In Philadelphia and the surrounding counties, 16 Catholic churches are closing and merging with other parishes. Another 14 Catholic churches will have their fates announced soon. And in 2012, a Lower Merion Township symposium projected that 20 percent of Philadelphia’s 1,000 churches would close in the next decade.
It’s likely that many of the churches whose doors are or soon will be closed will fall into disrepair. In some cases, developers will raze them to make way for new buildings. For those who have spent their lives worshipping at these churches, it’s sad enough to see them closed. It’s another heartbreaking thing to see them knocked down.
Main Line reBUILD has found a way to save the structural integrity of these houses of worship while making money.
But there’s another way—a way that saves the structural integrity of these houses of worship and that makes money.
Just outside of Philadelphia, Main Line reBUILD’s Scott Brehman, Tom Harvey and Mac Brand have provided an interesting answer to the question of keeping the buildings in good repair and of viable use to their communities: Retrofit those buildings with condominiums while saving the facade and many of the interior architectural details.
This is what Brehman and his partners have done in Narberth, with a mix of new construction and renovation on the grounds of an old Methodist church, built of gray stone in 1929 shut down in 2012. It’s been empty ever since. This year, Main Line reBuild will construct six condominiums in the church. (The units in this and their other projects range from $495,000 to $1.2 million.) Those units join three others in Barrie House, a stately, historic home, and three in a new building they constructed over the summer. This combination of brand new construction with historic preservation is becoming a hallmark of reBUILD’s adaptive reuse.
“All of a sudden you have these incredibly well-built stone structures built from the turn of the century through the 30s sitting there with no purpose, “ says Brehman. “We’re just saving them and in-filling the structures. We found it to be just a dynamite concept.”
Church closings have been a nationwide trend since the mid-2000s. It was in 2005 that Brehman first noticed articles about this trend of religious institutions and private clubs going out of businesses and abandoning well-built structures. When these closed buildings were purchased, developers often razed them and began ground-up development. “We had never done anything like [razing a property],” Brehman said.
Brehman’s history as a developer goes back to 1999 when he and partner Harvey started buying and renovating old Main Line estates. These turn-of-the-century houses had tiny kitchens and lacked family rooms, two problems for the modern home buyer. Brehman and Harvey added to and renovated these houses. Business was good until 2008. “Things changed for everyone and we started looking at continuing with larger scale renovations,” Brehman said.
Brehman and Harvey joined with Brand in 2011. Thirty years before, Wynnewood’s Red Leaf Manor and its carriage house, at 415 Lancaster Ave, had been converted into more than a dozen condos. The ownership of the condominiums struggled financially and needed updating. Main Line reBUILD bought development rights and built three new carriage houses. These buildings were constructed to look as though they’d been built in the same era as Red Leaf Manor. Each building was split into condos.
Through this project, which became the Villas at Red Leaf, introduced Brehman and his partners to the product type that they now create in churches and other historical buildings. The Villas at Red Leaf proved there is a market for older married couples whose children are off at school or living on their own. These couples, who are usually 58-68 years old and still working, want to downsize from large family homes. “The buyers that came in the door were all the kind of buyer we’re serving with our current projects,” Brehman said. “They’re looking for an in-town feel. They’re looking to simplify their lives and they’re looking for something fun and kind of different.”
Since then, Brehman and his partners turned their sights to old churches, often grand structures at the center of Main Line communities.
Main Line reBUILD recently saved the First Baptist Church, at 120 E Athens Ave in Ardmore, from demolition. President Wally Smerconish of Main Street Abstract Co. in Warrington bought the Ardmore Baptist Church, which stopped serving its congregation in 2012. (Smerconish is the brother of radio talk show and CNN host Michael Smerconish, who lives in Villanova.)
That same year, Smerconish sought a variance that would enable him to convert the church into condominiums. After he was denied by Lower Merion Township’s zoning board, Main Line Media News reported that he filed an appeal at the same time he filed for a demolition permit. Main Line Media News reported that Smerconish never presented formal plans for the church’s conversion to the township.
“There is a little bit of nuance to what we do. We are known for our renovation work in the township,” Brehman said.
In June 2014, Main Line reBUILD announced that it would buy the church and its 1953 parsonage, which sit on one acre, under the name The Arbors at Athens. Main Line reBUILD would convert the church into four units with resident parking in the basement. The parsonage would be sold as a single family unit.
Meanwhile, in January 2013, Lower Merion Township adopted an ordinance that allows for the conversion of churches and club buildings, that have been designated as historic and whose memberships can’t support them, for residential use.
Brehman said he also thinks Main Line reBUILD had an easier time getting zoning approval because of experience working with historical sites. “There is a little bit of nuance to what we do. We are known for our renovation work in the township,” Brehman said.
The response from community groups has been appreciative of Main Line reBUILD’s work. Patty Thompson, executive director of Lower Merion Conservatory, praised its work on Ardmore’s First Baptist Church and suggested this were a great idea for other churches no longer or soon to be out of use. “Reusing a sacred place takes a creative mind and deep passion for these special places. The rewards, however, are eternal,” Thompson said. “The options for reusing these spaces and the interest in living in them have never been greater. The time to talk about the future of any struggling special place is before you have to sell the asset.”
As a developer, Brehman sees inherent value in these well-built structures. “We want these buildings to stay the way they have looked over a hundred years. We think these structures are community treasures,” Brehman said.
The idea of converting churches into living spaces has already made its way to Philadelphia, where 200 churches are expected to close in the coming years. Barzilay Development is behind the conversion of Graduate Hospital’s Great Saint Matthew Baptist Church. Thirty loft-style homes and eight apartments at Sanctuary Lofts (2319 Fitzwater Street) were made available for pre-lease this past June.