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.


Sunfell

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.

Daniel H.

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.

Robert

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

Pat

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.

Chris

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. www.churchbrew.com

dand

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.

Kelly

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.

BSK

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.

Whitney

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.

George O'Neill

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.

Jack

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.

Cass

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

Steve

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.

Greg Finley

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

sappirakko

Expect them to be converted to mosques after some time.

David

Turn them over to their neighborhoods and let them decide on any use for the building they like -- only one condition: the property must go BACK ON THE TAX ROLLS

Peggy

My favorite ex church http://www.restaurantgrace.com/ A beautiful place to have a drink or relaxing meal in Portland Maine.
There is also a former church that serves as a home for teen moms in Houlton, Maine.

Andrew

Pray for guidance and inspiration on how to resolve this problem.
The LDS church was in a similar situation over a century ago and received inspiration to implement the law of tithing. Since then the church has been able to accommodate its rapid growth quite well.

fasolamatt

Here's one recent article on the subject: http://www.startribune.com/lifestyle/faith/115533374.html

Michael

I would love to buy an old church (at least one that looked like an imposing house of worship, not just a building that has been blessed) to turn into (1) my house, (2) a club, or (3) a business place.

How best to use them? Turn into war memorials with exhibits as to the horror and suffering their beliefs have caused? Auction off, give proceeds to local schools. Turn into soup kitchens and homeless shelters. Any of those ought to be a step in the right direction.

If god cannot get people to donate to their own church, with all the tax free breaks they get, then I do not see why we should subsidize them further.

godfree

Great ideas, Michael. I have always thought it was ridiculous for a country to have hundreds of thousands of churches, nearly always empty, while having hundreds of thousands of homeless people. What a rotten sense of priorities ! Sell them to those immensely prosperous mega-churches, who will then make their 'conversions' to homeless shelters & soup kitchens. None of this at tax-payer expense.

Ryan

I remember hearing many times in my youth that the church is not the building, but the people within. Therefore I feel that once hallowed out, any use should be fair game for the structure. As someone already suggested, one of the best restaurants in our town resides in a former church building.

I once attended a church that was no more than a call center floor emptied of all cubical walls, desks, and other office trappings. Seems to me the reverse could work - certainly in the fellowship hall areas if not the sanctuary.

Some churches run day care centers during the week. I see no reason why that purpose couldn't be continued. I supposed the joke here is, "turn them into bingo parlors."

nick

No, the joke here is "who the hell would bring their child (especially a boy) to a church-run day care center"?

jacob

Indeed. Also in the netherlands churches are converted into buildings for other purposes. Arnhem(one bridge to far) has one converted to a musichall(eusebius church) and another one into an apartmentbuilding. Www.koelekerk.nl. possibly a nice example of cradle2cradle.

malcolm mcclean

Take a look at One Church 100 Uses http://bit.ly/igNO5N

kristen

they make excellent event spaces.

There are a number of great examples in NYC including:

Angel Orensanz - http://www.orensanzevents.com/events_space.html (was actually a temple, but same idea...)
Landmark on the Park - http://landmarkonthepark.org/index.html (still used 1 day per week for church services)

Also, the Limelight church has been converted into retail space:
http://www.shoplimelightmarketplace.com/

kevin

Why does it matter that the question is asked by an atheist?

Churches move into vacant buildings all the time, so why shouldn't the opposite happen? Here in Atlanta, the largest non-denominational mega church actually built their building to look like the Buckhead office buildings that surround it!

So, who cares? Whoever buys it can do whatever they want with it.

This seems like a silly question for Freakonomics.

There is nothing "freaky" or hidden about this, is there?

Tony

How about a brew pub with an altar of beer?

http://www.churchbrew.com/

Bob Bevard

Cool!

David

My son just signed a lease in a small university town here in Ontario where a local business had converted the town's old church into affordable student appartments. Brilliant!