Haven: Making home of an old church

When they bought the property, Feinstein and Facchiano considered converting it to condominiums.
When they bought the property, Feinstein and Facchiano considered converting it to condominiums.

A deconsecrated Episcopal church built in 1836 in Fishtown finds new life as an unusual house.

Posted: April 07, 2013

Every Halloween for the last eight years, about 100 friends and neighbors of Jerry Feinstein and Albert Facchiano have headed for a 187-year-old stone Romanesque Revival structure in Fishtown that looks remarkably like a place of worship.

They go not to pray, but to party at the annual fall festivities at Feinstein and Facchiano's home, a deconsecrated Episcopal church. Constructed in 1836, then renovated in 1921, the former Emmanuel Episcopal Church closed about 12 years ago.

These days, guests walking through the entry alcove pass formal portraits of rectors and pastors, then look into a vast 5,000-square-foot space that once was the church's nave, spread out under heavy timber scissor trusses.

Stained-glass windows and pendant lights lend color, as well as illumination and atmosphere.

How do their visitors respond?

"If they are here for the first time, they usually say how beautiful and unusual it is," says Feinstein, a real estate developer.

He and Facchiano may not see themselves as heroes, but to the local Episcopal leadership, they may represent a salvation of sorts.

"Good for them," says the Rev. Carl Knapp, who is retired from the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania at Fourth and Chestnut Streets. "We have more than 100 closed churches and would love to have more people take them off our hands. They are hard to heat, to maintain, and to protect."

When they bought the property, Feinstein and Facchiano considered converting it to condominiums, but the block is zoned residential, and they would have had to seek a variance.

Residents of the area said the church, made of Wissahickon schist with cut limestone sills and copings, was a mainstay of the neighborhood, which now mainly houses young families in townhouses.

"The church is one of the oldest and most beautiful buildings in the neighborhood," says architect Richard Miller, who lives nearby. "It is important to us, and I think neighbors would have fought any attempt to tear it down and replace it with apartments."

Says Feinstein, "Actually, we never pursued the idea of converting it because we decided to live in the church."

Entering their elegant nave-turned-great-room, it's easy to see why Feinstein and Facchiano made that choice.

It's a polished, comfortable living space, with a modern kitchen and a walnut dining table that seats eight in upholstered chairs or 12 in simple wooden chairs.

Next to the dining area is a granite-topped bar surrounded by stools. Nearby, across the aisle, are four cushioned pews that provide seating and, naturally, a reminder that the building formerly was used for religious services.

At the front of the space is the former sanctuary, which was shortened by moving a wall to make room for a bedroom hidden behind it. Despite that, there's ample accommodation for the church's original pipe organ and a carved walnut altar.

Above the rear of the great room is the original choir-loft balcony, where, Feinstein says, some guests like to sit and peer over into the space below.

Leaving the former main floor of the church and traveling down to the basement is to return to the 21st century.

Feinstein and Facchiano say they converted the basement to a contemporary living space by tearing down several walls that made up Sunday school cubicles, assembly rooms, and a church kitchen. The result was a huge recreation room, a place to hang out and relax, often with dogs Lexi and Pleasant (found at Mount Pleasant Mansion) and cat Soupy in front of a large fireplace and a flat-screen television.

Most of Facchiano's modifications are outside, where he has created a chain of five flower and vegetable gardens.

"We usually eat vegetables from the garden all year, and the plants look nice surrounding the building," he says.

Was it worth it, converting the former church to a sanctuary all their own and not pursuing the condominium idea?

"We have a beautiful, spacious home and lots of space to entertain friends and family," Feinstein says. "Of course, it is worth it."

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