This story has been corrected to state that WATTS is currently using a portion of the church for a thermal shelter.
WINCHESTER — David A. Rao is about to become the proud owner of a church. Now he just needs to figure out what to do with it.
Rao, a Winchester native who lives in Harrisonburg, is buying the former First United Methodist Church building at 308 N. Braddock St.
Officials at First United Methodist decided on Oct. 15, 2019, to sell the building in downtown Winchester in order to build a new sanctuary on land it owns at 362 Apple Pie Ridge Road in Frederick County, near James Wood High School.
That church has not yet been built, even though the congregation stopped using the downtown Winchester facility in March 2020. Since that time, members have held weekly worship services in a covered pavilion on their Frederick County property.
The original asking price for the downtown church was $1.6 million, which was subsequently reduced to $1.2 million. When it failed to sell, Rao made an offer that church officials accepted. He declined to divulge the amount of the offer but said it should give First United Methodist enough money to build a new church. The deal is expected to close in January.
During a tour of the former church on Tuesday morning, Rao said most of the building — the parts that accommodated offices and classrooms — will most likely be converted into one-bedroom and efficiency apartments geared toward working adults.
“A lot of people want to live in an environment where they park their car ... and walk to dinner, get a drink, get a cup of coffee,” Rao said. “We’re a block from the [Loudoun Street] Mall.”
However, he has no idea what to do with the former sanctuary that still includes pews, a pulpit, stained-glass windows, a balcony, a large wooden cross, stacks of hymnals, a piano, a pipe organ and more.
“It would break my heart to destroy this, but it would break my bank to do nothing with it,” Rao said.
From floor to ceiling, the sanctuary is about two stories tall and is by far the largest single feature in the 26,385-square-foot building.
Rao’s initial ideas for the space include a micro-brewery, restaurant or performance venue, but nothing has been decided. Ultimately, he said he wants something that can generate revenue while still being respectful of the building’s original purpose as a place of worship.
A portion of the vacant church is the current home to the Winchester Area Temporary Thermal Shelter (WATTS). Rao said it's in the purchase contract that WATTS can finish out the season at the church. If the nonprofit is interested in returning to the former First United Methodist building next winter, Rao said he would consider the request if development of the property allows because he wants to be a good community partner.
For now, Rao said his priority is speaking with anyone with an idea for operating a business in the former church’s sanctuary. He can be reached during business hours at 540-442-6420.