New life for old churches
When a church closes, it may attract buyers who want to turn it into a home or condos.
The pretty white building certainly looks like a church - it has a traditional steeple, several stained-glass windows, and soaring ceilings. But no longer does it echo with the sounds of worship. Instead, this church has taken on a new life - as a family home.Skip to next paragraph
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That transformation - and others that have seen former churches become restaurants and movie theaters - isn't as offbeatas it might seem. The church has always had an interesting connection to its buildings, says architect Bruce Wardell of Charlottesville, Va. The first known church was a converted residence in a Roman town. And throughout history, the church has taken over pagan temples, houses, storefronts, and gymnasiums, and used them as sanctuaries.
As churches close for various reasons - an urban church finds that most of its congregation has moved to the suburbs, for instance - these buildings become available for other uses.
Because of their location, appearance, grounds, and high-quality construction,some attract hopeful buyers eager to transform them into individual homes or condos.
It's not necessarily as easy as it sounds, though. For those who want to change a former place of worship into home or office space, there are special considerations. Prospective owners often deal with a host of challenges, from zoning regulations to design issues.
But many people, such as Mr. Wardell, say the extra effort is worthwhile.
When he converted an old church into a residence for his family, the relationship between the sacred functions of the church and the secular functions of his house didn't seem too drastic, since he and his wife led home groups and the college ministry at their church. The large spaces and rooms were used for Bible studies and fellowship meals.
"To a certain extent we saw our renovation as extending the life of the church building," he says, "but I must admit that this was not our primary motivation."
Wardell's interest in remodeling was more from an architectural point of view. Many old churches were built with a level of craftsmanship and detail that is rare today.
"This makes it possible to create a dialogue between the historic craft and texture of the original building and the new intervention of our work," he says. "The old structures also provide unique opportunities to design new facilities in spaces that we would not ordinarily do ourselves.
"Would we have ever created a single space 32 feet wide, 40 feet long, and 16 feet high with a tin ceiling if we were starting to design a new home?" he asks. "Probably not.
"However," Wardell continues, "being given that space to begin with, we had a chance to design a modern pavilion within the historic space [see photo on previous page] and have some fun with the dialogue between the two."
Although Wardell's family no longer lives in the house that began its life as a church, "my oldest daughter still has memories of that home," he says. As a result, "I am sure [she] will live in a more unique and creative environment when she is an adult."
But finding a church to convert into a home isn't as simple as making an offer on a subdivision house. Buyers need to keep four particular issues in mind, says Marty Kotis, president and CEO of Kotis Properties in Greensboro, N.C.
• Zoning. Many localities allow churches to be built in any area, regardless of zoning regulations. But there may be zoning issues if you are considering a conversion to a business or residence.
• Structural considerations. "One of the common features of churches is the A-frame pitched roof," Mr. Kotis notes. "If you're going to add a second floor, or otherwise modify this design, you'll need a good architect and structural engineer."