Converting churches to condos offers many options

Some of the church's stained-glass windows and other features will be retained at Narberth Place.
Some of the church's stained-glass windows and other features will be retained at Narberth Place.
Posted: June 09, 2014

More and more churches are getting out of the real estate business - good news for Main Line reBUILD, which is converting former houses of worship into one-of-a-kind living quarters.

Its latest effort is a condo-townhouse project called Narberth Place, in which Narberth's historic United Methodist Church will be converted to condominiums.

Scott Brehman, a partner with Tom Harvey and Mac Brand at Berwyn-based Main Line reBUILD, said the Narberth church, built in 1929, was going to be torn down by other prospective buyers.

When Main Line reBUILD told local planners they could retrofit its old stone structures, plus convert the ground floor into parking, the town got behind the developer's $1.4 million bid.

"What a great thing for the community not to have to stare at a garage," Brehman said during a recent tour of the 1.5-acre lot at Price and Essex Streets. The local historical board got involved with reBUILD's architects to design a new structure next to the former minister's home and the main church.

Narberth Place will be a blend of two restored historic buildings and new townhouses designed to look like a single "manor" house. All together, there will be 12 units.

About 1,000 churches lie within Philadelphia's city limits, according to Brehman, who heard the figure from the Lower Merion Conservancy. Within 10 years, an estimated 200 of those will close.

"They're zoned for schools, day care, private clubs, artists, but not for commercial use," he said. "So converting a church into living space requires working with the community."

Brehman credits local officials with passing the necessary conversion ordinances "that gave us a structure around 'adaptive re-use.' It's happening all over the country, not just Pennsylvania."

The project is expected to cost $5 million to $6 million. Narberth Place, designed by architect JTA Associates of Wayne, will target residents who want to walk to the train station and have access to restaurants, shopping, and other "no-car-needed" goods and services.

Each unit will be customized to retain historical features that the new owners enjoy, such as original staircases, a Juliet balcony, and mullions - and remove those they don't like, such as heavily religious detailing, a pipe organ, and pews.

One condo buyer in Narberth Place, a doctor, is converting an entire floor in the former minister's house into a bachelor pad with oak floors and the original fireplaces; he is adding a garage at the back.

The first conversions should be completed later this year, but the church won't be done until 2015. Much of the old decor is being hauled away by Philadelphia Salvage Co.

Main Line reBUILD also is converting a church in Gladwyne, but the property includes a historic cemetery, which has ignited controversy. Local residents, including Herberta Ashburn, widow of baseball legend Richie Ashburn, are fighting the project because the Gladwyne United Methodist Church Cemetery would abut a parking lot. Ashburn, one of his daughters, and a grandchild are buried there.

Main Line reBUILD plans to put the cemetery into a nonprofit trust and fund its maintenance; a board of local directors would oversee its care.

Industry watchers say former houses of worship appeal to buyers who want interesting, unique spaces with beams, high ceilings, and character unavailable in modern, cookie-cutter buildings.

But not just any church or synagogue will do.

"The location has to be good, of course," said Jody Dimitruk, of Berkshire Hathaway Home Services Fox & Roach Realtors. "A lot of people want the original look maintained through the details, but they want the comfort of a new bathroom and a brand-new Wolf stove."

Church conversions have been taking place for decades in Center City, but the new trend is doing them in the suburbs, she said.

For example, Neziner Court, a former 1809 synagogue at 771-75 S. Second St., was converted to condos in 1985.



comments powered by Disqus