Historic church buzzes with saws and sanders
As a property manager, Sam Unruh spent most of his day trying to solve problems for disgruntled tenants.
When he needed to recharge, he headed to the detached garage of his tiny Grandview home for a new hobby: building furniture for his pregnant wife, Hayley.
He started small with a TV stand but soon made a coffee table, bed and dining room table, spurred by his wife’s positive feedback. He honed his skills through trial and error, visiting internet sites on woodworking and asking for tips from “older guys,” including his father and grandfather.
“I enjoyed working with my hands, getting a vision for something and then creating it,” he said.
Within a few months he was selling his furniture on Craigslist, plowing profits into better tools. Hayley convinced him to make it a full-time job for the summer of 2011. With that test, the business took off.
By spring 2012, Unruh had expanded to a tiny shop nearby and hired his first employee. A year later, Unruh Furniture had outgrown the shop and relocated to a 5,000-square-foot warehouse, adding several more employees. By mid-2014, he was ready to purchase and renovate a 10,000-square-foot warehouse next door and increase his staff to 14.
He knew he would soon need an even larger space and, on a lark, looked at a historic limestone building in the heart of the city. At 36,000 square feet, the former church at 3600 Walnut St. was too large and, at $600,000, way out of his price range.
He put it on his wish list and by late 2015, when he needed to expand Unruh Furniture again, the price had dropped to $350,000. However, renovation would cost that and more. And he had perhaps a bigger hurdle: getting the city and the neighbors on board with putting “a furniture manufacturer inside a historic church in a historic residential neighborhood.”
“But the building was falling apart, and no one was going to buy it. Once they realized I was the best chance of saving the building, and who we are — we’re good to our employees, good to our community — we won them over,” he said.
After nine months of renovations, Unruh Furniture softly opened in late September, by appointment only. But visitors will be welcome for tours during its grand opening from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday, Oct. 10-Thursday, Oct. 13.
The church was built in the early 1900s with a facade made of 22-inch-thick, locally sourced limestone. The pastor’s office is now a staging room where Unruh Furniture photographs its pieces.
An addition at the back of the building (circa 1912) is the “build room.” Soaring 26 feet above is a domed, stained-glass skylight. A wraparound balcony is enclosed in glass so customers can watch the process. Former Sunday school classrooms along the balcony are furniture showrooms.
One room features a 15-foot conference room table. On the walls are slabs of wood species — alder, walnut, hickory, cherry, red oak and maple — in six stains and six color finishes for customers to select from. The company currently has 135 products but no inventory because pieces are made to order. Tables cost between $1,000 and $2,000, depending on size and type of wood.
Unruh, 30, still designs the hardwood pieces.
“But some customers bring us designs we have never made before and we oftentimes will do those,” he said.
The former sanctuary — with a 65-foot ceiling and natural light streaming through the original golden stained-glass windows — is the furniture finishing area for final assembly, staining or painting.
“When I was a property manager I was dealing mostly with unhappy people,” Unruh said. But now, when his customers get their furniture, “it is a really big day for them, they have been looking forward to it for several weeks and they are really excited. So it is a really fun experience.”