What to Do With Down-on-Their-Luck Churches?

Photo: Edwin.11

A regular reader named Eric M. Jones, from Southbridge, Mass., writes in with a question worth considering: what should be done with the growing inventory of churches that no longer can afford their facilities?

To be clear, I am basically atheist.

I live in a town with an overabundance of churches. Now the churches are broke and heating the things for services uses more money than the collections. At least two of the huge Catholic churches need millions in refurbishment and can’t possibly support themselves. The biggest, Notre Dame, is an amazing structure built with white marble blocks bought military surplus — the stones were to be used for headstones for people killed in the Spanish-American war. It is in the U.S. national Register of Historic Places.

Sacred Heart is hardly less significant. The German stained glass is priceless.

Recently people around the country have been rediscovering that Louis Comfort Tiffany made the church windows, and they are being sold to make other things (lampshades?).

BIG QUESTION FOR DISCUSSION: How best to use the hollowed halls? This is a common problem, and there should be a number of good answers. Some European churches have turned into techno-dance-nightclubs. Probably wouldn’t work here.

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  1. Sunfell says:

    I think that many of the buildings would make great concert venues. Their acoustic design would work quite nicely for that, if they are properly cared for.

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    • Daniel H. says:

      This happened with a prominently-placed church here in Midtown Atlanta (at the heart of the Bible belt). The congregation could no longer afford the high costs of maintenance and moved to a less expensive building, and the former church building was first turned into a House of Blues around the time the Olympics were here. It has since been converted into an excellent concert venue, appropriately named the Tabernacle.

      As a member of a church that meets in a movie theater, I hold strongly to the notion that a church is the people, not the building itself. If the church can no longer afford the building they meet in, they are simply being good stewards of their money by moving to a smaller venue. I certainly wouldn’t consider the later use of the building for other purposes to be sacreligious.

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      • Robert says:

        I was coming down here to talk about the Tabernacle. It is a great venue for events and the design adds to it.

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  2. Pat says:

    A couple of weeks ago, I was in a former church of Ireland church that is now a restaurant. It looked great and they made great use of the space while keeping the original features.

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  3. Chris says:

    One great use was for a brewery in Pittsburgh — Church Brew Works. It’s in the Lawrenceville section of the city. It’s an church that was tactfully remodeled into a brewery and restaurant. Great beer and food. I recommend checking it out if you’re in the area. http://www.churchbrew.com

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    • dand says:

      Pittsburgh is full of ex-churches that have been repurposed for better uses. Some other examples are Mr. Small’s Theatre and Altar Bar, both live music venues.

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  4. Kelly says:

    I personally think it would be sacrilegious to open them up to dance floors or most money making operations. Reminds me of when Jesus got pissed and flipped all the tables over in the marketplace selling doves for sacrifice. Perhaps going the other way and letting the space be used for organic cheese or wine making like the monks of old used to.

    I’m sure opening them up for other groups to use like for AA meetings wouldn’t be so bad either.

    But if these churches truly are such historical treasures and are falling into why can’t you get the government to sponsor them? Many buildings in Old Town Williamsburg and Jamestown have been sponsored by the community.

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    • BSK says:

      Are we really going to ignore the elephant in the room? Much of the financial struggle the Catholic Church is experiencing is a direct result of the abuse scandal. The Boston Archdiocese had to sell most of their land and buildings to pay settlements; they were fortunate that they were able to keep the property within the church by selling to Boston College, a Jesuit university. Other churches are seeing decreased attendance and collections because of dissatisfaction with the handling of the scandal.

      You are going to contend that turning these buildings into dance halls is sacrilegious? I think the whole “priests sexually abusing children” thing is FAR more sacrilegious than any plans for an old building. Let’s not pretend that the church didn’t make their own bed here. Pardon me if I have little sympathy now that they must lie in it.

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    • Speed says:

      ” … why can’t you get the government to sponsor them?”

      Because the government is broke.

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    • JohnWhorfin says:

      listen to what you are saying … a Government sponsored Church

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  5. Whitney says:

    In some places in Boston, they have converted churches into condos. It seems to have worked really well – the units sold quickly, and the majority of the historic character of the properties remained intact.

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    • George O'Neill says:

      Same here in Toronto. A United church here consolidated their congregations to one parish and sold one of their buildings just down the street from me to a condo developer. I videoblogged about it here: http://bit.ly/i9rv1U . The developer brought in an architect known for historical integration and I think they did a good job preserving its character.

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  6. Jack says:

    The short answer: let the market decide. Architecturally/historically significant places should have some protections to constrain the end use by the buyer. If the buyer’s use is too repugnant, then the market will punish them and the optimal use(s) of the building will shake out.

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    • Cass says:

      Right… and is the market going to punish them before or after the building is ruined?

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      • Steve says:

        Putting the more significant structures on national or state historic registry restricts what can be done with the building. Hopefully the buildings themselves would be protected by those rules while new owners experiment with uses.

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  7. Greg Finley says:

    Interesting … I never thought about this. I’ve heard about movie theaters converted into churches, but never the other way around.

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  8. sappirakko says:

    Expect them to be converted to mosques after some time.

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