A House Rebuilt

Breathing New Life Into Abandonded Houses of Worship

by Kimberly A. Kloch, appearing in Volume 13

A House Rebuilt
Breathing New Life into Abandoned Houses of Worship

Kimberly A. Kloch

Neglect, deterioration, and abandonment are not terms that are often associated with a house of God. However, the terms are beginning to become common as more and more parishes across the United States close the doors of their churches to the communities that they once served. The phenomenon is not exclusive to the Catholic Church, as every religion in the United States is seeing their older structures close for a myriad of reasons. In some religious communities older churches are being abandoned for newer, larger ones that provide worship space for a growing community. Other reasons for closings are not as hopeful. Declining parishioners, deferred maintenance, consolidation, and even a shortage of priests have been to blame. Whatever the reasons for the closures the outcome is often the same: a structure built as a monument to stand the test of time is left empty and without purpose. What becomes of these structures when they are no longer used for worship?

A former Catholic Church in Albany, New York, that has fallen into disrepair as it awaits a new owner. Photo: Author

Across the United States and throughout the World there are countless examples of how these beautiful structures are being reborn for new uses in their communities. One can argue that the reuse of a house of worship for any reason other than the adoration of God is sacrilegious. However, preservation-minded individuals see the value of these buildings not just for what they represent spiritually but what they represent to the built environment. Many older churches were built by skilled craftsmen whose trade was handed down to them over the generations. These buildings are built with techniques and methods that are no longer common practice in today’s economy-driven construction industry. These buildings represent the heart of their neighborhoods and communities. They act as beacons, landmarks, and community centers. To abandon them functionally is sometimes a necessity, but to lose them architecturally is simply wrong.

Churches became the center of their communities quite logically. America was established to allow religious freedom to those colonists looking to escape the tyranny of the European nations from which they had emigrated. In cities like New York, Boston, and Chicago, where immigrants settled in communities of their own nationality, parishes became “national parishes,” offering services in their native languages, such as German, Italian, and Polish. These national parishes established identities for the districts they served, and many neighborhoods in Boston are still best known by their parish names. These buildings are more than symbols of faith, they are reminders of the history and the people who gave the funds and provided the labor to build these monuments to their culture, heritage, and religious freedom.

Houses of worship are built to serve a specific purpose. Architecturally they are termed white elephants. They are well-known landmarks that occupy a significant location in the community. The health of such buildings is closely linked to the well being of their neighborhoods. They are often large voluminous spaces that are hard to maintain and frequently even harder to adapt for new use without losing the character that makes them unique.
Deferred maintenance is often the culprit for abandonment, and structural uncertainty is often the reason these buildings are not reused. One does not know what damage or unforeseen conditions exist behind plaster and other decorative elements until they are removed. For this reason developers are often hesitant to look at abandoned religious structures for reuse possibilities. There are, however, some brave souls who see the potential for the spaces and take the risks as well as the rewards of such an endeavor.

Adaptive reuse is defined as “a use of a building that is different from its original or previous use, often involving conversion work.” Religious structures can be adapted into a variety of different uses. The preferred use is to find another religious organization in need of space. This is more easily accomplished in urban areas when the buildings have fewer maintenance issues. When an ideal tenant cannot be found, the most likely reuse is to find a function that continues to serve the community in a public way. Many reuse projects are suited to such vast spaces, like community centers, theaters, schools, and libraries. Other uses include concert halls, restaurants, museums, offices, retail, and most commonly housing.
The most successful reuse projects occur when there is community support for the building, its intended use, and its developers. This can sometimes prove challenging. The U.S. Constitution demands separation of church and state. This separation has saved religious structures over the years from zoning and mandatory building code upgrades. However, when a former religious building is purchased for some other use it becomes eligible for zoning constraints and code enforcement. Often the new zoning will not allow for the type of development that might be best for the neighborhood, and the building and lot size will not allow for the necessary code changes. A good part of a renovation budget will be spent retrofitting a building to make it handicapped accessible, fire safe, and structurally secure.

Listed below are just a few examples of successful adaptive reuse projects that have continued to serve their communities and encourage the rebirth of neighborhoods.

The Cohoes Public Library just outside of Albany, NY, found a new home in the former St. John’s Episcopal Church in the early 1970s after moving repeatedly over the preceding twenty years. The church building itself, constructed in 1895, had been vacant for several years after its congregation moved to a newer facility. In 1986 major renovations were made to the facility to upgrade the utility systems and allow greater accessibility for the library’s patrons.

The Cohoes Public Library, Cohoes, New York, formerly St. John's Episcopal Church, which had been vacant for several years. Photo: Author

Another example is the church that was formerly known as the Asbury Delaware United Methodist Church in Buffalo, NY. In 1996 heavy pieces of Medina sandstone began falling from the main steeple of this local landmark into the street below. This was the catalyst for closing a main city thoroughfare and sparking a ten-year legal battle for ownership of the property. When the dust settled, local musician and national recording artist Ani DiFranco and her company Righteous Babe Records purchased the property for $175,000 and began a $10-million restoration of the Gothic revival church.

The former Asbury Delaware United Methodist Church, built in 1876 by local Buffalo, New York, architect John Selkirk. Photo: Author

Years of deterioration and neglect needed to be corrected in order to make the space habitable and useable. Ms. DiFranco’s vision was to adapt the space into a community asset. The completed structure now houses Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, a large flexible performance space, and the Righteous Babe executive offices. The church is also handicapped accessible and boasts thirty geothermal wells to provide natural energy for heating and cooling. The flexible performance space that is housed in the former sanctuary will be used in the future for concerts, weddings, and social gatherings.

The former St. Vibiana’s Cathedral in Los Angeles was literally saved from the wrecking ball by the Los Angeles Conservancy. After the 1994 Northridge earthquake, the structure was deemed unsafe for use and Cardinal Roger Mahoney campaigned to have it demolished so that a new cathedral could be built in its place. After intense legal battles the new cathedral, Our Lady of the Angels, was built several blocks away and St. Vibiana’s was available for purchase and redevelopment.

St. Vibiana's as it stands today next to the new Los Angeles Department of Transportation building. Photo: Author

Developers Tom Gilmore and Richard Weintraub, backed by the Conservancy, have invested money into the structural retrofitting of the building so that it can be utilized as an events and performance space. Work is ongoing to stabilize the bell tower with hopes that the missing cupola can be returned after twelve years. The total expected cost of redeveloping the church and rectory, including a new hotel and residential complex, is around $77 million.

Vibiana Place, as it is now called, has seen new development in the surrounding area since renovations began. To the rear of the structure is the new branch of the Little Tokyo Public Library, across the street is the new Los Angeles Department of Transportation, and under construction kitty-corner to the site is a new police headquarters. This redevelopment joins additional efforts by Gilmore to provide housing, dining, and retail to an area that was once a crime-ridden and neglected. He envisions Vibiana Place as a future cultural destination.

St. Paul’s Parish, circa 1900, is located in the Pendleton neighborhood of Cincinnati, OH. Its construction supported continuous growth in that area at a time when Cincinnati was the fifth largest city in the United States. Time changed the landscape of the neighborhood, and as it changed from residential to commercial and industrial the need for the parish diminished. The parish held its last services in 1975, the same year in which was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Interior of the restored St. Paul's Parish, Cincinnati, Ohio. Photo: Author

The property was purchased by investors shortly after it closed, but it sat vacant and derelict until 1981 when four additional outbuildings were purchased and restored by the Verdin Bell Company. At the time of the renovations, the sanctuary housed St. Paul’s Church Mart, a marketplace for ecclesiastical supplies. Today the meticulously restored sanctuary is used for banquets, weddings, and receptions, while the balcony space holds offices. The entire renovated complex is considered to be one of the few of its size to be in continuous use in the United States. The auxiliary buildings house corporate offices, the Verdin Bell Museum, showrooms, and design studios. The continued success of this complex has encouraged more and more private development of the surrounding neighborhood.

Not every adaptive reuse is thought successful. Take for example the conversion of the former Church of the Holy Communion in New York to the Limelight nightclub in the 1980s. The nature of the activity in and around the property prompted the New York City Police Department to shut down the operation. It has since changed ownership and cotinues to operate as a nightclub and bar. Another is a retail conversion of a former church in Cincinnati, OH, into an Urban Outfitters store. Although the only exterior sign that the building is no longer a house of worship is banners that advertise the store, interior changes have cost the interior its character. However, for every unsuccessful adaptive reuse there are quite a few projects that have been tastefully executed and have met with much success financially and in revitalizing the community around them.

Interior of Urban Outfitters in Cincinnati, Ohio. Photo: Author

It is impossible to know the true number of historic houses of worship that are available for sale. One can assume the number is staggering given the information coming out of major U.S. cities. In 2004 the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston announced the closing of sixty-five to eighty parishes throughout the community it serves over the coming years. The announcement has been met with opposition, as parishioners protest the closings, bringing the issue a great deal of national media attention. In March the Archdiocese of Detroit announced a plan to close up to sixty-three parishes by 2015. These are the first closings since 1989, when thirty inner-city parishes were closed or consolidated. St. Louis, MI, saw nineteen churches offered up for sale in 2005, bringing the total of closed churches to fifty-five since 1990. From Maine to California former sacred places sit awaiting a new owner, someone who is willing to invest the time, effort, financing, passion, and energy in transforming these buildings of brick and stone into thriving community assets once again.

As more is learned about this unique adaptive reuse subject, the United States could learn from the Church of England in how they deal with the vacant churches that they deem “redundant.” The Church of England passed a Pastoral Measure in 1983, enforced by an Act of Parliament, that has set forth procedures for the reuse of redundant churches and emphasizes finding suitable reuse rather than abandonment or demolition. Each British diocese has a Uses Committee who becomes active in finding reuse for a church as soon as it is deemed redundant. A group called the “Commissioners,” who are appointed to answer to both church and parliament, is required to publish a draft scheme for reuse within three years of the date of redundancy. However, for now the reuse of churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples in the United States is left to individual efforts by developers and community groups.

Many would argue again that the use of a sacred space for any purpose other than the worship of God is sacrilegious. These churches, these spaces are attached to our memories. You might look at a church and say “That is where I grew up,” “That is where I was married,” or “That is where my children were baptized.” How do you want that memory to live on, should that parish be marked for closure in the future? As a vacant lot? As a derelict structure? Or as a place that has found a new use for the community that is alive and full of activity?

Kimberly A. Kloch is restoration staff designer with Mesick, Cohen, Wilson, Baker Architects, LLP.