With stunning stained glass windows and high end prices, 100- to 150-year-old buildings in Pennsylvania are seeing new life as converted residential homes. Pennsylvania-based developer Main Line reBuild recently completed their first church conversion in Narberth. The 1929-built United Methodist Church of Narberth now offers six condos with refurbished angled ceilings, restored stained glass windows, and original woodwork detailing in the wooden banisters. This is only one of three church conversions that Main Line reBuild is currently working on in Narberth. Main Line reBuild Partner Scott Brehman took the time to answer some of Curbed Philly's questions, including what is the most difficult part about converting churches and why the developer is so interested in old and historic buildings.
What brought on the interest in converting churches?
Most of our buyers are what you'd call empty nesters or down-sizers, and so we are seeing kind of a trend to a slight age of these town centers ... We're not just doing churches. We're doing all kind of clubs. We're doing other ancillary buildings that are not necessarily a church, but buildings that may house some other purpose for these churches ... and we're doing these churches because back 100 years or so, churches were built so people could walk to church. We find these structures to be incredibly interesting, and we work with a very talented architect who is able to utilize a lot of these soaring voids and soaring spaces that many churches have. So, it's not necessarily that we're targeting churches. We're targeting buildings that are again in these town centers and are very unusual and cool, and we're kind of able to come in here and buy them and then turn them into units that are specifically targeted to the down-sizing couple.
Do you think the conversions may be more attractive to churchgoers? Or do you find that all types of homebuyers will go for these new homes?
I'd say surprisingly we're getting all different types of individuals. One of the things that we do is we go through—and while clearly it's a former church—we remove any overt religious symbols, or we remove—when we get into the process of retrofitting the stained glass—take out any religious implication in the stained glass, itself ... So, basically we have a process in which we remove the stained glass, and restore, and put it back after taking out any of the religious symbols. We're not really getting any church followers. It's more that we're getting someone that values that it's a really cool and interesting building that meets their overall need in these town centers.
Are there any other parts of the original structure that you maintain?
What we do is that most of our projects are in Lower Merien Township. We call it a conversion ordinance that was adopted about two, two-and-a-half years ago that gives kind of a zoning structure to us when we go in an restore these buildings. So, what we do is we place what's called a façade easement on the outside of the building so that the outside of the building is forever preserved. So, if you pull up to my units, you would look and see that it will always look like a church and forever will be protected. So, we do take things like crosses down and other things like that, but the main architecture of the building is restored and preserved. So, if your question is will it always look like a church, yeah, it will always look like a church, but with all the overtly religious symbols removed, and that is really what the community is looking for. They don't want to see these churches torn down or these older buildings torn down. They want them to stay the same.
What's the hardest part about converting a church?
Unquestionably, the stained glass. We're kind of down by the communities who want to see the stained glass windows saved, and so when we go into these spaces, we have to keep the frames of the windows, themselves. So, we have a process where we pull the actual window out, and we leave a band of very interesting colored stained glass along the perimeter, but we remove the religious tones of the window in the center, and we found a glass that we really like that's actually manufactured in Germany that has some serration to it, but it's clear. So, it looks like it's old, but it's new. So, we then put that glass back in. What we found is that it's kind of a split down the middle with the buyers whether they want to see any additional thermal protection installed on the inside of the windows. So, we give them an option. We have a kind of custom storm screen process where we can put custom storm screens on the inside that follow the tracery or the framing of the glass, but obviously offer additional thermal protection, and I think it's about 50-50 who say, "Hey, I want to look at the original stained glass windows."
For the two other church conversions, what do you expect these to be priced at?
In [Elm Hall], we have a total of six units. We've already delivered the first half of them, and those are the other buildings on the site, and they range from on the low end $700K [and] on the high end $875K, and those have already been delivered, and we have people living in those buildings. In the church, itself, the unit that you're looking at is priced at $875K, but we are as well at $700K and as high as $1.1 million in Elm Hall, so there are six units in total there. There's really a range based on the size of the units, and the size of the units is a primary feature on how to price. The church project over at Ardmore's The Arbors at Athens were on the low end of $700K and on the high end $850K, and in our Gladwyne Commons project, we have pricing of different units from $530K on up to $1.15M, again depending on how big they are and features, but again most of our target market is really the down-sizing market. We pretty much know that we have to minimize the effect of steps, and we also have to deal with offering certain locations elevators as an option when we can because of the age of some of our buyers.
See more photos inside Elm Hall with the below photo gallery:
Take a look at what Elm Hall looked like before the conversion:
· Main Line reBuild [Official Website]
· 1929 Narberth Church Born Again: Units Asking $700K - $1.1M [Curbed Philly]
· 1923 Ardmore Baptist Church Next in Line for ReBuild [Curbed Philly]
· Narberth Place Takes Church Renovations Up a Notch [Curbed Philly]
· Curbed Interviews [Curbed Philly]