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Resurrecting churches for new uses

Town Hall: A 1916 Seattle church converted into a performance center Credit: Town Hall Seattle

Not surprisingly, churches and other religious buildings are struggling with the collapse of real estate prices. Many have been caught with over-optimistic mortgages, declining property values, and shrinking yields from the collection plate. A Wall Street Journal story (Jan. 25) reports that nearly 200 religious facilities have been foreclosed on by banks since 2008, compared to virtually none in the previous decade.

When congregations can no longer support churches, or choose to move to the suburbs, they have been tempted to cash in on the high property value of an old church, particularly if it’s downtown or in a desirable residential neighborhood. Likewise, these often-handsome older buildings can be adapted for new uses such as performance venues, housing, or educational uses. Pharmacies have been specializing in buying old churches, tearing them down, and putting up CVS or Walgreen drug stores. (Often touching off big fights with historic preservationists.)

Buying a faltering church is far from simple, as I had occasion to find out when I embarked with others on a decade-long quest that eventuated in Town Hall Seattle, a First Hill civic and performance venue in a former Christian Science Church. Perhaps my saga is instructive.

There are several other such sagas in recent Seattle history. First United Methodist Church, near Seattle’s government center, was sold recently, after years of debate, though no use has yet been found for the old sanctuary. An ambitious effort to sell off some now-outsized University-District churches, combining several of them into a new Ecumenical Campus, is in a fragile state. Project proponents report they are “struggling to achieve a balance between project costs and resources, and reduced real estate values rank among the greatest challenges.” Other Christian Science churches have been sold, one converted to condominiums, another sold (as is often the case) to rising evangelical denominations.

The first difficulty in such adaptive reuses is getting the congregation agreed on a sale. One developer, often burned in these negotiations, puts it this way: “Typically there is a group that wants to sell, and another group that is very opposed. So two committees are formed and the minister is put in the awkward position of trying to resolve the differences. Make a decision, however, and half the church will be so angry that it leaves the fold, killing the church in the process of saving it. So the minister almost always has only one wise course, after much prayer, and that is — to stall.”

Most developers eventually give up. It took us eight years and seven offers to finally purchase the handsome old (1916) Fourth Church of Christ Scientist on First Hill, now the thriving Town Hall, and many times we were close to giving up. As is typical, the tiny congregation was bitterly divided, thereby discouraging new members who might have saved it.

Then there are inherent difficulties pertaining to zoning and land use. Some of these churches have cemetaries surrounding them, an exceedingly difficult piece of land to develop. Many are historic, and so dramatic changes of the building, or razing it, usually provoke big fights with local preservationists. Those with lots of religious symbolism will turn off potential future users. And these buildings can have serious built-in design limitations. Most have tiny lobbies or foyers, for instance, which makes them hard to adapt for performance venues.

The zoning issues can also be vexing. Many of these churches were once anchors to residential districts that closed in around them. That means limited parking, and they are in a neighborhood that is accustomed to having a handsome landmark that draws little traffic except on Sundays. Conversion to a performance venue or a use such as the House of Blues (which had its eyes on the future Town Hall as well as the downtown First United Methodist Church) does wonders to arm the neighbors. Residential zoning also severely limits the kinds of new uses (hotels, offices, retail) that could go into the old sanctuary.

Prior to our long negotiations with the Christian Scientists, our group of small musical organizations seeking a common home attempted to purchase the old sanctuary of Temple de Hirsch at E. Union and 15th. That handsome, neoclassical building had been closed for a decade after the building of a new and larger sanctuary on the same block. It turned into a complicated and ironic lesson in this kind of enterprise.

The Temple really wanted to tear the old sanctuary down, making a Holocaust Memorial Garden (as is there today), but there were members who lamented such a fate. In such a divided atmosphere we found it very hard to find donors within the congregation willing to anger the other side by making a contribution. It also turned out that the present rabbi was far from enthusiastic about retaining the building where his charismatic predecessor, Rabbi Raphael Levine, had built his fame.

Worse, we were drawn into a historic preservation battle. Temple de Hirsch had voluntarily landmarked the building years before, perhaps unthinkingly, and so getting permission to tear it down required demonstrating that it had no viable continued economic use. Enter our group, whose purpose I came to realize was mostly to demonstrate, by failing to get the funds, that the building indeed had no economic viability. We magnificently fulfilled this mission, raising few dollars and paving the way for the wrecking ball. (I do my best.)

These tussles with preservationists have a particular angle in Washington state, where the state constitution’s strong separation of church-and-state language has been interpreted by courts to say that the public’s goal of historic preservation does not trump the rights of religious institutions to be free of state interference in most regards. Still, once a church is sold and secularized, the relative ease of landmarking buildings in Seattle comes into play, either implied or actual. With landmarking, the freedom to alter the building is quite limited, which can be another economic obstacle for renovation and new uses.

When I was executive director of Town Hall, 1998-2006, I was often contacted by people in other cities who had located a church for sale and sought advice on how to convert it. Not many were able to do so, for some of the reasons cited above. It turns out that relatively few of these ungainly old structures adapt well to modern performance needs. Acoustics can be “boomy.” The flat or gently-sloped floors of the sanctuary may work for lofty pulpits but not for clear sightlines for perfomances on a stage. Highly decorated, religious-seeming spaces can be a turnoff for some audiences. The absence of parking dooms other projects. And churches are often located in sedate neighborhoods, far away from restaurants and nightlife.

Town Hall, I came to understand gratefully, was unusually advantaged for such a conversion. It is surrounded by a parking lot. As a Christian Science Church, it looks like a public building, not a church. (The saying is, You can always tell a Christian Science Church because it looks like a bank.) The configuration — sanctuary above, lobby in the middle, assembly hall below — meant a generous lobby and sound separation between the two performance spaces. It was in vintage condition, a result of the kind of steady decline from its peak in the 1920 that neither modernized the building nor let it decay.

And the location, just across I-5 from downtown, was on buslines, close to a residential population, and convenient from downtown. (Interestingly, this prime block was one of the places the Seattle Art Museum looked for a downtown location before settling, first, on Westlake Mall, and then on its present home.) 

In Europe and England, where the decline of religion is more pronounced, there are wisely flexible rules for the conversion of these spaces to new uses. In England, where 869 redundant churches have been converted in the past 30 years, there is a provision for a “use-seeking” period that invites in a wide range of potential adaptations, and another provision for a flexible negotiation with local preservation authorities. Rightly, these unusual buildings are regarded as needing special attention if they are to be saved.

Something like that might make sense here, though the number of redundant churches is still rather small in Seattle. (Nationally, membership at churches and synagogues is now at 61 percent, down from 70 percent in 1999, according to Gallup figures.) It would be complicated by the church-state legal issues. Likewise, neighbors who want to resist the influx of traffic that a more active use of a somnolent church would bring, would find lots of legal sand to pour in the gears of such a project.

But it’s worth doing, for all kinds of aesthetic, historic, and wise-use reasons. So let me end with an encouraging story: the joint use of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church at 4272 Fremont Ave. N. This 1914 edifice was purchased by the Lutheran/Episcopal Church of the Apostles in a few years back, and since 2005 its second floor assembly hall has served as space for the independent Fremont Abbey Arts Center, hosting classes and events in a reworked space. The Abbey is turning into an active community-arts center for North Seattle.

Amen to that!

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