A house to keep

THESE days architects are altering inner cityscapes - but in ways we sometimes don't immediately see. They have given new meanings to familiar places like the schoolhouse and church. The days of ``school bells ring and children sing'' are on hold as neighborhoods low on pupils or churchgoers look at well-built but unused buildings with an eye to converting them for new uses as family residences. What makes these buildings such good candidates for conversion into homes? One answer is location. Urban schools, for instance, have the advantage of being well located and central to services, and the structures are often spacious. Sometimes they sit on or near parcels of land that provide for parking (the schoolyard becomes a parking lot) and occasionally they even offer pleasant views.

Many school- or church-condominium residents are people looking for something different such as a special address or the feeling they are living in an object of art. Frequently the buildings themselves have characteristics that are appealing: sound construction, high, high windows and ceilings, thick exteriors, historical details.

From the city's point of view it may be better to save a unique church or school structure than to tear it down, especially if a prominent architect designed it. Though it's a costly process, a good design can be adapted to contemporary - and different - needs.

When considering materials for a new building, a developer knows what he's starting with - namely, nothing. With an old building, he can't check out every piece of plaster and molding, and the wall he assumed was solid could be hollow. And even though a new structure is usually cheaper and more functional to construct, an old one may have beauty and value that will add to the quality of the neighborhood.

So the enterprise may include excursions to libraries or local historical commissions for the scrutiny of drawings, records, and maps, sometimes with the aid of the state archaeologist.

City officials may insist that at least the buildings' exteriors be kept historically accurate. To meet these requirements, developers go through city archives and look for original drawings. There may even be a historian on their staff who does this. The old building plans become the basis for converting the original spaces into rooms of residential proportions and for restoring the outer appearance. Craftsmen may be hired to clean or repoint masonry and stone work or replace original doors and entryways. Architects can design new but compatible windows, and artists can repaint decorative interiors.

Determining the number of units is like making a jigsaw puzzle. The space is divided into so many living rooms (the ideal location for a living room is in a corner with plenty of light), with the possibility of raised dens or lowered ceilings. Sometimes a plan is not practical unless pipes and fixtures can be taken out and replaced. Because windows are on the outside walls, central areas become kitchens, baths, and storage spaces. Some developers put an entirely new building inside an old one. They design modern European looks for their interiors and use contemporary materials and technology.

People like the ``community feeling'' of living in a renovated school or church. It encourages involvement, says one couple whose children are grown. Their downtown school-home is a condominium that has many advantages over the big suburban house they once lived in. It's a breeze to walk to work, they say, and a relief to have a management company maintain, clean, and landscape the property. Their neighbors are parents, single working people, and older couples who enjoy getting together for meetings and picnics.

For this couple, with both children away at (real) schools, the move to the city made living more convenient and provided opportunities for interesting work - both paid and volunteer. Fortunately, their small dog also adjusted nicely to city living. In essence the family let go of an outgrown way of life, left old furniture, and went back to school - all of them!

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