The Cultural Conversion Of Cast-Off Churches
Developers See Past Challenges to Create Art Venues, Condos

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.

"Eating here is definitely a religious experience," said David Dworsky, general manager of Mark's American Cuisine in Houston, a restaurant built inside a former church. "Everyone who walks into the restaurant, their jaws drop."

Churches are best used as churches, of course, and in many cases a growing congregation will buy one from an older denomination that can no longer sustain it. That's what happened in Boston, where the archdiocese retired 44 churches several years ago. About a quarter ended up being used by other religious groups.

Sarah Comiskey, a spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, said the church hopes to keep as many buildings as possible within the ambit of the Catholic faith. Catholic Charities, for example, has converted St. Cecilia Church into a day center for the elderly.

Elmore Rigamer, medical director of Catholic Charities, said it was more expensive to renovate the church than to erect a more utilitarian building from scratch. But the church setting, with its stained-glass windows and vaulted ceilings, gives the senior center's clients a sense of peace.

"The place is very pretty. The patients really like it. There's almost a healing element in the atmosphere," Rigamer said.

If the archdiocese decides to relinquish some of its churches to the commercial market, developers say they are most easily adapted into concert venues, reception halls or visual art centers, all of which require a large volume of open space.

Graf, owner of the Priory Hotel in Pittsburgh, said the hazards of redeveloping a church are similar to those of reusing any historic building. The church his family bought once belonged to an urban congregation whose members walked to Sunday services. His family endured zoning battles to get a parking variance.

The church sat empty for 14 years before his family bought it, and Graf said he hired an artist to restore the intricate gold stencils on the ceiling.

"We wanted to preserve the history of the building, but we didn't want people to feel like they were walking into a church, either," he said.

The Archdiocese of New Orleans plans to remove all sacred items when the hurches are closed. If the churches are in historic districts, however, local preservation laws might require that stained-glass windows be left behind to preserve the original appearance.

For many Catholics, the buildings themselves, built by poor immigrant families who bought individual bricks to pay for construction, are important tokens of their heritage.

"When these beautiful things were built at the turn of the century . . . nobody would have ever guessed about the expense of heating or cooling them, or maintaining the roof and the stonework," said Kathleen Heck of the Archdiocese of Boston, who supervised the transition there.

"When they built these magnificent edifices, it was not on their radar screen how future generations would sustain them."

Kate Moran writes for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans.

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