Old churches get makeovers as homes, bookstores

Story highlights

  • Homeowners share joy and pain of renovating churches into homes
  • Religious buildings have been adapted into homes, offices, restaurants, nightclubs
  • "You need to understand the architectural quality of the space," architect says
  • Owners of remodeled churches are stewards of its history
Some would knock on the door, like the unstable man who claimed he was Satan and had come to kill Jesus. Others burst in unannounced, carrying casserole dishes for the church potluck or looking for the spot where they'd been pronounced husband and wife.
The surprise visitors diminished slightly over the years as Alyn Carlson planted trees and built a stone wall around the converted New England church she and her family called home for more than 30 years. The landscaping made it look more like a house than a nondenominational church built in the early 20th century. But transforming a 4,000-square-foot sanctuary into a home has its obstacles.
"A church is made for a specific reason, so you can enter and leave the rest of the world behind," said Carlson, an artist and graphic designer in Westport, Massachusetts. "How can I make a wide-open space cozy and intimate? That was the challenge."
As the concept of adaptive reuse, or reusing an old structure for a new purpose, becomes more popular, property owners are breathing new life into religious buildings as homes, offices, community centers, bookstores, restaurants, even nightclubs.
"In terms of sustainability, both cultural and environmental, there's nothing better really than adapting an existing structure to a new use. It helps create a stronger community by stitching the history of the community together with a localized framework," said architect Bill Leddy, chairman of the American Institute of Architects Committee on the Environment.
Churches, especially Gothic and Baroque edifices in urban areas, are not the most common candidates for adaptive reuse. Depending on its size, an old church or cathedral can be costly to heat in the winter and keep cool in the summer. If it's old, it might take a lot of work and even more money to upgrade electric systems and plumbing.
But there's something about them -- maybe the vaulted ceilings or the large stained-glass windows and wood-paneled walls -- that ambitious rehabbers and hopeless romantics find hard to resist.
"Churches have a distinctive quality. Many of them are saved not just for the fact tha