It is less than a block from our antique mall. We bought the building because we were going to expand the mall. When I saw how big the building was, it was too big just for an antique mall. So I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh! What am I going to do with it?’”

Plans are now being drawn up by Natchez architect Johnny Waycaster to restore the historic building, putting retail and a coffee shop on the first floor, offices on the second floor and condos on the third floor. The neo-classical building will retain its big columns and grand entrance, and the area in the center of the building damaged by the tornado will be turned into a spacious three-story atrium courtyard.

“The building itself is very structurally sound,” Weatherly said. “The tornado damage hit the very center of the roof, so we only have about 5,000 square feet that we have to repair. That is going to be an atrium. Then all the shops, offices and condominiums on the second and third floors will come off of a courtyard atmosphere. It is going to be gorgeous.”

As soon as the architectural drawings are complete, Weatherly plans to pre-sell the six to 10 luxury condominiums planned for the building. She expects the condos will sell for approximately $350,000 each.

Millions of dollars will be invested in the adaptive re-use project that is highly welcomed by the City of Natchez.

“Number one, it is going to put an historic building back in service,” said Paul L. Dawes, city building official. “That building has been vacant for 25 or 30 years. The roof is gone over a section of it, so it is in dire need of having something done soon. The condos are a wonderful idea because it will be put older folks downtown so they won’t have far to go. I think it is a good idea.”

But it won’t be a simple project. Dawes said the entire building will have to be rewired and replumbed, and a new heat and air conditioning system will be required along with new elevators

“It is more difficult to retro an older building like this than it is to start from scratch with a new building,” Dawes said. “But it is good to save older buildings. Everybody around here is crazy about the idea. It is a good, viable project. I don’t anticipate they will have any trouble getting full occupancy.”

Dawes said there is currently a boom in renovation of old buildings in Natchez. Part of that is fueled by an influx of new residents since Hurricane Katrina that has resulted in a housing shortage.

“So we will take all the help we can get,” Dawes said.

“The Main Street building is definitely a challenge,” said Weatherly. “I want to keep the style and grace of the old building yet update and upgrade for today’s needs.”

Weatherly has a good idea what she is getting into. The native of Mississippi who grew up in Red Bank, population 301, outside of Holly Springs, she has been developing since 1981. A resident of New Orleans for the past 36 years, she holds contractor licenses both in Mississippi and Louisiana. In addition to building new homes and commercial buildings, she also does work repairing storm-damaged structures.

Weatherly lost quite a few homes in Louisiana as a result of Hurricane Katrina damage. In addition to the loss of a 14-unit apartment complex, several single-family houses sat under water for three months and another house was destroyed by a tree falling on it.

“I lost quite a few houses,” she said. “Then I said, ‘I can’t lose everything.’ So I packed up all the antiques, went to Natchez and fell in love with the people and the city. It is absolutely wonderful. I go up there every three weeks and spend a week when I can get time off. Natchez is a wonderful town, which has maintained its architecture, grace and romance of a period from long ago.”

Weatherly’ daughter, Mary Ann Weatherly, will be involved with the project, designing the interiors of the condominiums.

“I like the grand entrance and the fact there is going to be a huge atrium in the middle,” Mary Ann said.

Some challenges include narrow hallways and disjointed access from one area of the building to another. Right now it is choppy. The idea is to create a better flow from one portion of the building to another. Although all the details haven’t been worked out yet, she is sure of one thing. “It is going to be beautiful. It is going to pull you in with the old and new brought together.”

Her mother says the building will have a French Quarter-type appeal. The structure will look like a huge house from the front.

For the past month, the primary work has been cleaning out the building. Five dumpsters of trash have been removed.

Weatherly estimated it will cost about $2 million to do the first two levels of the building, which will be done first before the condos. Weatherly’s brother, Jim Thompson, is the construction supervisor for the project. Dream Homes hopes to start construction and renovations to common areas within six months.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette4@cox.net.

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