It looks ancient, but the formidable stone church at 609 Maryland Ave. NE has, in its own way, kept up with the times.
Constructed in 1891, the Romanesque Revival building started as a Presbyterian church. But that congregation began to fade in the 1950s, and eventually another took over. And then another and another — none of them able to find their footing.
By 1994, when Imani Temple arrived, the building — just off Stanton Park in Washington’s Capitol Hill neighborhood — was in foreclosure. It wasn’t a perfect fit for the congregation, but the price was good.
Almost 20 years later, with the vast majority of its African American congregants now living outside the District, Imani Temple’s leader put the church on the market.
Morningstar Community Development bought it in 2015. “I always loved that church,” said Casey Klein, Morningstar’s managing partner and a longtime Capitol Hill resident. “I saw the [“for sale”] sign and called about it, and my partners and I immediately fell in love with it. We thought it’d be a really fantastic project.”
Today, the church is on track to become a condo building, joining dozens of others that have gone the same route in recent years.
For observers of Washington’s real estate scene, the trend has been impossible to miss: As churches’ congregations move to the suburbs and D.C. property values soar, increasing numbers of religious institutions are selling their properties in the city, usually with plans to move closer to their congregants.
Some of the churches are demolished, but those with architectural merit are often adapted by developers for new uses, usually residential.
Unlike Baltimore, for example, Washington lacks industrial spaces that can be converted into unique — and potentially high-end — lofts, and former religious structures are this city’s best option for creative reuse. But few churches are easily turned into homes, and developers, who are driving the trend in the District, often face hurdles. To boot, some experts say that a church’s former life as a sacred space requires a particular kind of respect.
Church conversions are occurring around the country. According to the CoStar Group, which tracks real estate data nationwide, church sales in the United States jumped by almost 100 percent between 2010 and 2015, and the number of church redevelopment projects more than tripled during that time. In D.C., the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs received 31 applications to change buildings from a place of worship to something else in 2014 and 2015.
The phenomenon doesn’t seem to be slowing down; church conversions are all over the city. Some of D.C.’s most notable projects are the former First Church of Christ, Scientist church in Adams Morgan that’s set to become a 226-bed hotel and Mount Pleasant’s Meridian Hill Baptist Church, which was destroyed by a fire in 2008 and will become an 85-unit condo building.
The most obvious challenge in converting a church is the building’s layout. Religious structures tend to be built around a sanctuary: a huge room with high ceilings and, often, big windows.
“In order to get housing into a volume like that, you need to put new floors into that structure, and you have to coordinate with the big windows,” said Scott Matties, a principal architect with Cunningham Quill who has been observing church conversions in Washington. “It can be done, but it’s definitely a challenge.”
Developer Andrew Rubin, who is turning Capitol Hill’s Way of the Cross Church into a 26-unit condo building called the Sanctuary, concurs. Figuring out how to work with a space that had a balcony and an upper mezzanine — which eventually became the second and third floors in the new units — was a long process. Ditto with the Gothic Revival building’s abundant stained-glass windows.
But in the end, Rubin said, the windows became “the centerpiece of the whole thing.” He wound up sending them to Pennsylvania craftsmen who took the stained-glass panels apart, cleaned them and reassembled them. The windows will have a few clear pieces for visibility, and many will be designed to open.
A less-apparent sticking point is many church buildings’ deferred maintenance. Congregations often have very limited money, and fixing old but functional buildings is not necessarily a first priority. It is almost a given that developers will encounter surprises, whether crumbling exterior brickwork, a disintegrating foundation or shoddily constructed additions done over decades or even centuries.
“It needs a lot of work, a ton,” Klein said of the former Eastern Presbyterian Church, Capitol Hill Presbyterian Church, Greater Mount Zion Baptist Church and Imani Temple; his team expects to start construction this fall. “It needs a full exterior renovation; windows are broken; the HVAC doesn’t work; the plumbing is in poor shape.” It will be expensive, but Klein says he is looking forward to restoring elements such as the church tower’s boarded-up windows, which are visible from blocks away, to their former glory. That should make neighbors happy.
That is an important point. Churches matter to people: to congregations and to communities.
Sassan Gharai, president of SGA Companies, learned that during the two years he spent renovating Alexander Memorial Baptist Church, one of the last African American churches in Georgetown. Even to nonmembers, the church had become something of a community institution, and many fought hard against perceived changes. “You just get an incredible amount of abuse,” said Gharai, who spent about a year acquiring the necessary approvals to move forward.
“At an ANC [Advisory Neighborhood Commission] meeting — I was there for the third or fourth time — one commissioner turned around, said, ‘You have got to be a masochist; I don’t know how you put up with this.’ ”
But perhaps more meaningful, and trickier, are interactions with the congregation itself. After all, a church is the repository of members’ deep emotions and most important moments, often generations’ worth, and that means deals often are not just strictly business. In some cases, developers partner with church leaders or agree to price a percentage of residential units affordably to align with churches’ missions.
Rubin, the developer renovating Way of the Cross, is simultaneously working on another church: Word of God Baptist Church, near the Potomac Avenue Metro station. There, the situation has been anything but straightforward.
First, the church leaders had to trust him before they could agree on a sale. And then, Rubin said, “they turned to me and said, ‘We agree on the price, but we need to find a new place.’ ” He wound up spending the next 18 months searching for a new building for the congregation. “For a good while, I was talking to them every day — I looked at probably 20 or 30 buildings.”
Rubin finally found the congregation a new home in a church in University Park — a bigger space than they’d had in the District — and negotiated the deal on their behalf. “I’m very proud of what we were able to do,” Rubin said. “It was a partnership as much as it was a transaction.”
Pastor John McCoy agreed. “They had a lot of sensitivity to our specific needs and congregation,” he said, adding that the business relationship has since deepened into a friendship.
Remembering that a church is more than brick and mortar is crucial when working with religious buildings, said Ben Heimsath, an architect in Austin who specializes in church design and renovations.
“Sadly, I think there are as many examples of what not to do as there are positive reuse projects,” Heimsath said. “The most painful examples are the thoughtless or inappropriate use of church symbols or specific worship functions” — like an altarpiece reused as a table or a bar, for example. Ultimately, he said, it comes down to one thing: respect for the building’s former life.
Some observers, however, are sad to see churches converted to any other use, no matter how considerate the design is.
Dan Claire, rector of the Capitol Hill-based Church of the Resurrection, has been helping establish neighborhood churches for young Washingtonians around the city but has struggled to find space for the new congregations. He is not a big fan of church-to-condo conversions.
“I think it’s a catastrophic loss,” he said. “There are fewer and fewer third spaces in the city. You can go to a pub or a restaurant — you consume and you leave — but there aren’t many places where you can gather.”
But developers say that in the end, it is a matter of stewardship: They are keeping the buildings safe for another generation.
“This is a way to preserve an asset that’s deteriorating; we’re making it beautiful again,” Klein said. “We want to maintain the architecture so it can be enjoyed in perpetuity.”