Conversions Nightclubs Frowned Upon, but Restaurants Get Blessing : Churches Are ‘Born Again’ for Secular Uses
Befitting a former church, the fare at the Angel’s Corner Restaurant includes angel hair pasta and Sole St. Andrew, named for the patron saint of fishermen.
The choirloft is now a bar, the sacristy a kitchen. A waiter’s station has replaced the altar.
Pews line the walls. Votive candles adorn tables under a cathedral ceiling accented by stained-glass windows.
“The architecture lent itself to our idea very well,” says owner Chuck Davis, who opened Angel’s Corner five years ago in the former Holy Spirit Byzantine Catholic Church in Pittsburgh.
“We had the roots for ambiance. The foundation was there. But we’ve tried not to be too thick with the church theme. We don’t want people to come in and feel they have to be solemn.”
Here and elsewhere--in places like Atlanta and New Orleans--many churches have been converted from houses of worship into secular uses.
Buildings Are Sturdy
Due to shifts in population and changing neighborhoods, congregations have abandoned old churches and moved to newer ones. But the buildings are often architecturally sturdy, built for crowds, centrally located and easily changed into restaurants, condominiums, doctors’ offices, community centers, libraries, theaters, ice cream parlors or whatever.
At Holy Spirit Church, the congregation outgrew the building and built a larger one. One restaurateur tried and failed before Chuck Davis and his wife bought it at a sheriff’s sale.
“Once the congregation leaves, it’s just another piece of property,” says Davis, who placed a hand-carved wooden angel out front and added a gargoyle to the choir loft.
Sacred items were removed and a prayer of desanctification was said before the congregation relocated.
“The property cannot be sold unless it is de-churched,” says the Rev. Daniel Magulick, assistant chancellor of the Byzantine Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh.
Weeding Out Buyers
Church officials hope their former buildings serve the community and are not defiled. The first choice for a buyer is another denomination, and efforts are made to weed out buyers who might have profane purposes in mind.
“We want it to be a respectable type of operation,” says Gene Odato, director of the property and planning for the Pittsburgh Diocese of the Roman Catholic Church, which has two churches for sale. “We’re very much concerned about what our buildings are used for.”
The Rev. Thomas Pike, a member of the board of landmark conservancy in New York City and rector of Calvary and St. George’s Episcopal Church, says: “Conversion of churches and the recycling of architecture has been going on for as long as Christianity has been active in the world. When something beautiful such as a stained-glass window is created, and if it can be used in a good way, the religious community should encourage that.”
Clerics don’t mind if former churches are “born again” as restaurants or businesses that maintain their dignity. But converting churches into bars or nightclubs is frowned on.
Pews for Bar Stools
In rural Wayne, W.Va., a vacant Church of Christ was bought and changed into a private liquor club called the Kitten’s Den about eight years ago. Neighbors balked when the pews were traded in for bar stools. Police fielded numerous complaints about noise and disturbances.
“Some people around here went crazy over it,” says Kermit Mills, who opened the Kitten’s Den. “I just bought an empty cinder-block building. It didn’t have a steeple or anything.”
The bar closed after five years. Mills leased it in 1984 to a Pentecostal Church, where the congregation prayed and fasted for two weeks to chase away evil spirits. It was later sold to a cabinet maker.
Other conversions have gone more smoothly.
St. Mary’s, another Catholic church in Pittsburgh, was spared from the wrecking ball after it was bought by the state in 1981 for the right-of-way of a new road. The route was later changed.
Bought by Preservationists
The church, built in 1848 by the Bavarian Benedictine order, was bought for $106,000 by a couple of preservationists.
Adjoining the church was a former temporary dormitory for Benedictine priests traveling through the city to an abbey in Latrobe, Pa. It was converted into a 26-room, European-style hotel called The Priory, which opened a year ago. The new owners hope to convert the church into a banquet hall or meeting room.
“We didn’t want to see anything old torn down,” said the new owner, Mary Ann Graf. “It happened to be a building with 26 rooms that we didn’t know what to do with.”
Guests get free breakfasts and complimentary wine or sherry in the evening. They don’t mind sleeping in quarters that once housed priests.
In Atlanta, a 72-old Methodist church of Gothic construction is now The Abbey, a restaurant with 60-foot vaulted ceilings.
Keeping the Theme
Waiters wear monks’ habits. Patrons sit in high-backed monks’ chairs. A harpist plays background music. On the drink list is the Monk’s Cup, made of ice cream and liqueur.
“We try to give the place a medieval flavor,” says owner Bill Swearingen. “We do it like an old monastery. Wine and food were the heart of a monastery. What’s better fitting architecture for a restaurant than an old church?”
Christian’s, a New Orleans restaurant, was built in 1914 as a Lutheran church. It also was a First Church of God until 14 years ago when it was bought by Christian Ansel. The steepled restaurant is named for him.
“We were looking for location,” Ansel says. “It just so happened the church was in this location.”
Some Look to Future
Given the trend of churches having other uses, some religions are planning for possible future conversions.
Norman Nedde, director of real estate for the Lutheran Church of America, says an in-house architect is available to advise the 5,400 congregations who may be building new churches.
“We want construction to be something useful, something flexible, multipurpose and affordable,” Nedde says. “We want to look at the practical side. We don’t want it to be a monument to some architect.”
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