As congregations dwindle, Baltimore's empty churches become homes

For Baltimore at Home

When Joe Rusko, 51, was looking for a home in Canton or Fells Point, he was disappointed that every renovated rowhouse he saw looked the same.

Then he found a townhouse built inside the shell of the former Canton Methodist Episcopal Church.

“I love the architecture and the cool spaces and that it’s a blend of old features, like the original trusses,” says the Philadelphia transplant, who bought the home last September. “But its been completely renovated, so I didn’t need to worry about the electrical or the plumbing being out of date.”

Shifts in population and religious affiliations have left many area churches bereft of congregants. But a congregation’s loss can be a homeowner’s gain as churches get redeveloped into much-needed housing stock.

According to the CoStar Group, which tracks real estate data nationwide, church sales in the U.S. jumped by almost 100 percent between 2010 and 2015, and the number of church redevelopment projects more than tripled during that time. In Baltimore, multiple church-to-residence conversions are underway: the former St. Michael’s Roman Catholic Church near Patterson Park is slated to become a brew pub and apartment complex, and there are plans to convert Strawbridge United Methodist Church in Bolton Hill into 11 apartments.

The former church where Rusko now resides was founded in 1847 on land donated by the Canton Company and was designed in a Gothic Revival style by architect Charles L. Carson, according to the nonprofit Baltimore Heritage. More recently, the church fell on hard times – empty for a number of years and damaged by a fire. Transitioning the building to residences took three years, about a year of which was construction, according to project manager Will Fejes of F.M. Harvey Construction Co., which redeveloped the church.

Three townhouses separated by firewalls were inserted into the two-and-half story structure, like slices of a cake. While the exterior is largely unchanged, the interior features two modern, high efficiency homes. The third houses an interior design firm.

“The thing that’s cool about a church redevelopment is the high ceilings and the original architectural details,” says Fejes. Not only was his firm able to preserve the church’s trusses, but each townhouse has an original lantern hanging from the ceiling in the vaulted space, and each owner received a piece of the church’s original stained glass.

Rusko placed his stained glass at the top of the floating stair that leads to his main, open-plan living space. He opted to decorate in a spare style in tones of black, gray and white, both because he dislikes clutter and because he wanted a loftlike aesthetic. His collection of classical and modern art – an onyx-colored bust of Alexander the Great keeps company with a reproduction of Nick Veasey X-ray print – fits perfectly in the home with its soaring walls and ecclesiastically arched windows.

Rusko says at first he felt “a little awkward” living in a church. “But you see so many cookie-cutter renovations, everything looks exactly the same,” he says. “When people come here, they love how unique it is – it’s so memorable.” The only drawback he cites is a lack of closet space.

Rusko’s recommendation to others looking to buy in a converted church is to spring for the most comprehensive home inspection you can afford. “You want to make sure everything is really sound so you don’t get saddled with something down the road,” he explains. His biggest worry was the church’s original slate roof. Luckily, it passed muster.

Peter DeWolf Smith would agree that you need to know what you’re getting into with a church purchase. Smith bought his home in Baltimore County in 2001 directly from the Stevenson Methodist Church. He then spent over a decade upgrading all its systems – heating, plumbing, electrical – to be compatible with modern living. He donated the church’s bell to the American Visionary Art Museum and restored the crumbling bell tower. He replaced drafty windows and built a loft bedroom, a kitchen and a master bathroom.

When he bought the church, which was built in 1905, its congregation had dwindled to the point it was not even meeting every Sunday.

“The idea of a big old space is appealing particularly to artistic people looking for creative space,” he says. “People think it’s neat, architects and hipsters think it’s cool, kids think it’s great.”

Smith, who put his church home on the market last year, adds, “It makes a great party house.”

But owning a church home presents some unique challenges and responsibilities. Smith had a couple knock on his front door and ask if they could get married in his house, and when he first moved in, well-meaning people would leave donations of books and clothes on the church steps, not realizing it was now a private home. Smith can still recall the day he was cutting down a dead tree in his backyard when a woman stopped her car in the middle of the street and came running across the yard in tears. The tree had been a memorial planted for her son.

“These churches mean things to people,” says Smith, “They have strong ties to it – this is where they got married, had funerals and christenings.”

Rusko, on the other hand, says his move into the Canton church has been smooth, though a local insurance agent refused to provide a home insurance policy because she didn't believe churches should be converted from their original, religious intent.

Yet with many churches sitting empty, vulnerable to vandals, fire and the effects of time and neglect, it is hard to see the conversion of area churches into happy homes as anything short of a blessing.

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
50°