NH Preservation seeks input on converting religious buildings to housing

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south wolfeboro meetinghouse
The 154-year-old South Wolfeboro Meeting House has been redeveloped into residential space, receiving a Wolfeboro Heritage Award from the Wolfeboro Heritage Commission earlier this year. NH Preservation is conducting a survey of religious buildings in the state that have potential to be converted into housing. Photo/Google Street View

CONCORD, NH – The New Hampshire Preservation Alliance has launched a survey of religious properties that may be ripe for development as a way to spark another path to solving the state’s housing crisis.

The survey was launched last month and runs until Sept. 18. It asks four questions related to religious property in communities that may have potential for residential development.

The survey is not only for religious organizations and developers but also for congregants and community members, said Althea Barton, who does special projects for NH Preservation.

“We see churches, religious schools, parish houses and other properties being neglected,” Barton said Tuesday. The nonprofit organization, which provides resources and education on preserving and maintaining historic property, saw it could play a part in finding a use for those properties, Barton said Tuesday.

The state needs 23,670 units of housing immediately, the 2023 New Hampshire Housing Needs Assessment found earlier this year. Estimates are that 60,000 new units will be needed by 2030, and 90,000 by 2040, based on population growth, according to the study.

 

The concept of redeveloping former religious buildings into housing isn’t a new one, but the survey is aimed at bringing it to the forefront.

Besides sparking housing development possibilities, the survey is also a way for religious organizations to explore ways to use or profit from unused property, which is difficult to re-use. 

NH Preservation also wants to use results to start a database of unused religious property across the state.

“The survey will help us to assess the potential for new housing with churches and religious buildings,” Barton said. “There are literally hundreds in New Hampshire.” No one has evaluated the inventory and possibilities, she said.

While the results from the survey “won’t be exhaustive,” they will give the concept some fact-based perspective.

Once the survey deadline passes, NH Preservation plans to put together a tool kit including a pamphlet that can be used by both developers and congregations. The organization is also putting together case studies of successful projects. Barton expects that all will be done within the next 12 months.

The response to the survey so far has been good, with a lot of input from community members and congregation and parish members, she said.

Some of the input so far has been from property owners, but “It’s mostly from the congregations themselves. Some are really struggling,” she said.

Potential developers may be experienced in doing such work, but can also be individuals, organizations and contractors who haven’t done that type of work before, but want to get involved.

Concord Bienvenue Condos Sacred Heart Church 1 scaled
Sacred Heart Church in Concord was converted into 10 condominiums, winning a 2018 NH Preservation Achievement Award. NH Preservation is conducting a survey, hoping to prompt similar projects and gather data on potential religious building conversions to housing. Photo/NH Preservation

Part of Our Landscape

A concern among some who’ve taken part in the survey is that many religious buildings, even if they’re vacant, are still part of a community’s fabric and development may have a negative impact on that.

One of the questions that has come up is how a congregation would find new owners who would be sensitive to that concern. NH Preservation, in its role of guiding and advocating for maintenance and preservation of historic property, is sensitive to such concerns.

“If I’m a person going to services [in a church or religion-affiliated building] for decades, and even if there are only five other people in the pews, and I’m sitting there trying to think ‘How can we turn this into a single-family home or apartments?’ It’s a difficult step to take,” Barton said.

Recent success stories show the range of possibilities when looking at how religious property can be converted to residential.

Sacred Heart Church in Concord was converted to 10 condominium units by developer Jonathan Chorlian. The complicated project, which involved repurposing a 90-year-old Gothic Revival church, won a 2018 NH Preservation Achievement award.

At the other end of the spectrum is the South Wolfeboro Meetinghouse, a two-story white-frame 1869 building that was converted into a single-family residence with a basement accessory dwelling unit. The redevelopment won an inaugural heritage award this year from the Wolfeboro Heritage Commission.

Barton said that converting religious property can be difficult, beyond the requirements there may already be for historic properties. Some buildings have to be deconsecrated, for instance. The buildings often have large open spaces, unusually shaped windows and unique layouts.

When Chorlian bought and redeveloped Sacred Heart Church in Concord into Bienvenue Condos, church officials asked that no religious icons be visible. Any icons and religious-themed items were removed from the building, including stained glass windows that had been shipped from Germany in the 1930s (parishes in Concord and Manchester reused much of what was removed).

Barton said, “We’re trying to be sensitive to people’s feelings, [the buildings] are a big part of people’s lives.”

That may not only include the congregation, but residents who consider the buildings part of the landscape of their community.

“Meetinghouses, steeples, they’re part of our landscape,” Barton said.

Chorlian had that in mind when he developed Bienvenue Condos from a church that had been a center of the city’s French Canadian community. 

“When I take a step back and think about Sacred Heart now, what I often think about is the commitment and faith of the parishioners who built this magnificent building, and the extraordinary gift they gave to us and to Concord,” he said when he accepted his NH Preservation Achievement Award. “Think about it, not one person who gave money for this building – with its Gothic detail and spectacular variegated sandstone – is still alive today. Yet every single day people still enjoy and are inspired by this building.”

The 154-year-old South Wolfeboro Meetinghouse is a very different building, but inspires similar feelings. Susan Bunting and Philip Deitsch bought it in 2006. Contractor Steve Dana, of Alton, did the conversion to residential space, following preservation standards.

Maggie Stier, chair of the Wolfeboro Heritage Commission, noted in May, when it was honored in the inaugural class of heritage awards, that it is a “beautifully done reuse” of a historic structure that’s in a prominent site in town.

“Re-use of old churches is becoming increasingly important,” Stier said. “As New Hampshire’s demographics change, these vulnerable buildings need new uses to survive. This example is a model for the rest of the state.”

NH Preservation Survey


‘Some really unique things’

Like the meeting house, some of buildings that have development potential may be on the National Register of Historic Places or in a historic district. Almost all would have zoning and other municipal regulations that a potential developer would have to be aware of, Barton said.

A building doesn’t have to be officially historic to benefit from the guidance that NH Preservation hopes to develop, and they may even have a smoother process. “Some are just older places that are not on any registry,” she said. They may not have the requirements that a registered building would, but that doesn’t mean that development wouldn’t be regulated. Potential developers would still have to figure out what requirements apply to converting the property to housing.

She said that there are also aging conversions from the 1980s, when such development caught on for a while, that also can be looked at. They may need upgrades like new windows, and it may also benefit to look at what the outcome of that trend was.

Possibilities include parishes that have consolidated and now have empty churches they are paying upkeep for, which was the case with Sacred Heart. Concord’s Catholic congregations merged, and the church went on the market in 2014.

Some congregations also have additional buildings (rectory, school, church, convent) that are no longer being used. It could be property from a small congregation that is downsizing to a new building, or a church community that has faded away, leaving behind a vacant building. 

A conversion to housing isn’t only for larger buildings in populated areas. Small buildings and meeting houses in rural areas can be developed into single-family homes, duplexes, or accessory dwelling units. 

The information-gathering will also evaluate trends to determine if needs and availability are different in different parts of the state, she said.

Trends in how property is, or could be, developed will also be explored. “Does it seem like it’s easier to convert a small place into a single-family home, or a bigger church into apartments?” is one aspect that can be explored.

She said that the case studies show that redeveloped properties “have some commonalities, but also some really unique things.”

While redeveloping a religious building has challenges, the quirks and features of the building can result in space that a resident would not find anywhere else.

Such a development, given the community and historic implications, can also have payoffs far beyond the housing and other needs they meet.

Despite the complex architectural challenges that came with converting a nearly century-old Gothic Revival church into housing, Chorlian, when he received his award, said, “It was one of the great joys of my life to do this project.”


 

About this Author

Maureen Milliken

Maureen Milliken is a contract reporter and content producer for consumer financial agencies. She has worked for northern New England publications, including the New Hampshire Union Leader, for 25 years, and most recently at Mainebiz in Portland, Maine. She can be found on LinkedIn and Twitter.