The Cultural Conversion Of Cast-Off Churches

Bill Murphy, a tour guide at the former St. Alphonsus Catholic Church in New Orleans, looks up at the altar, which he used to clean as an altar boy. The church, now an arts and cultural center, is one of many across the country being sold for secular use. (Photo: Ted Jackson/Times-Picayune Via Religion News Service)
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By Kate Moran
Religion News Service
Saturday, May 3, 2008

NEW ORLEANS -- Buffeted by the weather, inhabited by vagrants and ravaged by a fire that hollowed out its interior, the abandoned Presbyterian church in Charlotte looked for almost a decade like one of the charred ruins left behind by World War II air raids.

Today, that husk of a building has new life as an artists colony that draws visitors from all over the world. One gallery features a ceiling that soars to the full height of the original sanctuary. Studios are lit by arched, neo-Gothic windows that were carved from the cavernous belly of the church.

The McColl Center for Visual Art, a project that rescued a historic building from demolition and served as an economic jolt for a struggling corner of the city, provides a lesson for what might become of the two dozen churches that the Archdiocese of New Orleans plans to close and deconsecrate as part of a massive post-Katrina downsizing plan.

Archbishop Alfred Hughes has said he hopes to continue using the vast portfolio of decommissioned real estate to further the mission of the church or serve the common good. The archdiocese says it would sell its buildings to a developer only as a last resort.

But as priestly vocations have declined and church closings have become a fact of life across the country, many houses of worship have passed into the hands of developers, who have converted them to banquet halls, music clubs and condominiums.

The rock band R.E.M. played its first concert in a deconsecrated church in Athens, Ga. One of New York City's most notorious nightclubs and drug havens, the Limelight, used to operate inside an old Episcopal church on Sixth Avenue. In Cincinnati, an old church became one of Urban Outfitters' clothing and home furnishings stores.

The archdiocese hopes to avoid such nakedly secular uses for its buildings, perhaps by handing some of them over to Catholic Charities or other nonprofit groups.

But selling a surplus church to a developer can prevent the building from succumbing to neglect and push the building onto the city tax rolls.

From a developer's perspective, adapting an old church for worldly purposes comes with distinct challenges. Elements like stained glass give the buildings their singular character, but omnipresent crosses or paintings of saints could alienate some customers.

"It's a tough pitch sometimes for bar mitzvahs," said John Graf, the owner of a banquet hall inside a former church and a hotel in a Benedictine monastery, both in Pittsburgh.

Some developers have stirred zoning battles when they have tried to convert churches, which are generally quiet during the week, into a use that could bring noise and traffic to a residential area. In some cities, historic-preservation laws restrict the extent to which a developer can alter a church.

For all the challenges they pose, successful church conversions can awe visitors with both their clever reuse of space -- Is that a microbrewery in the apse? -- and the intricate detailing that sets them apart from the run-of-the-mill big-box and strip-mall development.

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