The small suburban hamlet of Johnsonville, Connecticut, has sat abandoned for nearly 20 years. After going on and off the market since 2015, the town sold in July for $A2.4 million.
International religious organisation Iglesia Ni Cristo, also known as INC or Church of Christ, scooped up the 62-acre property with plans to turn it into a recreation and sporting center for members. The Philippines-based church has grown its US real estate portfolio over the years, converting idle lots into permanent gathering places for worship.
“We needed deep pockets and [the INC] said, ‘We love this place and we’re going to do [what it takes],” Milkie told Business Insider. The church paid cash with no contingencies.
Here’s what it’s like inside Johnsonville.
A community rose up around the mill. Homes, a church, a store, and a post office insulated the town from the outside. It's unknown how many people lived in Johnsonville at its peak.
Lightning struck the mill in 1972. 'The mill burned down, and that was the end of the town,' Sherri Milkie, a real estate agent who oversaw the sale, told Business Insider.
The town changed hands in the 1960s. Raymond Schmitt, a rich man who made his fortune in aerospace manufacturing, transformed Johnsonville into his personal playground.
'He purchased (Johnsonville) just for the heck of it,' Milkie said. After the mill burned down, Schmitt tried to restore the town so that it might be a time capsule of simpler times.
He found buildings along the Eastern seaboard, including a general store, a clock and toy store, a church, and a school, and had them dismantled and brought to Johnsonville.
Schmitt rarely let outsiders in, but he profited when they did. He rented the town out for weddings. The white Victorian church with a cornflower blue door set a romantic scene.
In 1988, The New York Times printed an ad inviting the public to 'celebrate Johnsonville's history and recreation by the Schmitts' at a one-day 'Festival of the Forgotten Arts.'
Visitors could tour the buildings resurrected by Schmitt, as well as the original Johnson house. Milkie said it is one of several architectural jewels in Johnsonville.
The home features multiple styles of architecture and original marble flooring. It's rumoured to be haunted by the town's founder, Emory Johnson, but the caretaker denies it.
In 1994, Schmitt closed Johnsonville and hung 'For Sale' signs at the entrance. He reportedly tried to sell the property for $A4.54 million but failed to find any takers.
Meyer Jabara, a hotel group based out of Danbury, Connecticut, scooped up the property in 2001 with plans to convert it yet again into a retirement community.
According to Milkie, the blueprints were drawn up but the buyer 'got distracted on other projects.' The town sat unoccupied and in disrepair for 16 years.
Between 2015 and 2017, Meyer Jabara slashed the asking price from $A3.11 million to $A2.46 million. Milkie said a group of mediums, or people who believe they can communicate with the dead, had expressed interest in buying the town. But there were no firm offers.
In May, several articles about Johnsonville went viral and dozens of prospective buyers came suddenly knocking, according to Milkie. Most who visited the town became quickly 'overwhelmed with the amount of work that had to be done,' Milkie said.
But the INC fell in love with the town, according to Milkie. 'They like to rescue abandoned properties, rehabilitate them, and allow their (members) to use them,' she said.
The INC paid $A2.4 million in cash. On the day they signed the closing papers, the church invited 500 members to tour the property and celebrate in one of the run-down buildings.
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