Old churches converted to new condos

old abandoned churchAs likely is the case in most communities around the country, there are abandoned churches in neighborhoods that used to be vibrant and alive. I know this is true in my neighborhood (I can see the abandoned church pictured in this post from my window) and I have seen it in other cities, particularly off the coasts where there is plenty of cheap land and the geographic cores of cities have gone through a several-decades long transformation from life to death.

The abandoned church buildings are the tip of the iceberg of a huge story that encompasses religion, culture, family life and politics. Part of that story was told Saturday in The Chicago Tribune in a special by Jeffrey Steele, who describes how abandoned churches are being converted into fancy condo buildings for the new generation of downtown city dwellers:

From near-in city neighborhoods to outlying suburbs, shifting population patterns and evolving congregations are resulting in older churches becoming available for other uses.

The most successful conversions are those overseen by developers who, by retaining important elements of the former church, give new meaning to the term “faithful preservation.”

The story appears in the Tribune‘s classified section, and from a real estate perspective it is quite good. But I am not sure that the author thought of the religious aspects in the story because many religion ghosts go undiscussed.

One subject that was mentioned briefly in an off-handed manner is the sacred nature of these church buildings. Certainly zoning regulations played a factor in these developers’ plans to transform places of worship into fancy living spaces, but the primary consideration towards the spiritual seemed focused on the aesthetic:

A very different kind of church-to-residence conversion was finished this summer in LaGrange, where developer Hazel Teichen transformed the former Grace and Truth Life Church at the corner of Ogden and Kensington Avenues into a single-family home.

According to Susan Breen, real estate broker with the Hinsdale office of Coldwell Banker, the house of worship had been a Swedish Covenant church when built in the 1880s. It is noted in the National Register of Historic Places.

Built of Chicago common red brick and featuring 15 gothic arched windows, the structure boasts a ceiling comprised of scissored joists beneath a vaulted roof, Breen said.

The flooring in the foyer area is of reclaimed Jerusalem Bible stone, and the original sanctuary area has a Douglas fir floor, she added.

Teichen purchased the church in July of 2005, when its congregation numbered just eight people.

“I wanted to retain the spiritual integrity of the building,” she said. “I didn’t want people to come in and say, ‘What did it used to be?’ If it looked just like any other building down the block, what would be the point?

“I like to think of it still as a sacred place, with 100 years of sacred practice. You don’t disregard that.”

Another angle that could be explored and is probably more fitting for a separate story is the history of these church buildings. The article discusses an old Ukrainian Village Catholic church, Our Lady of Good Counsel Catholic Church, a Bohemian Catholic church building Our Lady of Good Counsel, a Swedish Covenant church on the National Register of Historic Places, Grace and Truth Life Church and a 100-plus year-old an African-American Baptist church.

What are the stories behind these church buildings? Why are there no longer congregations worshiping once a week in that building? What happened to the community life that supported these structures? What a fascinating way to explore and explain the changing communities in American cities.

Photo taken by the author of this post Tuesday morning in a near northeast side Indianapolis neighborhood.

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  • Asinus Gravis

    It strikes me that another interesting angle on this story that is worth investigating concerns the longer term aftermath of the “conversion.”

    When the neighborhood is again built up with new residents, thanks in part to the refurbished former churches, where are these people going to worship? Will there be a market for reselling the old churches to newly arrived worshipers?

  • Jerry

    Shades of Arlo Guthrie’s Alice’s Restaurant. For those too young to know what I’m talking about, this was a famous song of the 60′s that was partially set in an old church.

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com Mattk

    Something that I see in the SF Bay area is old churches being converted to other uses when their congregations die off while new churches rent space in commercial/industrial buildings. I’ve often wondered why trustees of dying churches think it isbetter to sel to a developer instead of a young and growing congregation. (I have no dog in this fight. My parish, tthough old is very healthy and has tons of kids and converts. Its just an interesting topic.)

  • Kat

    In my city, Denver, they have converted an historic church to a nightclub which is named, ironically, The Church.

  • pen brynisa

    Atlanta also has a nightclub which formerly was a Baptist church. It is called The Tabernacle.

    Here in Athens, Georgia, the Prince Avenue Baptist Church sold their old downtown property to Piedmont College, and is building new facilities in the suburbs, where most of their congregation now live; essentially a case of “white flight” to the ‘burbs. We wonder if they should now be referred to as The Baptists Formerly Known As Prince.

    We also are home to the rock band R.E.M. who played their very first show in a deconsecrated church, the former St. Mary’s Episcopal Church. This beautiful brick neo-gothic was never actually a parish church; it was a mission church built by a factory owner for use by his workers. The closing of the factory effectively ended the mission, and the property was sold, and by the late ’70′s/early ’80′s was in use as rehearsal and performance space for local musicians. All that currently remains of the original St. Mary’s is the steeple, and yes, next to the steeple are the Steeplechase Condominiums.

  • Jimmy Mac

    In San Francisco a former Catholic hospital has been converted into condos. The free-standing chapel in the round is now a social space for rent. Stained glass, interior religious art, etc. all remain. The raised platform that used to be where the altar stood is now the space for the bar! The last time I went, I was asked by the bartender what kind of wine I wanted: red, white or sacramental! Yuk, yuk.

    Things to change.

  • http://orrologion.blogspot.com orrlogion

    Well, the converted church I live in was sold and converted into a house because both the Methodist and Orthodox Christian communities that had owned the property outgrew the small building, dangerous intersection and lack of parking. Both moved to other locations within a mile or two and built bigger churches with more parking and better opportunities for expansion should the need arise.

  • http://www.inshaw.com/blog Mari

    Aren’t there a bunch of converted churches in England? Long time ago in 1993 when I was searching for a room to rent I interviewed at this one place that was a converted church building.
    And a few years back in the early 2000s there was an old synagogue in downtown Washington DC that was put up for sale with the idea that it could become a night club. Well, some from the Jewish community had got together and bought it and now it is a funtioning synagogue with performance space.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    Again, not a new story. It was a long time back that the Village Presbyterian Church became “Portico Place”. (A curious aspect of New York’s “Landmark” laws is that they do not apply to the interior of religious buldings — apparently even after they are secularized.) And, of course, there was the arrival of the Limelight in the former Church of the Holy Communion, which inspired the song “This Disco Used to Be a Cute Cathedral…”

  • Luke

    In my city, Denver, they have converted an historic church to a nightclub which is named, ironically, The Church.

    Atlanta also has a nightclub which formerly was a Baptist church. It is called The Tabernacle.

    That brings back memories. A church I attended in college held Sunday-night services in a nightclub. They’ve since moved to another bar/nightclub in the area, but still on Sunday nights and still (apparently) using a beer trough for baptisms.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    Did The Church ever play “The Church”?

  • Ralph

    On the Northwest side of Columbus Ohio, there was an old church converted to a restaurant — The Old Churchhouse Restaurant — where my wife and I celebrated after our marriage in January, 1979.

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  • Mark Larrimore

    There’s a church-turned-nightclub in New York, too, known as Avalon. But at least in NYC it’s pretty common for buildings built for a specific religious community to end up serving a different faith, or none at all. (A recent article on synagogue turned churches: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/28/nyregion/28citywide.html?_r=1&8br&st=cse&sq=church+synagogue&scp=2&oref=slogin)
    If I remember correctly, David Dunlap in his “From Abyssinian to Zion: A Guide to Manhattan’s Houses of Worship” says fully half of all religious houses of worship now in use were not originally designed for the faith community which now worships there. Cities challenge many received ideas about the purity and permanence of sacred spaces!