‘A thing for old buildings’

Tony and Londa Johnson converted the old Lutheran Church in Elkton into apartments. They did it because they have “a thing for old buildings ... to save them from destruction.” Courtesy photo

Old church now new apartments

BROOKINGS – United Parish in Elkton had been “the old Lutheran Church.” 

Now the church has been converted into three two-bedroom, two-bath, 1,250-square-foot apartments by the husband-and-wife team of Anthony “Tony” Johnson and Londa Johnson.

The couple admit to having “a thing for old buildings, some kind of addiction for old buildings … to save them from destruction.” The 2nd Street Apartments is their latest venture.

“She has this decorator thing that goes on in her head,” Tony said of his wife. “Then she decides how she would like to see it and then we try to build it like that.”

She’s “kind of the interior decorator”; he’s “kind of the builder.” Together side-by-side in avocation as well as in life – they’ve been married more than 40 years – they complement each other in getting the job done.

“I tell her, ‘Well, that’s a great idea but it won’t work,’ because of plumbing or air conditioning or wire or separation of buildings or whatever,” Tony said, as they both laughed. “Then we change things around until we come to an agreement.”

One interesting way the couple complement each other is tied to their idiosyncrasies: he has a bit of acrophobia; she’s a touch claustrophobic.

“I’m OK with heights, but don’t ask me to crawl in a little spot,” Londa said.

“And I can crawl in a little spot,” Tony said. “I can do that, so we kind of have this thing.”

A big piece of the transformation is the high-up windows, what you would expect to find on a church.

“We’re in the process now of getting some storm windows here,” he explained. “We took the old storms off and we’re going to scrape and paint and try to restore these windows. You can kind of see the old glass.” This piece of the project demanded the kind of high-up work Londa feels comfortable doing.

They purchased the old church about five years ago but didn’t do much with it. For awhile Tony used the building as a warehouse for storing the equipment and parts used in his air conditioning and heating business.

When they had some spare time, they would check out the building to determine what they “could save and what had to go.” And about this time this year they decided to finish the job.

“I’m getting out of the air conditioning and heating business,” he explained. “So we took on this project.” 

What they had to work with was the original church, built about 1896 or 1897 and a later addition erected in 1965. The steeple was gone.

Old, state of the art

“At any rate, we wanted to try to retain some of the original character of the building, because it’s one of the oldest buildings in town,” Tony added. “When people came way back when, one of the first things they did was build a church.”

Explaining the original structure of the church, he noted, “Of course, it’s all full-cut 2X4s, 2x6s – they’re actually 2-inch by 8-inch. So matching up the new wood with the old wood, you have to either cut board down or add to it to get your width equivalent. We’ve done this a lot of times, so we have a pretty good idea of what to do.”

Both agree that the original construction of the church was done well. “It’s solid, straight, good head height in the basement,” Londa said. “That’s why we were willing to do all this (project), because the bones were solid.”

“Nice concrete floor,” Tony added. “The block is actual cement block, not like the light block of today. You go to cut a hole through it, you better have good arms on your saw, because it’s going to take you a little while.”

In 1965 a new section was added to the church. No new construction was needed.

A major project like this present one was a bit different from some they did in the past. They’ve frequently bought older houses, lived in them while they renovated or remodeled and then sold them.

“We did a railroad hotel in Plankinton, where I originally grew up,” Tony said. Londa added, “It was going to be destroyed. We bought it with no real plans but to save it. We got everything shored up and got everything solid and the historical society took it.”

In this project, however, after using as much of the church’s old materials as possible, the project was not done; it was time to bring in the new and state of the art: electricity, plumbing, LED lighting, HVAC (heating, ventilation, air conditioning) and compatibility for hooking up the electronic digital devices of the information age. 

The couple have lived in the area for about 20 years and are now at home on an acreage near Aurora. Londa, from Stickney, and Tony, from Plankinton, were high school sweethearts and married at age 20.

Tony earned two degrees from the University of South Dakota: a bachelor’s degree in construction and an associates degree in HVAC. Londa earned an associate’s degree in secretarial and accounting from Mitchell Technical Institute.

They have a married daughter and one granddaughter.

Contact John Kubal at [email protected]


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