From House of Worship to House: The Adaptive Use of Sacred Spaces

By Forum Reference Desk posted 08-14-2013 11:53

The Second Church of Christ Scientist in San Francisco is currently being converted into four residential lofts. | Credit: WallyG via Flickr
 The Second Church of Christ Scientist in San Francisco is currently being converted into four residential lofts. | Credit: WallyG via Flickr

The last few decades have brought many changes to the landscape of religion in the United States. The role of churches, temples, and other places of worship has changed dramatically since the early days of the 20th century when houses of worship formed the social center of a community, providing religious, cultural, and economic shelter to numerous congregations. Often these buildings were among the first to be constructed in new communities and, as such, they played an important role in the historical identities of these neighborhoods. But demographic and cultural shifts in our society have resulted in shrinking congregations, which in turn have led to declining financial support and a backlog of deferred maintenance for many houses of worship. To ensure the local continuation of a spiritual community, it is not uncommon for several congregations to merge when church attendance declines. Even then, many larger religious buildings remain too big to house even the combined congregations, and may be replaced by smaller buildings in a different location. Meanwhile, the edifices that once housed these congregations are left behind, facing closure and abandonment.

At the Forum Reference Desk, we often get questions about adapting houses of worship for residential use. According to Eugene Choi’s 2010 dissertation, “Adaptive Reuse of Religious Buildings in the U.S: Determinants of Project Outcomes and the Role of Tax Credits,” about a third of religious reuse projects in the United States are for residential use. (To find examples of non-residential uses, see the 2013 summer issue of Forum Journal.) The following resources and links provide useful and up-to-date information on the reuse of historic religious properties for apartments and condominiums.

Ten years ago, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named “Urban Houses of Worship” to its annual America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list and, in partnership with Partners for Sacred Spaces, spent the next several years studying the preservation and adaptive use of historic houses of worship. Today Partners for Sacred Places continues to track congregations with historic religious properties in decline while providing them with information and technical assistance on how to continue to use their facilities with limited resources.

In 2005, the National Trust and Partners for Sacred Places created a toolkit thatcontains case studies specifically related to issues of the rehabilitation and reuse of urban houses of worship. The Preserving Historic Religious Properties Toolkit (pages 32 – 35) presents several brief case studies of churches that have been converted to residential use, including affordable housing, market-rate condos, and mixed-income housing in Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville, Mass.

Most examples of religious properties conversions that come across the Forum Reference Desk are located on the East Coast, perhaps due to the large stock of historic religious buildings in big cities such as Boston and Philadelphia, as well as various financial challenges faced by East Coast churches that have required the liquidation of assets. Several examples from Philadelphia are cited in this “Hidden Philadelphia” article, which can be found here.

 Christ Methodist Episcopal Church (now The Sanctuary Lofts) in Denver, CO. | Credit: Jeffrey Beall
 Christ Methodist Episcopal Church (now The Sanctuary Lofts) in Denver, CO. | Credit: Jeffrey Beall

We found examples in other parts of the country as well. In Oak Park, Ill., the 100-year-old Second Presbyterian Church was converted into the Mason Lofts, which consists of four, market-rate townhouses. And in Denver, Colo., the Methodist Episcopal Church was converted into 12 high-end condos, called The Sanctuary Lofts, using federal rehab tax credits and a $100,000 grant from the Colorado Historical Society.

The West Coast is not without its challenges. In California, numerous congregations – in addition to facing dwindling numbers – had to confront an additional hurdle: the 1992 seismic building code for unreinforced masonry buildings (UMB Code).  Unable to afford necessary seismic retrofitting in time to meet the deadline for compliance, some congregations sold their houses of worship to developers, who planned to demolish them in order to use the land on which they sit. San Francisco’s Second Church of Christ Scientist on Dolores Street, built in 1915, was spared this fate. Following community opposition to plans to demolish the existing church and replace it with a new church and residential housing, the original church building is instead being converted into four residential lofts.  The developer for this project also converted the nearby former Golden Gate Lutheran Church into a single-family home. That single-family home is now undergoing a second conversion into a private middle school slated to open in 2016. Also in San Francisco, the Third Church of Christ Scientist was converted into a 40-unit affordable senior housing development in 2009.

It can often take years to make the tough choices on what to do with houses of worship facing abandonment, given that the decision will change their nature irreversibly. The frequent hope for an abandoned house of worship is that its religious use will be extended, or that it will at least be given a new use that does not conflict with a community’s social, religious, and architectural values. Although congregations and members of the surrounding communities often have the opportunity to actively influence the discussions and decisions over a reuse project for an abandoned or declining house of worship, this is not always the case. The often prime locations of religious structures make them valuable targets for clearing and redevelopment, and the buildings’ owners are approached to sell them for much-needed cash. This can often result in community tensions when the social and financial goals of a congregation conflict with the historic preservation demands of the larger community. To understand more about the social issues surrounding church reuse, read Kim O’Connell’s insightful article in the 2011 Atlantic Cities Place Matters “The Trouble with Church Preservation,” which focuses on Philadelphia’s Church of the Assumption.

As usual, please let us know in the comments if you know of any recent conversions of houses of worship for residential or other uses in your area.

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