[10 on Tuesday] How to Preserve Places of Worship, Part Two

Posted on: August 6th, 2013 by Emily Potter 5 Comments

As with any type of historic site, churches, synagogues, and mosques can find themselves at risk when no longer in use. The key difference: They have a religious context and sacred atmosphere that deserve special attention and care.

Last week, we began this conversation with ten questions to ask at the outset of any preservation or reuse project concerning a sacred space. This week, we have ten things to consider when planning for the most sympathetic reuse possible of a place of worship.

1. Look to other congregations. The first, best place to start when considering new uses for a religious space is with other congregations. A number of today’s sacred spaces are being reused as places of worship for another denomination. While specific religious practices may differ, another congregation is more likely to use the space for similar purposes.

2. Consider cultural or educational purposes. The most sympathetic type of reuse, outside of another religious organization, is one that has a “social gathering” purpose similar to the worship space. Examples include cultural or performing arts organizations, community centers, or educational facilities. Commercial and residential reuses can be more compromising because they usually require space partitioning. That said, many smaller churches or synagogues have been thoughtfully and successfully reused as gallery space, bookstores, and even single family residences.

3. Listen to the neighborhood. Understand the needs and strengths of the surrounding community to help determine which alternative uses would be the most appropriate, feasible, and affordable. What would neighborhood sentiments suggest or discourage? What would zoning laws permit on the site? Which spaces are accessible to the disabled? Is parking available? Does the building offer bathroom, kitchen, and other support facilities? Would the property first need any repairs?

blog_photo_Bonstelle Theater_Dave Hogg, Flickr
The Bonstelle Theater in Detroit, Michigan was originally built as the Temple Beth-El.

4. Lead a forum or town meeting. Hosting a forum or town meeting can help answer many of the questions above. Invite a local denominational office or ecumenical agency to be a part of the conversation.

5. Bring in outside expertise. Invite architects, attorneys, real estate agents, financial advisors, and civic leaders to participate in the discussion about potential reuses for the sacred space. These professionals can also help provide a tangible, visual illustration of alternative uses.

6. Care for the space while awaiting transition. If the reuse or purchase of a property is likely to be uncertain for months or even years, create a plan to help preserve the building’s significant physical fabric in the meantime. Discourage vandalism by making sure the building is locked and outside lights are working. Regularly check for water or other types of damage.

7. Retain original features when possible. For any type of reuse, encourage the new owner or renter to retain as many original features as possible, such as windows, altars, decorative stonework, and lighting fixtures. Keep in mind, however, that some traditions’ canon law might require that certain interior liturgical elements be removed.

blog_photo_Old church turned house_dok1, Flickr
Wesley Chapel in Hopetown, Ohio is now used as a private home.

8. Document the space and significant items. Record a history of the space. Photograph the rooms and larger areas; describe how they are currently being used; inventory important architectural elements and furnishings. This record can be submitted to the local preservation organization or historical society.

9. Build a relationship with the congregation. The preservation community and local congregation can work together in many ways to sympathetically reuse a sacred space. Preservation groups can advise on and assist in protecting the space’s historic integrity, as well as caring for the structure. The local congregation can provide historical religious context and help preserve the sanctity of the space.

10. Explore any and all alternatives to demolition. If you can, explore alternatives to full demolition. Sometimes a partial demolition can preserve a religious property’s most important features yet permit the construction of an appropriate building. But if full demolition is unavoidable, salvage as many significant features as you can and, if possible, make them available for reuse within the local community.

Has a place of worship in your community been repurposed? For what? What do you think of the end result?

Read Preservation Leadership Forum's post, The Halo Effect: The Economic Value of Sacred Places, for more in-depth research on preserving historic houses of worshop.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Emily Potter

Emily Potter is a copywriter at the National Trust. She enjoys writing about places of all kinds, the stories that make them special, and the people who love them enough to save them.

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5 Responses

  1. Cory Johnston

    August 6, 2013

    The City of the Village of Clarkston, Michigan has two churches in the downtown historic district that were repurposed by the same family. The first was turned into the family residence. The second into a now popular bar/restaurant on Main Street. While a community/performance center might have been better for the area, these were both done successfully with private money and accepted into the community for their new use. The same people have just renovated the former Township Hall into an office building. That building was originally a school and Ford factory. We are fortunate to have patrons with the funds and will to preserve these buildings.

  2. John von Walter

    August 6, 2013

    Carver-on-the-Minnesota, Inc. bought the Presbyterian Church of Carver, Minnesota from the congregation, did some restoration work via a Minnesota CLG grant, deeded it to the City of Carver, after which Carver Lions Club volunteers and another grant completed restoration work.

    Today the church serves as the venue for Carver City Council meetings, Heritage Preservation Commission meetings, Planning Commission Meetings, and Park and Recreation Commission Meetings. It also serves a venue for many community-related venues and can be rented out for weddings, funerals, parties, etc. The building also permanently displays many historic Carver photographs.

  3. Jeff

    August 6, 2013

    Thank you for this post. I am currently the steward of an historic church in rural Georgia called Zion Episcopal Church in Talbotton. The structure is 165 years old, but hasn’t had a congregation since the 1960s. We hold quarterly worship services there for the community and the surrounding counties. But most recently, we have been opening the space for performing arts. We had a local musician use the space to record his next album. We also invited a theater camp from a local city to come out and do an evening of monologues and musical performances there. They were more than happy to share their work and to use such a beautiful space for inspiration. Feel free to contact me if you want to learn more about Zion.

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  5. Judi

    August 23, 2013

    I am the archivist for the South Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church. It is heart-breaking to see churches close and no one has contacted the denomination’s archives to assist. We are the official repository of closed church records, not historical societies. We have seen precious, sacred artifacts thrown away or had to pay to retrieve our records from historical societies where unknowing church members have placed them.