Converting Houses of Worship Into Homes Holy Historic Real Estate

When a few million people take up residence in a small geographic area, it should be no surprise that the most valuable commodity in any major city is real estate. When new spaces become available for building, few hurdles are too high to jump in pursuit of that land. That is perhaps the central reason why, in historically rich urban areas like Boston, New York, and other cities across the country, a growing number of churches, synagogues, mosques and other houses of worship are being reborn as residential spaces, bringing unique architecture, history and locales to eager buyers and shareholders. 

Taking the Leap of Faith

As anyone who has ever worked for a nonprofit such as a church can attest, finding the necessary funds to provide services to worshipers and other individuals and families throughout the community can be difficult. When attendance dwindles at a house of worship, the diocese or other overseeing body may look at that building itself as an asset to help replenish or sustain the organizational coffers. Selling a little-used church often makes good financial sense for the long-term health of the organization. 

Beyond flat-out purchase, many developers also will work with religious groups to develop co-ops and condos while redeveloping the existing house of worship and keeping it running – usually on the ground floor. In many cases, this is the result of the religious organizations having available ‘air rights’ – or the right to build or develop in the airspace above their property. Ultimately, this means they can sell these rights and, with the right developmental partnership, get their church or synagogue renovated and restored while the developer constructs unique living spaces on the floors above. “They can monetize their unused development rights,” says James Nelson, vice chairman of Cushman and Wakefield, a developer based in New York City. “It’s a way for these nonprofits to raise additional resources.” 

An example of this outside New England is the Christian Science Church at 171-173 MacDougal Street in New York City. “It was a Romanesque revival [in Manhattan] that had been bricked up, and the upper floors were abandoned,” says Nelson. “You would never have known it was a church just walking by. Part of the appeal was to go back and restore it.” The developer renovated the lower floor for use by the church, and converted the upper floors into condominiums. 

A more recent local example is The Lucas, at 136 Shawmut Avenue in Boston’s South End. Originally finished in 1874, the Holy Trinity German Church and its adjacent rectory is being overhauled and transformed into a 33-unit luxury condo community. Units within the development range in size from 650 to 3,500 square feet, with asking prices ranging from around $600,000 to $4 million. According to a statement in Boston Magazine last year by architect Jim Alexander of Boston-based firm Finegold Alexander Architects, who conceived and executed the transformation of Holy Trinity into The Lucas, “We recognized the historic fabric was very significant,” and the firm sought to wed the very old with the very modern, without giving short shrift to either; two units feature Gothic arches over their private street entrances, and one unit occupies the church’s old bell tower, while a glass-and-steel addition enables other units to feature wrap-around decks.

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