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.

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."

Where things could go wrong

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."

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

• 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."

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