Houses sacred and profane: Part 1, meeting their maker

February 27, 2013 | Architecture, Boston, Churches, Cities, Condominiums, Historic, Innovations, Local issues, Real estate taxes, Rehab, Zoning

By:David A. Smith


For some properties, a change of use is much more than merely a physical reconfiguration, it is also a reinvention of the building’s soul, or for some, a loss of that soul, especially when the transition is from a sacred use (a church or synagogue) into a profane one – housing – as shown in this Yuletide article from the Wall Street Journal (December 13, 2012):


When Colin Bodell moved into a new 3,000-square-foot condo in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood in August, he was looking forward to living with its 30-foot ceilings, polished-marble floors and 20-foot-tall stained-glass windows.


The Sanctuary in Seattle, Wash. is formerly a Christian Science Church that was converted into 12 townhouses earlier this year.


As retail is dematerializing (personified by Mr. Bodell, whose job was inconceivable a decade ago), previous uses for urban real estate are evaporating.  Once, banks held money; now they hold computers (if that), and many bank buildings are being reconverted into other uses.  The latest real estate portfolio to lose its business case (in northeastern America anyhow) is that of churches, which once housed hundreds if not thousands of worshippers and now are mainly empty – until redeveloped into a practical use.


Colin and Rosemary Bodell at home


One thing Mr. Bodell didn’t anticipate, however, was people knocking on his front door to ask what time services were or to speak to the pastor.


“People still thought it was a church because of its exterior,” says Mr. Bodell, a 50-year-old technology executive at Amazon. “They didn’t realize it had been transformed into a home.”


Churches are businesses too – a membership society delivering intangible benefits people pay for via weekly or more frequent subscription.  When they lose their business model, some braches have to be shuttered, and that leaves a real estate residue, which is a window into the past.


The Seattle church was built around 1908 as First Church of Christ, Scientist, and counted about 800 regular attendees in its heyday. But by 2006, its congregation had dwindled to about 25 people, so the congregation relocated and sold off the church property for $1.3 million.


When churches are the developers, they invest in visual appearance, and even if they mix Neoclassical pilasters with Craftsman-style stained glass, the result is striking and seeks appreciation, both spirirtual and economic.


Mr. Bodell’s apartment, which he bought for about $1 million, sits inside a former Christian Science Church that was converted into 12 townhouses earlier this year and renamed the Sanctuary.


Details from the Sanctuary’s atrium


As we’ll be seeing many more such conversions, their journey from sacred to profane uses is illuminating, if not uplifting.


The building is one of a number of church-to-home luxury conversions popping up around the country.


  1. Why it’s happening


As dozens of churches close or move to different quarters each year, they’re finding second lives as condo developments and townhouses.


The conversion of religious buildings into residential is happening nationwide through a convergence of two trends: collapse of the churches’ business model due to declining congregations, and growing property conversion value through rising urban residential values.


The conversion process is growing more common as shrinking congregations and shifting demographics have made it difficult for some congregations to stay afloat financially. According to a March report from CoStar Group, a real-estate research firm, 138 church-owned properties across the country were sold by banks last year, compared with 24 three years earlier.


Actually, the conversion rate must be enormously higher, for the statistics represent only those sold by banks (meaning after foreclosure).  Far more common will be churches themselves selling their surplus properties for redevelopment, because they are no longer needed as churches.


God never goes out of business? New Brunswick, Canada


In 2000, there were 19,236 Roman Catholic parishes across the US; that figure fell to 17,644 by 2012, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, a nonprofit research organization that compiles church statistics.


(The church claims 77 million US Catholics, but many fewer of them must be regularly observant, for that would represent 4,000 Catholics per parish, and on a typical Sunday morning one sees perhaps 200 streaming out of the church after morning communion.)    


Going out of business?  2558 West Cortez, Chicago, for sale


Though that decline is slow – roughly three-quarters of one percent a year – it translates into perhaps 125 churches closed annually, a number exceeded by the Methodists:


United Methodists have seen the number of churches shrink by about 7% over the past decade or so, with 300 to 400 churches closing or merging each year. In 2000, United Methodists had 35,537 churches, compared with 33,069 in 2011.


Closed Methodist Church, Fore Street, Bodmin, Cornwall


Some of this trending is due to the continuing racial and ethnic reinvention of America: churches that hold services in Portuguese or Spanish are on the rise, as are ethnic enclaves (Armenians in Watertown, Cambodians in Lowell, Cape Verdeans in New Bedford).  But most of the whitebread American religions are losing parishioners, a phenomenon recurring throughout Europe.


In 2006, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors found that since 2001, about 500 churches in London alone had been converted into homes. In other countries, such as Germany and Russia, people still regard the concept of living in a church as disrespectful, says Bart Kellerhuis [Whose name means ‘cellar house’ in Dutch – Ed.] of Utrecht-based firm Zecc Architects, which has done several church-to-home conversions in the Netherlands.


The ‘House in a Church’ on a river bank in Rotterdam in the Netherlands. It was formerly a 1930s wooden church. Before it was converted into a home around 2010, it was being used as a storage facility.


Property conversations from sacred to profane use will accelerate as some religions fade almost out of existence:


The Seattle church where Mr. Bodell now lives was built around 1908 as First Church of Christ, Scientist, and counted about 800 regular attendees in its heyday. But by 2006, its congregation had dwindled to about 25 people, so the congregation relocated and sold off the church property for $1.3 million.


Even an empty and no longer necessary church can have a large real estate residual value, because a deconsecrated church offers many significant assets from a purely real estate perspective:


Land use economics.  Even an active church is occupied intensively only a few hours of the day; most of the time, it is an enormous and largely empty structure or complex of buildings.  Converting it into residential use will take a stroke substantially increase the total building usage, and by extension, the total revenue-generating potential.


Value of souls saved not included


Celebratory construction.  Churches were built to glorify God, and as such many of them have both durable construction and dozens or hundreds of architectural details not found in buildings whose owners were guided principally by the bottom line.  Speaking purely of their real estate characteristics, Christian Science Churches are great assets, because for a few decades around the turn of the last century Mary Baker Eddy’s crusading religion captured millions of adherents and raised enormous sums.


Mrs. Eddy as a young woman, when she was conceiving her church


Sub-dividability into higher density.  Though most churches are in fact a cluster of buildings connected by corridors and stairwells, their centerpiece is the church itself, which is always a very large structure entirely unsuitable for modern residential occupancy.


(Single-family occupant ownership is a more common ultimate use for synagogues, which normally had smaller congregations and often were sited in townhouses or row-houses.)


The exterior of a former East Village synagogue in Manhattan that is now a residence for rent.


The city’s economic interests.  Though they were never admit it on the record, cities love conversions of religious property, because it’s more revenue for the city.  To begin with, once a property is no longer owned by the church, it enters the tax rolls; and when it has been developed, all those lovely condos or townhouses are themselves subject to ongoing real estate taxes.   In between there are building permits, inspection fees, and all manner of local construction jobs.


With all these factors, it’s no surprise that some cities are seeing increased conversion of formerly religious buildings to residential use. 


Would you know it had gone condo?  496 Beacon Street, Boston


[Continued tomorrow in Part 2.]