More unusual conversions of buildings to housing in Chicago

Here are a few examples in Chicago of converting solid older structures into residences:

Developers have never shied away from turning the remnants of Chicago’s past into residences—see the omnipresent warehouse-turned-loft projects across the city. Conversion treatments are now being found where they are less expected: A former Jewish orphanage in Wicker Park is now a single-family home. The old Sears store on Lawrence Avenue in Lincoln Square? It’s likely to become a 40-unit apartment building. Most impressively, a landmarked church at 2900 West Shakespeare Avenue in Logan Square reemerged in November as a 10-unit condo building. Other similar projects are in the works.

The reason for repurposing instead of demolishing is simple: The quality of old construction often surpasses that of today’s standards. “Most of the brick structures that were built in the postfire era used high-quality materials such as Chicago brick,” says Greg Whelan, a Redfin real estate agent. “Intrinsically, these buildings have high value because they don’t make that brick anymore.” Plus, existing structures bypass height restrictions dictated by modern zoning laws and solve the issue of the lack of vacant land in the most desirable neighborhoods.

These projects fix problems for developers. And the quirks of unconventional buildings appeal to homeowners. In the former church, bell towers allow ceilings, supported by original steel trusses, to soar as high as 30 feet. Slate from the old roof was repurposed as tile in the lobby. (There are plenty of modern features, too, including floating vanities the bathrooms and quartz countertops in the kitchens.) The exterior looks much like it did when the church was built in 1908, with dramatic arched Gothic windows and regal stone detailing around newly built balconies. Three of the 10 units were still available at presstime for between $480,000 and $650,000.

Presumably there are some limits to which older buildings get converted. Although this article doesn’t mention it, I assume a big factor is money: will the conversion provide a sufficient return on investment for the developer? Also, cities won’t necessarily allow anything to be converted to residences. It likely helps if the structure is already in a residential location (common for churches) and is a building that the neighbors like (as opposed to an eyesore or mismatch that even a conversion can’t fix).

I’m still intrigued by the conversion of religious buildings into residences. The architecture of such buildings is often conducive to groups (which would be limited when converted into multiple units) and intended to provide a physica connection with the spiritual realm. How exactly does this architecture fit the tastes of homeowners? Can you easily reduce the spiritual architecture to its component pieces like large windows and high ceilings? See an earlier post about converting Chicago churches into residences.

What if churches considered geographic disparities and their local context?

An interview in the latest print issue of Christianity Today could provide insights for a lot of religious congregations: here is part of the lesson regarding geographic inequalities.

For me, geography is never passive. Why does a new freeway cut through a certain neighborhood? Who lives near that freeway, and why? Those are not just decisions of urban planners or politicians. There are a million little decisions that go into that process—public and private.

It’s impossible to live in a place, or move to a new one, without getting tangled up in the history of its particular structures—who they benefit and who they exclude. That’s a hard reality, because most of us didn’t pave the streets we live on. Yet someone designed those places, and that design will either encourage the flourishing of society or lead to patterns of exclusion…

So many churches, frankly, just don’t know their communities at all. Two or three days a week, a whole bunch of cars come in and then go somewhere else—and that’s the only relationship a church might have with its surrounding neighborhood. That’s more of a suburban reality, but it’s increasingly true of cities as well. The first step, for churches, is just asking, Who’s here? Who are the immediate neighbors that we serve? What populations are underserved? If churches begin to have that conversation more often, then they can look to their congregations and say, “Are we representing the people in this community, and why or why not?”…

The next step is asking, “How can our congregation use its resources—whether that’s a building, a program, or a professional with certain skills—for the sake of others?” Church buildings, for example, are notorious for inefficient usage. They’re filled up a couple times each week, but otherwise the heat is off and they’re just vacant. What a gift it would be for churches to think of their physical structures as resources not just for themselves but also for their surrounding communities. Especially in dense, gentrifying urban areas, where space is really at a premium.

Some related thoughts, many based on findings from the sociology of religion:

  1. A lot of religious congregations seem more interested in internal homophily – being with like people during church activities – rather than turning their attention to their actual neighbors.
  2. Many congregations do little in terms of local outreach – see Congregations in America and the ongoing data of the National Congregations Study. It is not as if they are doing misinformed outreach; little is being done in the first place so getting churches to care about their local community may be harder than it looks.
  3. I agree that urban design can certainly contribute to flourishing or exclusion but it is not necessarily a guarantee of either. Take the highway example given here (and famously illustrated by the Dan Ryan Expressway on the South Side of Chicago): it reinforced existing boundaries.
  4. Why can’t religious groups construct and maintain “cosmopolitan canopies” rather than leaving it to private commercial interests or the efforts of local governments?
  5. I assume there are some differences today in how different religious traditions and denominations approach the local community. This was certainly true in the past where Catholic churches did not disappear when the parishioners moved to the suburbs but rather transitioned to the newest waves of immigrants. Today, who takes their local context into account more and what could they teach others?

What are the criteria for choosing the most beautiful religious buildings?

I saw this list of 25 stunning churches, mosques, and temples around the world and wondered: how do people decide on a list like this? Even the introduction of the article seems to recognize this:

The architecture of houses of worship varies according to time and place, ranging from hilltop chapels built in the 10th century to geometric modernist designs of glass and steel…

A tour around the world in search of the most beautiful houses of worship shows that despite the immense differences in architecture, the ability of humans to create beautiful, holy places transcends geographical and sectarian boundaries. Behold, 25 of the world’s prettiest churches, mosques, and temples.

I would be interested in reading more about how each of these buildings lead visitors to feelings of beauty and holiness. Is it because of the exterior? (Clearly marked as a religious building, difference from or convergence with the surrounding landscape, it took a long time to build.) Is it because of the interior? (A number of these captions mention that the buildings invoke certain feelings inside.) It is because it is old and/or cultural important? Ultimately: is there a common feature across religious buildings of different faiths and times that generally moves humans toward feelings of transcendence?

(This isn’t exactly what my coauthor Bob Brenneman and I were getting at in a recent Sociology of Religion article titled “When Bricks Matter: Fourt Arguments for the Sociological Study of Religious Buildings” but this would be interesting to consider alongside our thesis that we should pay more attention to how religious buildings affect the people within.)

The case for saving Chicago’s old churches

Here is an argument for why the broader public should work to preserve dozens of older churches throughout Chicago:

The protection of religious structures presents a unique set of problems. A particularly formidable roadblock is the city’s inability to step in to designate threatened religious buildings as a landmark. The city has powers allowing it to move forward with landmark designations for non-religious buildings in spite of owner consent, however, a 1987 revision to the Landmark Ordinance states that “no building that is owned by a religious organization…shall be designated a historical landmark without the consent of its owner.” And without protections, many of these buildings are left to deteriorate and ultimately face demolition…

Chicago’s Catholic churches are among the most prominent visual connections to the city’s past and the ethnic communities that once dominated the neighborhoods. They provide clues to what ethnic communities make up Chicago’s diverse population through the languages engraved on facades, the style of buildings, and the saints for whom they were named…

For most Chicagoans, the interiors of sacred places remain a mystery, but Seidel’s anecdote indicates that people still care a great deal about the buildings in their neighborhoods, even when they might not necessarily understand or fully appreciate the Latin, Polish, Hebrew, or Greek spoken inside.

And this is the exact point that preservationists believe to be the most important. Even if the number of people attending religious services drops, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the general populace fails to recognize great architecture or stop using religious structures as spatial identifiers. It doesn’t mean that many of these struggling South Side neighborhoods don’t deserve to have culturally significant structures.

This comes after the archdiocese of Chicago announced it would close dozens of churches. This is interesting because historically it has been Protestant groups who have been happy to step away from their churches in big cities. Particularly after white flight, many of those Protestant churches were sold to other religious groups, converted to other uses, or demolished over recent decades. But, many Catholic churches stayed because of a commitment Catholics had to the building and neighborhoods as well as providing worship spaces to new waves of immigrants. The archdiocese suggests this is no longer tenable:

In his announcement, Blase indicated that the church is faced with a perfect storm: a shortage of priests joining the seminary, declining mass attendance, and the deferral of maintenance bills for churches that are in need of attention. All of these issues combined has put a squeeze on archdiocese resources and will force many parishes to either close or consolidate. And with the looming closure of potentially dozens of churches, there is now a threat of demolition for some of the city’s most important cultural and architectural icons.

But, I would guess it may be hard to mobilize many neighborhoods (and the necessary resources) to save old churches from religious groups that few attend or adhere to in those places. How many Americans are willing to sacrifice something to save old buildings for the sake of keeping them around? The argument laid out above is a typical one from preservationists: losing the buildings means losing a physical part of the place’s heritage. But, where are the resources to preserve these buildings if market forces – both in the economy and in American religion where attendees can choose among hundreds of options – are suggesting they are not worth much?

Berger on the religious pluralism of cities

Peter Berger describes some of his own experiences seeing religiosity break into city life and sums up with these thoughts:

Years later I took a course at the New School of Social Research under Albert Salomon entitled “Balzac as a Sociologist”. I sensed that Balzac’s novels conveyed the same experience of Paris, all its secrets hidden behind closed doors. What could be going on behind this particular door: a religious cult (Balzac was curious about esoteric cults), a great crime, an orgy, or a political conspiracy?  During my student days I roamed endlessly through New York; since I was already obsessed with religion (as a friend of mine once put it, rather pejoratively, “once a godder, always a godder”), I visited every sort of religious space—not only regular Christian churches and different synagogues, but any manner of what for me were esoterica: a brand-new Zen center, the Anthroposophical Society and its cultic offspring, the so-called Christian Community (where one could attend a quasi-Gnostic ceremony in 20th-century America), a Mormon church, Pentecostal storefronts in Puerto Rican East Harlem (about which I wrote my M.A. thesis, my hands “dirty with research”), and the Baha’i (about which faith I wrote my doctoral dissertation). I could go on. But enough. I will observe that mystery is always, minimally, akin to the core of religious experience which Rudolf Otto (in my opinion the greatest 20th-century scholar of religion) called the mysterium tremendum. Thus it should not be a surprise that cities have typically been places of religious innovation (Pentecostalism, the biggest religious explosion of our time, mainly flourishes in the intensely pluralistic mega-cities of the Global South).

While cities are often regarded as centers of secularization and financial markets, they often contain a remarkable amount of religious activity. Two books I have read recently attest to this. In How the Other Half Worships, sociologist and photographer Camilo José Vergara looks at a number of urban churches primarily through images with some explanation of the experiences had within the diverse church buildings. While Vergara roams far and wide in poorer neighborhoods, sociologist Katie Day examines the dozens of religious congregations along Germantown Avenue in Philadelphia in Faith on the Avenue: Religion on a City Street. Both books hint at the lively religious life of urban residents and organizations even as other aspects of cities receive much more attention from scholars.

Rise in church-to-residence conversions in Chicago?

The Chicago Tribune suggests there is a trend toward more residences created out of church buildings:

The popular trend of church-to-condo conversions began in the 1980s, said Carrie Georgitsis, the Redfin real estate agent who worked with Buera and Babus on their house hunt. Over time, the appeal became more popular, especially in the Lakeview and Lincoln Park neighborhoods…

Church-to-home conversions mirror the ever-changing needs of the community. Very often, a congregation will sell its church building because the congregation dwindled, forcing remaining members to consolidate into a smaller space since they can no longer maintain the large structure, Georgitsis said.Chicago’s increase in church conversions over the years reflects the religious direction of the United States in general. According to a 2014 Pew Research survey, the percentage of adults who described themselves as Christians dropped nearly 8 points from 78.4 percent to 70.6 percent in just seven years. Over the same period, the percentage of Americans who identified as religiously unaffiliated (describing themselves as agnostic, atheist or “nothing in particular”) jumped more than 6 points from 16.1 percent in 2007 to 22.8 percent in 2014.

“Studies show that the long-term church attendance in America is on the decline,” said Bill Skubik, president of Religious Real Estate, a Waterford, Mich.-based real estate agency that specializes in religious properties. “I tell pastors all the time, ‘You may be able to afford to buy the building, but who is going to pay the utility bills? You’ve got maintenance and utilities that are expensive.'” The decline of churchgoers reflects the changing needs of communities, Skubik said. And, as a result, church buildings are left abandoned or sold.

In Chicago, churches in residential areas can be converted into homes without any zoning ramifications. “Generally, many older churches were zoned for residential use, so it’s a relatively seamless process,” said Peter Strazzabosco, a deputy commissioner for Chicago’s Department of Planning and Development. Developers only need to worry about zoning codes in terms of the number of units and parking lots they plan to build, he said.

I find two things interesting about this story. First, this is presented as a story of supply and demand. In neighborhoods with tighter housing markets, developers and buyers are willing to pursue residences made out of former churches. Yet, the opening story in the article presents a couple who like the unique features of the unit. What if church buildings become desirable now just because there are not enough units available but because of their aesthetic charm and/or sacred architecture?

Second, the journalist suggests there is a trend toward more church conversions. But, are there any numbers to back this up? Do we know how many times this has been done? In the past, would developers bulldoze the unused church buildings rather than convert them?

Perhaps we will know if this is really a trend when new condos and single-family residences deliberately incorporate church-like features into their architecture and design.

When American communities try to limit the number of churches in city limits

This is a fascinating look at how American municipalities deal with the “problem” of too many churches. For example, here is the experience of Stafford, Texas which did not have a property tax and was located near highways outside Houston:

By 2006, there were 51 religious facilities in Stafford’s 7 square miles, according to city filings. And, at that time, the city had just a little over 300 acres that remained undeveloped.The costs in Stafford’s case were starting to outweigh the benefits…

Scarcella and city officials spent years poring through legal filings and spent a good dose of cash on attorneys to successfully craft a land use ordinance that would require a public hearing and process for new “places of assembly” — such as bowling alleys, dance halls, museums and religious facilities.To obtain a specific use permit under the regulation, applicants would have to address and adhere to a list of requirements related to elements such as acreage, parking and traffic mitigation.

The pushback was tremendous, Scarcella said, noting the town attracted national media and plenty of negative attention…

“I’m held in a fairly decent regard within my church, and I have a deep belief in Christ, and I believe in people’s right to worship, and I admire them for doing that,” he said. “But I also recognize that there needs to be a balance.”

 

Too many religious facilities that don’t pay property tax means that a community may not have a sufficient tax base to maintain all the infrastructure that religious facilities would use. One sociologist estimated that $71 billion in taxes is left on the table by religious institutions. Additionally, there is an opportunity cost involved where the land might have been used for purposes that would pay property taxes and perhaps even add sales tax revenues.

All of this could lead to a humorous situation: how about a suburban community near the nexus of multiple highways that zoned solely for industrial parks and churches/religious facilities? Given that many churches today have a tenuous connection to the community in which they are located, attendees don’t mind church shopping via car, and large churches want plenty of land and interior space for their campuses, this could minimize the pain for a number of other nearby communities.