Changing Skyline: Wing and a prayer? Not so when rethinking religious buildings

Criniti Italian restaurant
A tiny, 1960s-era Presbyterian chapel on South Broad Street is now a homestyle Italian restaurant called Criniti's.

Hoping to dissuade the Historical Commission earlier this month from landmarking Fishtown's beloved St. Laurentius church, parish attorney Michael V. Phillips reeled off a litany of reasons that its preservation was doomed to fail. The 19th-century building is no longer a working church. Its brownstone facade requires expensive repairs. If the Polish Catholic church received city protection, he predicted darkly, "it would just end up sitting empty."

There it was, the killer argument. By conjuring up an image of the once-handsome St. Laurentius wasting away, blighting the rowhouse neighborhood around it, Phillips tapped into the common view that old churches and synagogues (not to mention movie theaters) are just too quirky for our modern world.

With their soaring sanctuaries and oddly shaped floor plans, it is certainly true that aging religious buildings are hard to adapt for new uses. At the same time, a new study by the Philadelphia-based Partners for Sacred Places offers evidence that the most crucial factor in repurposing a house of worship is not money, but imagination.

Because so many local congregations have shuttered their buildings recently, the group decided to track the outcomes. To its surprise, Partners discovered that 52 sanctuaries in the city and four in the Pennsylvania suburbs have found an afterlife with nonreligious tenants in the last decade. In contrast, about 20 have fallen to the wrecking ball in the last five years.

The roster of the reborn includes cavernous landmarks and cozy neighborhood churches, elaborately decorated Victorian-era aristocrats and eccentric modernist designs. Repurposing religious buildings has become so common that renovation pictures are a staple of the web, with posts like "Beautiful Churches" on charting their transformation into bookstores and brew pubs.

In Philadelphia, sanctuaries have most commonly been turned into private homes, apartment buildings, offices, and performing-arts centers. A few, though, have lent themselves to less-conventional uses, like the tiny, '60s-era Presbyterian chapel on South Broad Street that is now a homestyle Italian restaurant called Criniti's, and the Third Presbyterian Church on Front Street in South Kensington, which houses a small manufacturing business. Like St. Laurentius, the Third Presbyterian was just placed on the city's historic register.

Too often, though, religious groups resist historic designation, believing it ties their hands. The parish that owns St. Laurentius, Holy Name of Jesus, didn't bother looking for a new user for the church on Berks Street, choosing instead to make demolition its first resort. Had it not been designated, the parish would have been able to sell the land for a nice profit in Fishtown's hot rowhouse market.

Yet, designation has its financial advantages, too. Ken Weinstein, a developer working in Germantown and Mount Airy, has now rescued three churches and one religious school, altering the interiors to accommodate a bakery, drama school, and condos. Once a building is designated, owners can leverage the status to obtain federal tax credits and grants that help make renovation as attractive as new construction.

Weinstein is wrapping up his most challenging salvage effort yet: St. Peter's Episcopal Church on Wayne Avenue in Germantown. The original church, designed in 1873 by Furness and Hewitt for the railroad tycoon Henry Houston, had been abandoned by its congregation more than a decade ago. When Weinstein first saw the Victorian church, with its gray stone walls and country spire, "water was cascading through the roof."

The damage did give him pause about moving ahead with the $6.5 million project, even though he paid just $450,000 for the property. The church, which sits on a hilly 1.5-acre site near Germantown's business district, is surrounded by four equally formidable companions, including a Gothic parish house from 1898 by T.P. Chandler. The ensemble overflows with stunning architectural details, like stone fireplaces, carved gargoyles, and vaulted ceilings.

The project became viable when Weinstein landed the Waldorf School as his tenant. A K-8 private school, the Waldorf saw the leafy grounds as the perfect space for a new campus. But first, Weinstein had to figure out how to convert its multiple chapels and lofty halls into classrooms. His architects, Seiler + Drury, developed a clever space plan that partitions the enormous rooms into usable sections, while still retaining the charm of their wood-ribbed ceilings and leaded-glass windows.

As more religious buildings are converted, architects have developed several tricks to bring the sanctuaries down to usable size. When David Gleeson, developer of the Crane Arts Building, and partner Cynthia Porter decided to make their home in a fresco-covered Serbian Orthodox Church in South Kensington, they inserted drywall boxes into the main space to create individual bedrooms. Because they "couldn't live with all the wall paintings," Porter says, they decided to preserve the best by leaving framed openings in the new walls. They sleep under a heavenly blue vaulted ceiling, spiked with golden stars.

Eduardo Glandt, the former engineering dean at the University of Pennsylvania, and George Ritchie took the opposite approach when they acquired an important 1848 African American church on Lombard Street. The exterior is a perfect restoration of William L. Johnston's classical facade, but inside, the old church has become a serene temple to minimalist design.

Interior designer Val Nehez originally had planned to convert the Falls Methodist Episcopal Church in East Falls into condos, but switched to offices when the housing market tanked. Now, the 9,000-square-foot stone church is a hub of creative and tech firms. She saved the top-floor sanctuary, with its enormous Gothic window, for her firm, Ennis Nehez. Although she sent the pews and parts of the organ off to a salvage company, she kept a few pipes and turned them into a dramatic light fixture, a reminder of the celestial music that once filled the airy space.

That kind of improvisational thinking is essential for preserving any religious building, Weinstein believes. He has even taken a look at St. Laurentius, which he says is in better condition than St. Peter's. He sees it as an entertainment venue or maybe a coworking space. At the right price, he says, it wouldn't have to sit empty very long.