ST. PETERSBURG — Neither the Lutherans who first occupied the 4300 block of Central Avenue, nor the evangelical congregation that followed could ever have imagined tree houses sprouting in their church sanctuary.
Yet that’s one of the plans of new owner Squaremouth Inc., which bought the property in December for $1.4 million, with plans to spend about that much more to create the unconventional work space it envisions.
Squaremouth is moving from smaller downtown space, on the top floor of the City Center office complex offering envious views, to the old church with its less fashionable address.
"There wasn’t room enough to grow," Chris Harvey, the company’s CEO, said.
His online travel insurance comparison site, which offers an unorthodox work environment — employees sit at a different desk every day, for instance — had expanded to another floor at its 100 Second Ave. S site, but the move didn’t fit its collaborative philosophy.
"Even though we were only an elevator ride away, it separated us. We like wide open spaces," Harvey said, adding that employes work from laptops and sit wherever they please.
"We have couches and carpets, just places to hang out. We want to get back to more of that. ...We wanted to get a huge space again and build something creative."
The 20,000-square-foot church, at 4355 Central Ave., offers that opportunity, though it means moving further from downtown than planned. Employees will initially move into the sanctuary, with its high ceilings and stained glass windows. With the pews already gone, it’s here that the tree houses will take root.
"We think we’re going to do about five. We are going to do different themes, different heights," Harvey said, adding that they will be connected to the sanctuary’s loft by two bridges.
"Each tree house will have a different, alternative way down," he said.
Like firehouse poles, or slides. "Or, you could just walk across the bridge and down the stairs." Renovation and restoration of the building, part of which was constructed during the 1940s, will start in the atrium. The vaulted wooden ceiling in what was the original sanctuary is obscured by a drop ceiling, which will be removed. Plans also call for a European-style coffee shop in an area that includes a closed-off balcony, a commercial kitchen and an outdoor space with a fountain.
"We’re really hoping to move in April," said Aidan Harvey, the CEO’s son and company operations director, during a tour of the facility. He said the property has already been tented for termites. As he gave a tour of facility, sprawled over an entire block, wooden pews were being dismantled to be donated to an orphanage in Haiti.
The church’s former congregation, Gateway Christian Center, is leasing back some of the space until it moves to its new quarters in mid-March. The building had previously been occupied by the former Redeemer Lutheran congregation, which merged with Trinity Lutheran at 401 Fifth St. N in 2003. Gateway Christian Center bought the property that same year for $1.05 million, but has been burdened with its upkeep.
"We had three other deals that fell through at the last minute," said its pastor, the Rev. Joe Van Koevering.
When Squaremouth made an offer, church leaders were ready to accept it. Gateway Christian, affiliated with the Foursquare Gospel organization in California, is waiting to close on the Tradewinds Christian Church property at 6740 Park St. S in South Pasadena. The city of South Pasadena had hoped to buy the property for a new fire station.
Squaremouth is beginning to deal with some of the property’s delayed maintenance issues. Replacing the roof will cost about $200,000, Harvey said. That’s almost as much as he borrowed back in 2003 to start the business that offers its own line of travel insurance and also sells hundreds of others. It also has an office in Fort Wayne, Ind., for software development.
This will be the company’s fifth move. Harvey began Squaremouth in his home on St. Pete Beach, leased office space on Corey Avenue in 2009, then Dolphin Village the following year. The move to downtown St. Petersburg came in 2012.
"We were just not able to attract the right staff to travel out to the beach," Harvey said.
He described the company’s staff as diverse, with women making up a majority of the management team. It offers unlimited paid vacation, and because people were not taking vacation, the company decided to impose a mandatory minimum of 10 days.
"We all took a vote on it," Harvey said. "We don’t do micro management. If your job is to produce videos, how you get there really doesn’t matter."
There are other perks.
Last year, employees and their families were taken on an all-expenses-paid cruise. The company has three billiards tables, napping room, arcade machines and a keg with local beer on tap. There’s no dress code. The new Central Avenue location will have room to set up child care.
"The environment is designed to make people relaxed and become creative. We want to make it the best possible place to work," Harvey said.
The latest move was also put to a vote.
"We took everybody over and we went and sat in there and said, ‘These are the plans. What do you think?’" Harvey said. "Then overwhelmingly, everybody said, ‘Let’s do it.’"
Contact Waveney Ann Moore at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.