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30 Churches You Can Live In: More Empty Holy Places Are Becoming Homes

By  Ariel Cheung and Tanveer Ali | May 16, 2017 8:13am | Updated on May 16, 2017 8:24am

 Chicago is home to dozens of converted churches now used as homes.
Chicago is home to dozens of converted churches now used as homes.
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DNAinfo/Provided

LAKEVIEW — For some, going to church is like coming home.

And for others, that's true in an even more literal sense.

With congregations around the world in decline, empty churches are being put to new use in scores of ways. In Chicago, where priests expect up to 100 of the city's 351 Catholic churches will close by 2030, those re-purposed structures range from a school for circus performers to a dance studio.

But perhaps no rebirth lends as much scope to the imagination as houses of worship becoming homes. At least 19 churches in Chicago have become condos, apartments or single-family homes, with many preserving the architectural magnificence that endeared them to neighbors.

And it seems more are to come; there are current 11 churches on the market or with redevelopment still in progress.

CHECK OUT DNAINFO'S MAP OF CONVERTED CHURCHES AND IN-PROGRESS DEVELOPMENTS:

With attendance numbers in steady decline, the concept of converting churches into homes took off in the 1980s. Initially, Lakeview and Lincoln Park were ground zero for the trend in Chicago, but a majority are now located in the Logan Square and Wicker Park community areas.

In 2013, Curbed mapped out 20 such residences.

RELATED: This Heavenly Condo Inside Converted Lakeview Church Will Blow You Away

Many undergo extensive renovations to turn the crumbling infrastructure into elegant, often luxurious dwellings, like the former St. Gedwig Mission Church in Logan Square.

The two-bedroom home — a spacious, open house that features arching ceilings and a fireplace housed inside an intricately painted chapel — went on the market for $1.2 million last year.

The former church at 2445 N. Washtenaw Ave. was listed at $1.2 million. [Provided/VHT Studios]

Others embrace a crisp minimalism, with only the peaked, Gothic-style windows and vaulted ceilings to hint at the religious origins of buildings.

RELATED: Live In This Amazing Former Logan Square Church For $1.2 Million

At 2900 W. Shakespeare Ave. in Palmer Square, two- and three-bedroom condos with 18-foot-tall ceilings and huge steel trusses inhabit Sanctuary on the Square.

"Older architecture like this is such a gem," said developer Bill Senne. "It'd be a shame not to reuse it."

A luxury condo inside Sanctuary on the Square, 2900 W. Shakespeare Ave., which was completed last fall. [Provided/Chuck Gullet of ThreeSixtyChicago Media]

Sanctuary on the Square replaced what was most recently the Greater Garfield Park Missionary Baptist Church at 2900 W. Shakespeare Ave. [Provided/Chuck Gullet of ThreeSixtyChicago Media]

From 1980 to 2010, the number of church-attending Catholics in Cook County dropped by more than 356,000 — a decline of 15 percent, according to the most recent data from the Association of Religion Data Archives. The 52 bodies of religion registered in the county have seen an average drop of 18 percent.

Still, others saw substantial increases in membership, particularly those within the Evangelical Protestant and Orthodox traditions. The shift in Cook County mirrors trends nationwide.

Many of the city's 351 Catholic parishes were built decades ago — the oldest church still standing in Chicago was built in 1853 — and maintenance costs have become untenable for shrinking congregations. In 1990, the archdiocese abruptly closed 40 churches, saving $13 million per year as a result.

"The fact remains that the buildings are in disrepair due to decades of declining weekly attendance and donations — a situation that has not substantially improved," the Archdiocese of Chicago said in February.

At least 13 churches — many over a century old were demolished in the past five years, some because they'd fallen into disrepair too severe for preservation. Many of the vacant properties will become condo buildings or single-family homes.

RELATED: Luxury Condos Slated To Replace 110-Year-Old Church Near Cabrini-Green Site

And some of the demolitions have revealed secret treasures, like a time capsule from the early 1900s found inside the former St. John United Church of Christ.

A construction worker poses with time capsule and cornerstone from St. John United Church of Christ. [Provided/Eric Nordstrom]

But even as the churches were put on the market, former parishioners and neighbors sought to preserve the best of what the houses of worship had to offer.

"The people of Chicago are highly aware — and proud — of their architecture, perhaps more so than in any other city," explained Bob Jaeger, president of Partners for Sacred Places. "Chicago's neighborhoods are marked by countless domes and steeples built by waves of immigrants and migrants alike."

The Philadelphia-based nonprofit formed in 1989 to restore and find new uses for more than 100,000 sacred places around the country. Its Chicago office opened in 2008, and in November, Partners awarded a major grant for the preservation of Quinn Chapel AME Church, home to Chicago's oldest black congregation.

"We are nearly as old as Chicago, and we need to preserve the building for the next 100 years," the Rev. James Moody said at the time. The chapel has been host to Susan B. Anthony, Frederick Douglass, George Washington Carver and Barack Obama, its pastor noted.

When renovations aren't enough, the organization helps find new uses for abandoned but still-loved churches. Often, they become homes for arts and culture.

In South Bend, Ind., one even became a souvenir store for a Cubs farm team.

But some stand against the sale of churches for secular use, like Peter Borre, who helped block the sale of St. Adalbert Roman Catholic Church in February.

"The archdiocese has failed after repeated requests to indicate to these people what are their rights of worship in this church," said Borre, who planned to file a series of Canon law complaints in Rome to overturn the sale. "They've left these Catholics completely in the dark to talk to some damn musicians who have nothing to do with the Catholic Church."

Still, the market for converted churches made into homes appears to be expanding, with nearly a dozen projects in the works.

Learn more about them below:

1. St. Boniface Church (Noble Square)

With nary a minute to spare, St. Boniface Church, 1358 W. Chestnut St., was saved from demolition in September. After sitting vacant for 27 years, the dilapidated century-old building is set to become a music school and residential building.

Designed by architect Henry Schlacks, the Romanesque-style church was built in 1902. Preservation Chicago helped developer Michael Skoulsky plan out a satellite campus for the Chicago Academy of Music and re-purpose a portion of the 32,000-square-foot building for 15 condos.

Next door, Skoulsky will add a new 24-unit residential building. Most recently, developers met with neighbors in January to discuss plans and a project timeline.

Inside St. Boniface Church. [DNAinfo/Alisa Hauser]

2. The Episcopal Church of the Advent (Logan Square)

After its congregation dwindled to 20 people, the 115-year-old church was put on the market in October for $1.75 million.

The church, 2900 W. Logan Blvd., closed one year ago after it lost Nuestra Señora de las Américas, which covered half the bills before it vacated the church space. But preservationists said it was an important piece of Chicago history, designed by Elmer C. Jensen in 1906.

Jensen was the church's choirmaster and an architect for the same firm that designed and engineered the first skyscraper in 1884.

"This is a noted architect who designed this building, and it wasn't just another commission for Elmer Jensen," Andrew Schneider, president of Logan Square Preservation, told DNAinfo. "This was his faith home, so he built the church to last."

The Episcopal Church of the Advent, 2900 W. Logan Blvd., went on the market in October for $1.75 million. [DNAinfo/Paul Biasco]

3. St. Adalbert Church (Pilsen)

The future of this 105-year-old church at 1650 W. 17th St. remains in contention, as parishioners fight the sale of the St. Adalbert Roman Catholic Church building to the Chicago Academy of Music Conservatory.

Borre and other parishioners want an equal opportunity to match the music school's bid or hope to continue to worship at St. Adalbert despite the sale.

Founded by Polish immigrants, St. Adalbert Catholic Church, 1650 W. 17th St., was built in 1912. [Provided/St. Adalbert]

The conservatory seeks to house visiting music students in student dorms inside the converted convent and teach blues, jazz classical and world music to low-income students from underserved neighborhoods in Chicago.

Despite a major donation that parishioners hoped would save the church, the archdiocese announced St. Adalbert would close after it came up short of the $3 million needed to repair the church's 185-foot towers.

The move is part of the archdiocese's plan to reconfigure six Pilsen churches into three.

St. Adalbert needed more than $3 million to repair the church's 185-foot towers, which have been surrounded by scaffolding for more than two years. [DNAinfo/Stephanie Lulay]

4. Agudas Achim Synagogue (Uptown)

Also under fire is the $1.25 million sale of the "last great synagogue" last year, when Cedar Street bought Agudas Achim North Shore Synagogue, 5029 N. Kenmore Ave.

In November, representatives of the synagogue sued to cancel the sale. Cedar Street wants to convert the building into 40 residential units.

We definitely are not going to demolish it," Cedar Creek managing partner Alex Samoylovich told Crain's Chicago. "We think the architecture is really amazing, and we're trying to see what we can do with the interior."

The synagogue was built in 1922 with Romanesque Revival, Art Deco and Spanish influences, but has been a teardown candidate for years due to extensive water damage, vandalism and years of deferred maintenance.

The building was put up for sale in 2012.

The three-story worship center, which features a fellowship hall, offices, classrooms and a commercial kitchen, was designed by Henry Dubin. [DNAinfo/Josh McGhee]

5. East Village Lofts (East Village)

Swing by 1056-1100 N. Ashland Ave. and observe all that's left of the five-story Art Deco church that stood there for decades before it was sold for $1.58 million last year.

Developer Mark Sutherland agreed to preserve the church's "unique" brick and limestone facade in his creation of 34 transit-oriented apartments.

"You still want the existing church to be the highlight of the project if you are able to save it," said project architect Brian Milbury. "Only the front of the church will be preserved; not a lot was salvageable inside."

A rendering for the proposed transit-oriented apartments at 1056-1100 N. Ashland Ave. [Provided/Brian Milbury]

6. Grace Church of Logan Square (Logan Square)

After years of planning, church leaders are trying to keep the 106-year-old church afloat by demolishing part of the building to add up to 20 apartments on the site.

The church requires significant work after suffering major water damaged and a boiler that will soon need to be replaced. Revenue from the apartments would allow the congregation to continue worshipping at Grace Church, 3325 W. Wrightwood Ave.

As of early May, the church was still seeking approval for the zoning change, which would allow the demolition of the building's education wing to make way for a mix of three-, two- and one-bedroom apartments, as well as studio units.

Originally, the entire building was set to come down.

"It would cost a whole lot more to hold a wall up for awhile than it would to take it down and rebuild," said the Rev. Mark Schol, pastor of the church. But, "I think there is some real fear in the neighborhood as far as redevelopment is concerned because there's so much of it happening."

Grace Church of Logan Square is meeting with neighbors to discuss the future of the church building. [DNAinfo/Paul Biasco]

7. Shiloh Baptist Church (Kenwood)

Developer John Liu joked last year that he'd made a "very bad decision" in ruining his "very peaceful life" when he bought Shiloh Baptist Church, 4840 S. Dorchester Ave.

Liu's plan to turn the church into 13 townhouses has taken much longer than expected, but he recently reinstated building permits, meaning construction could resume soon.

The entire facade of the church will be restored and from the outside it will look much as it does now, except for a new driveway on the north side of the building leading to a parking garage in basement of the church.

On the inside, 13 townhomes will ring a central garden courtyard that will be opened up when the roof is redone.

The church stood vacant for 12 years after the congregation left in 2002, and Liu bought it in 2014 for $650,000. After buying the property, Liu found it was full of asbestos and lead paint, decaying and even sprouting a five-year-old tree growing three stories up.

John Liu has discovered Chicago a very different pace for development than China while trying to revive Shiloh Baptist Church as townhomes. [DNAinfo/Sam Cholke]

8. St. Stephen's Church (Hyde Park)

Liu is also the brains behind the latest attempt to redevelop St. Stephen's Church, 5640 S. Blackstone Ave., which he purchased for $650,000 in late 2015.

The church has sat vacant and covered in graffiti for more than 20 years, with developers spending decades trying to get plans for condos in the works but flailing due to unusual circumstances.

Konstantinos "Gus" Antoniou spent a decade on ill-fated redevelopment plans, meanwhile fending off a business partner that was trying to have him killed and feuding with a lender who eventually filed for foreclosure.

Liu has remained mum on his plans for the Hyde Park church.

St. Stephen's Church has defied efforts by numerous developers to fix it up. [Flickr/Eric Holubow]

9. St. John's Lutheran Church (Ukrainian Village)

It's been a long two years since neighbors expected The Belfry condos to be complete. The former St. John Church and School, 913-925 N. Hoyne Ave., was set to become 19 condo units by summer 2015. Instead, the project has experienced unforeseen delays.

The church was declared a city landmark in March 2013, just weeks after being bought by real estate developer Alex Troyanovsky.

Since the building is a landmark, all construction permits need to be vetted through the Landmark Commission's Permit Review Committee.

Built in 1905, St. John's Lutheran Church was designed by architects Henry Worthmann & John Steinbach, who were among the city's most accomplished church designers," according to a Landmark Commission report.

Most recently used by members of the Seventh Day Adventist Church, the seven-lot, 17,532-square-foot parcel had been on the market since 2005 before being sold in 2013.

Nineteen condos are supposed to fill the converted St. John Lutheran Church, but the project is two years past its expected completion date. [DNAinfo/Alisa Hauser]

10. St. Paul's Cultural Center (Wicker Park)

What began as St. Paul's Evangelical Norwegian Lutheran Church in 1890 eventually turned into a beloved arts center before Love Holy Trinity Blessed Mission bought it in 2012.

The mission — which some consider a cultremained tight-lipped about its plans for the space, quickly evicting dozens of tenants from the Wicker Park Arts Center, including the Near Northwest Arts Council.  

There hadn't been much news on the space in the years following, until 2215 W. North Ave. was put on the market in March. Listed for $2.19 million, the Romanesque church built in 1892 is a city landmark, and its front facade cannot be altered. 

Offered up a a "great opportunity" for conversion to a condo building or single-family "castle," the church has stained-glass details, fine woodwork and heaps of historic charm.

The former St. Paul's Cultural Center in Wicker Park is on the market for $2.19 million. [Provided/Redfin]

Contributing: Alisa Hauser, Mina Bloom, Stephanie Lulay