What to Do with Abandoned Churches

George_Apley

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The conversation about Mount Carmel and Notre Dame in Worcester got me thinking about the problem of abandoned churches in general. It's a good discussion because there are a lot of interests and complexities in different cases. Some churches have a lot of architectural value. After a church is desanctified and a diocese or denomination doesn't want to or is unable to care for it, what should happen? This has come up in Boston several times, with residential conversion being particularly popular here.

A read on the topic:

America’s Epidemic of Empty Churches - The Atlantic, 2018 by Jonathan Merritt (Paywalled, I think)

Excerpt said:
Closure and adaptive reuse often seems like the simplest and most responsible path. Many houses of worship sit on prime real estate, often in the center of towns or cities, where inventory is low. Selling the property to the highest bidder is a quick and effective way to cut losses and settle debts. But repurposing a sacred space for secular use has a number of drawbacks. There are zoning issues, price negotiations, and sometimes fierce pushback from the surrounding community and the parish’s former members.
Excerpt said:
Converting old churches into residential spaces, like St. Augustine’s and St. Vincent De Paul, is becoming more popular. Churches’ architectural flourishes—open floor plans, exposed brick, vaulted ceilings, and arched windows—often draw buyers of means who are looking for a residential alternative to ubiquitous cookie-cutter developments.

While this type of sacred-to-secular conversion may be a tough pill for former members to swallow, many are even less satisfied with the alternatives. A large number of abandoned churches have become wineries or breweries or bars. Others have been converted into hotels, bed-and-breakfasts, and Airbnbs. A few have been transformed into entertainment venues, such as an indoor playground for children, a laser-tag arena, or a skate park.
Missional Wisdom moved into the bottom 15,000 square feet of White Rock’s building and got to work. It converted the fellowship hall into a co-working space and transformed Sunday school rooms into a workshop for local artisans, including a florist and a stained-glass-window artist. It formed an economic empowerment center, where the group teaches a local population of African refugees language and business skills. And it finished out the space with a yoga studio and a community dance studio. Today, the church building is bustling most days, and the congregation is both covering expenses and generating revenue from its profit-sharing agreement with Missional Wisdom.

Next, the Missional Wisdom team partnered with Bethesda United Methodist Church in Asheville, North Carolina [...] Together, they created a community center called Haw Creek Commons. In addition to co-working space, they retrofitted the building with a textile and woodworking shop, meeting rooms that are used by local business and AA groups, a retreat space that can sleep up to nine, and a commercial kitchen in the basement for local bakers and chefs. Outside, Missional Wisdom constructed a community garden, food forest, beehives for the Haw Creek Bee Club, a greenhouse, and a playground for the children who attend the school next door.
So, is reuse better than tear-down? Should it be left to the market, or does municipal government have a role to play?
 

Arlington

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Cool question. I'd note that we had an interesting discussion on the role of "reflective/restful" spaces when we discussed the Seaports' somewhat skimpy set, basically just the OLGV Shrine (https://www.seaportshrine.org/) and of District Hall (https://districthallboston.org/)

I'd like to see a policy of turning at least some (in dense urban areas) into municipal amenities such as libraries (or just big wifi hotspots) and senior centers or wellness of some sort.

It is clear that the US used to have a lot more "non profit" third spaces--the other being fraternal lodges (Mason, OOF, Moose, Elk, KofC) too. (in 1901, 20% of adult males belonged to a fraternity, and I recall an estimate that in 1890 something like 10% of GNP was spent on fraternal garb and hijinks, since it was the dominant leisure activity prior to organized sports).

In 1900, you had your church and your club. Clubs began to fail as radio and sports and prohibition changed how leisure was spent.

Beyond the municipal role, the churches themselves *sometimes* direct their properties to some sort of public purpose, sometimes because donor covenants demanded it, and sometimes, as with the Catholic churches there are rules favoring re-use as a religious space (by other religions) above housing or other "profane but not sordid" use
 

The EGE

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I definitely like the third space idea. As noted above, they can often be an attractive space for other adaptive reuse as well. In my younger years I got my hair cut at a former church in Connecticut; it was wonderfully light and airy compared to most salons.
 

cubalibre

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I would always argue for adaptive reuse of abandoned churches and other architecturally significant buildings such as unused masonic lodges.

Some of my favorite examples are those converted into retail spaces and restaurants in the Netherlands and Belgium (examples 4, 5, and 6):

Perhaps the best known and most controversial in the US is the old Episcopalian church in Chelsea NYC which went from abandoned to artist space to drug rehab center to Limelight nightclub to shopping center/ gym:

Nowadays the greatest impediment to such conversions appears to be cost. Without financial support from city or state government or backing from engaged and affluent private donors, the cost of repairing, converting, and maintaining churches can be prohibitive. This is especially true for churches outside of the larger cities where structural maintenance has often been deferred for years, and where property values are too low.

Tearing down the church and building new may be the only sensible solution for the owner/ investor unless local government or private organizations step in.

Boston has had a decent track record of converting churches into retail and residential spaces, even if some of the reuse does not sit well with former parishioners:


Circling back to Worcester as an example, “Creative Hub Worcester” purchased the old abandoned Worcester Boys Club building which I believe used to be part of the Masonic complex across the street. They have received millions of dollars in tax credits and private donations to convert the four story building into community and event spaces:

The space was supposed to open this spring, now the opening date has moved to the fall of 2021. I have passed by a number of times and not noticed any construction activity.
 

jbray

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Right in Cambridge, Lesley University converted the civil war era church into the John and Carol Moriarty library that's pretty beautiful. They even restored the original dome. Granted they also moved the church down the street as some of you may remember.
 

Arlington

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anyone know the history of this former church on Bow St @ Wesley Park, Somerville (just north of USq)

The tiny white tiles (3/4 the way up the face...maybe 40' off the ground?) that spell out "1858 Community Center 1874" seem like a whole lot of scaffold and handwork to create over a label barely visible from the curb.

Based on it being next to "Wesley Park" can we assume it was Methodist?

Based on the small ivory-colored tiles in the facade that spell "Community Center" I assume that somewhere in the transition between sacred and housing someone operated it as a community center for a time?
 

George_Apley

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anyone know the history of this former church on Bow St @ Wesley Park, Somerville (just north of USq)

The tiny white tiles (3/4 the way up the face...maybe 40' off the ground?) that spell out "1858 Community Center 1874" seem like a whole lot of scaffold and handwork to create over a label barely visible from the curb.

Based on it being next to "Wesley Park" can we assume it was Methodist?

Based on the small ivory-colored tiles in the facade that spell "Community Center" I assume that somewhere in the transition between sacred and housing someone operated it as a community center for a time?
Yes, it was the First United Methodist. According to the Somerville Arts Council, it originally had a 90' steeple before a hurricane in 1938. According to the Somerville Community Corporation, it was used as a community center at least through the 1970s. It was converted to condos in the 2000s.

At least one of the units is/was used as an airbnb recently. Found the old pic on someone's arcgis.

1607973796039.png


1607974053247.png
 
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fattony

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I think a friend of mine used to live there, unless there is another condo-ized church in Union Sq.
 

JumboBuc

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Another one of these is for sale in JP:
 

George_Apley

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I think a friend of mine used to live there, unless there is another condo-ized church in Union Sq.
There is another one, on the corner of Bow and Walnut (across from the Comic Book Store & Union Sq Donuts).
 

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