Editor’s Note: The demolition of St. Boniface Church in Norris Square (not to mention last year’s loss of the Monastery of St. Clare, Poplar St. A.M.E. Zion Church and Metropolitan A.M.E. Zion Church) got us thinking about how things might have turned out differently. We asked Lauren Drapala to take a look at some of the creative ways church buildings are being adapted for new uses.
Back in college, I had my first encounter with a “re-used” church, a barbeque restaurant in a converted 19th century de-consecrated Lutheran church in West Hatfield, Massachusetts with the deliciously punny name Holy Smokes. Complete with flying pigs and blues music, Holy Smokes seemed like an authentic blend of revelry and nostalgia, using its history to enliven its ambiance and cultivate the business’s personality.
Though the my experience with the restaurant was brief and its end ironic–Holy Smokes burned down shortly after my graduation from Smith College–the place has always stuck with me. Moving to Philadelphia, I was struck by how many churches were either abandoned or on the market for new uses (and of course a few of them looked like the perfect place to reopen Holy Smokes).
Indeed, as we lose many beloved churches to disrepair, demolition and re-development, there are continuing efforts to think creatively about the opportunities that churches present for new use and community growth. In Philadelphia neighborhoods, particularly, urban scale is contingent on factories, churches, and schools. Without them, there is little to hold a rowhouse neighborhood together.
Churches and synagogues, according to the Institute of Sacred Architecture, can “act as beacons, landmarks, and community centers. To abandon them functionally is sometimes a necessity, but to lose them architecturally is simply wrong.”
Of course, this is no new idea in Philadelphia. As early as 1922, Samuel Fleisher purchased the Church of the Evangelists at 711 Catharine Street to become the Graphic Sketch Club (later the Fleisher Art Memorial School).
There is often a nice fit between art exhibition and performance and the large open space of a church’s nave; the altar can provide a built-in stage. The Rotunda at 4014 Walnut Street, the Iron Gate at Penn, Calvary Center and Temple Performing Art Center have all been re-purposed as theaters, with the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia serving as a concert venue.
The best re-uses emerge when congregations, community groups, and developers can work together to adapt some or all of a sacred building. A landmark example can be seen at 22nd and Chestnut streets at the former Church of New Jerusalem. Facing the imminent sale of their church building in the 1980s, the Swedenborgian congregation enlisted the assistance of the Preservation Fund of Pennsylvania to find a developer who would sensitively adapt their building to a new use.
The church had three suitors–the Wilma Theater, the Pennsylvania Ballet and a private developer–and in this case, the developer’s plan was chosen because it resulted in the fewest changes to the church interior while doubling the amount of useable square footage. Mark B. Thompson Associates re-designed the space into executive offices, inserting three office floors into the main sanctuary space, and excavated an additional story below ground, with a glass curtain wall facing the preserved altar.
“Nothing we did is irreversible,” said Mark Thompson. “We retained the grill work, the wood carvings. If you ever wanted to reverse things you could take it back to being a church.”
Developer Andy Thomas continues the trend, with his ongoing renovation of the old Fourth Reformed Church at Manayunk and Monastery Avenues in Roxborough for residential use. (Check out Laura Kicey’s photos of the church HERE). Preserving the exterior façade and bell tower of the church, Thomas is adding underground parking and re-building the interior. Although much of the building had been badly deteriorated, he plans to preserve the wall of the pipe organ, and salvage portions of the decorative woodwork for the balusters and newel posts. Financially, Thomas says, “it would’ve be much easier to level it, I would’ve made much more money…[but] it’s a beautiful building, and it keeps the history alive.”
Thomas sees that the building’s past adds character to the residential use, and will bring in people who are drawn to its unique story.
What’s next? A bowling alley, perhaps? As a recent graduate studio at Penn’s School of Design demonstrated, a single church could serve as (but not be limited to) a performing arts center, recreation center (complete with a 40 foot rock climbing wall), and office space. What’s important is to remind church groups as well as developers, preservationists and architects, of the enormous potential inside these monumental structures–potential lost if we merely allow them to go up in smoke.