Holy Smokes: What Do We Do With All These Churches?

January 20, 2012 | by Lauren Drapala


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.

St. Andrew's Ukrainian Catholic Church at 425-29 Pine Street, currently available for redevelopment | Photo: L. Drapala.

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.”

The Rotunda | Photo: University of Pennsylvania Almanac

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.

Church of the New Jerusalem | Photo courtesy Tom Crane, Tom Crane Photography Inc.

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.”

Former Fourth Reformed Church, Manayunk and Monastery Avenue | Photo: Laura Kicey

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.

We’ve seen churches converted to factories, a photography studio, and a private residence.

Former Siloam M.E. Church, now the studio for Dominic Episcopo Photography | 1345 E. Susquehanna Ave.

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.


About the Author

Lauren Drapala Lauren Drapala works as an architectural conservator at the Fairmount Park Historic Preservation Trust. Since moving to Philadelphia in 2008 to earn her Masters in Historic Preservation from the University of Pennsylvania, she has been mesmerized by the wealth of architectural resources throughout the city and its surrounding districts. Continuing the research she began in her graduate work, Lauren is currently authoring a book about the 20th century interiors and decorative screens of Robert Winthrop Chanler. Learn more about this project at


  1. Jamie says:

    In Louisville, KY they converted a church to the Holy Grale! It’s pretty awesome!

  2. Rob Mas says:

    The Church Brew Works in Pittsburgh is also another Church gone Brewery example.

  3. Ariel Diliberto says:

    There’s another church-turned-private-residence on the 1200 block of Marlborough in Fishtown: .

    I know that the Morris Baptist Church at 12th & Lehigh ( was offered to the group the Philly Socialists to run their food distribution, free ESL classes, and other programming out of. Unfortunately the church had severe roof leakage 10 years ago when it went into disuse and has only further deteriorated since then. It proved to be too much of a financial and legal liability for the organization to take on, but I would love to see the reuse of churches in the future for social service provision and other non-profit/community development use.

  4. Matt Allison says:

    As a member of a vibrant church in West Philly that has been renting meeting space for the past 6 years, the number of abandoned, disused, or demolished churches is sad. I can, off the top of my head, think of 10+ congregations in Philadelphia that are growing, but rent space, and not usually from and older congregation.

    We looked at renting the main space in the Rotunda (which remains unused). But even with 200 members, the estimated costs to rehab were prohibitive (~1 million). I sense that this is a general problem. Most of these churches require a lot of money, more money than young congregations can usually afford.

    Partnerships to share these buildings seem like the most promising solution. The Methodist church at 48th and Baltimore is exemplary. Multiple organizations, both sacred and secular share the space, and preserve it for the community.

    I think that private and public money could work together here in partnership to develop these spaces. The best case scenarios combine the limited resources of several organizations to save these buildings.

  5. William says:

    The article is interesting. IMO, there are too many derelict, long unused “churches” where the properties are off the tax rolls. I am not talking about the grand buildings that you highlight here, but the more run of the mill single- and two-story re-purposed residences that are a blight on many neighborhood streets. One of many problems with these buildings is that they are off the tax rolls, so there is little or no leverage to convert them for active use. While I have not done the diligence on this “issue”, I am going to guess there are several hundred of these properties city wide. A programmatic approach is needed to convert many of these properties to get them back on the tax rolls and to provide those that are active, access to funding programs to “uplift” themselves.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.