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New life for old churches

When a church closes, it may attract buyers who want to turn it into a home or condos.

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• Historical restrictions. Depending on the age of the church, there may be limits to what changes can be made.

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• Acquisition issues. "Unlike a single-family home owned by an individual, there is usually a much larger group and lengthier descisionmaking process for the people handling a church sale," he notes. "You may have 10 to 20 people involved in the decision, each with different concerns."

One big advantage of buying a church, adds Kotis, is that "these locations are typically large lots with big structures in tight [real-estate] markets.

"So you have the chance to get something that might not otherwise be available," he notes. "One recent building that we looked into was [a building] 15,000 square feet on a three-acre lot in one of the most expensive neighborhoods in town."

But don't expect that converting a church into a residence will save money.

"The cost of renovations often equals or exceeds the cost of a typical new house," says Wardell. "One doesn't renovate a church into a residence if they are looking for a bargain-price house. They do it for the character of the spaces, the quality of the details, and the history of the building."

The history of the former church the Wardells lived in was what gave it such rich character, he says.

"We could imagine stories about people who attended the church when we read the dates on the headstones in the churchyard next door," he notes. "We discovered a slave cemetery on adjacent property and could see the evidence of the slave balcony in the ceiling of the main room. The children played on the stepping stone constructed to assist the 'ladies' to mount their horses or get back in the carriages after the service, and we had opportunities to tell them about aspects of history and the local culture that would have been dead and lifeless had they been a chapter in a local history book."

The technical issues of transforming a church into a residence "divide themselves into two categories: planning the spaces and then getting the physical alterations done while preserving the character of the original structure," Wardell says.

"In planning, we commonly need to address the fact that the spaces that are comfortable for us to live in are often different from the spaces a congregation will worship in," he explains. "That means that our goal is to create spaces that have the appropriate sense of proportion for living spaces."

Some religious buildings present challenging property-management issues, especially in urban areas, says Eric Breitkreutz, executive director of Historic Boston Inc., a nonprofit organization that puts people and resources together to preserve historic sites in Boston.

Will it become a trend?

"Caring for older houses of worship is no easy task," he says. "Aging structures and deferred maintenance, especially when coupled with changing demographics and rising property values, put many historic and architecturally significant religious structures at risk of slipping into decline."

In 2003, the National Trust for Historic Preservation designated urban churches as one of its 11 "most endangered" property types, he adds.

Religious structures are not regarded with the same reverence as they were in the first part of the 20th century and before, notes architect Wardell.

"This is consistent with ideas expressed in the New Testament, where it was clear that the 'sacred presence of God' was not limited to a mountain, a temple, or a building, but rather by the gathering of believers together," he says. "This, in my mind, sets the stage to move from a mentality where the buildings themselves are sacred to an understanding that our activities and gatherings are sacred."