Reviving History: Transforming Churches into Luxury Residences

Finegold Alexander Church Conversion Projects
October 17, 2023
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Historic churches, with their magnificent architectural detail and deep-rooted community significance, are undergoing a remarkable transformation in the modern era. As demographics shift and religious practices evolve, many once-hallowed church buildings have found themselves at a crossroads. In this conversation with our Finegold Alexander team members, we dive into the captivating world of church conversions. We’ll explore how our firm skillfully breathes new life into these iconic structures, transforming them into luxury residential spaces, all while preserving their storied past.

Finegold Alexander is proud to be at the forefront of this transformation. The Clarendon Street Baptist Church, located in Boston’s South End, was our first church conversion project. After a devastating fire in 1982, the church was a burned-out shell and Finegold Alexander redesigned the building for residential use as condominiums. In 2017, our team completed The Lucas at 136 Shawmut Avenue. This project transformed the former 1874 German Trinity Catholic Church, originally designed by Patrick Keely’s Brooklyn office, into a luxury condominium development. Now, our team is currently working on two more church conversion projects; LaVictoire at 25 Isabella Street here in Boston’s Bay Village and 260 High Park Street in Toronto.

Director of Design Tony Hsiao, Senior Associate Josephine Penta, and Associate Ozge Diler Himes sat down with us to discuss some key considerations when reimagining historic churches into luxury residential spaces.

Preservation of Historic Church Buildings

A foundational principle in church conversion projects is the unwavering commitment to preserving the historic essence of these sacred spaces. From the timeless use of stone to the intricate configurations of windows, every detail matters. It's not just about preserving a building; it's about safeguarding a community's shared history.

One remarkable aspect of some church conversions, including the Lucas project, was the thickness of the walls, which could stand on its own, devoid of internal bracing. This characteristic opens up a world of architectural possibilities. The design team can work within the shell of the church, preserving its exterior while reimagining its interior to serve a new purpose. The result is a delicate fusion of the past and the present.

The Lucas - 136 Shawmut Avenue
One of the most crucial aspects of working on the Lucas project was our meticulous attention to the building's inherent narrative. The design process was profoundly influenced by the architectural essence of the Lucas, with a particular focus on its structural attributes. Notably, the robust composition of the facade, characterized by its buttress elements and expansive openings, played a pivotal role in shaping our design as the new addition seamlessly evolved from the existing structure.
        - Tony Hsiao, AIA, LEED AP, Director of Design
The Lucas - 136 Shawmut Avenue

Creative Design Challenges

Each church conversion project presents a unique set of design challenges, similar to the pieces of a complex puzzle. The design team must address the thick walls, adapt small footprints, and ingeniously integrate historic elements, such as magnificent stained-glass windows and graceful arches, into contemporary residential spaces. It's a dance between old and new, where history meets modernity.

Exterior rendering of LaVictoire at 25 Isabella Street

Consideration of window locations, proportions, and configurations is paramount to maintaining the church's historical character. Our design team must tread carefully to preserve the building's integrity while ensuring it meets contemporary living standards. Sometimes, they creatively repurpose elements like doors and staircases, seamlessly blending them into the new environment. It's a harmonious fusion of architectural innovation and historical reverence.

The windows hold significant historical value for the church, and when we find it necessary to create new window openings or adjust the sill heights, it's important that we preserve the original window proportions faithfully.
      - Ozge Diler Himes, Associate, Design Manager
Interior rendering of 260 High Park Street

Community Engagement and Buyer Preferences

Beyond architectural design, the success of church conversion projects hinges on community engagement and an intimate understanding of buyer preferences. Our team works accordingly with developers, and brokers to navigate the complexities of permitting, garner local support, and tailor these luxury residences to meet the desires of potential buyers.

Buyers of these transformed church residences are drawn to the history and the distinctive features of these buildings, seeing them as an opportunity to own a tangible piece of history. Some actively seek out these projects, recognizing that they offer a living experience unlike any other. These luxury residences are carefully crafted to meet their tastes.

We're collaborating more closely with the brokers to customize various aspects. For instance, we delve into the intricacies of finishes, pinpoint desirable sizes, and consider what resonates with potential buyers in this high-end luxury residence market.
     - Josephine Penta, AIA, LEED AP, NCARB
Interior of The Lucas at 136 Shawmut Avenue

Church conversions epitomize a delicate equilibrium between preservation and innovation. Architects and developers carry the weighty responsibility of rejuvenating these iconic structures while honoring their heritage. The outcome is an extraordinary collection of luxury residences that pay homage to the past while providing residents with an unparalleled living experience.

These projects stand as testaments to the enduring appeal of history and architecture. They serve as living reminders of the power of creativity and preservation working in tandem. As more historic churches find new purposes as luxury residences, they continue to serve as steadfast landmarks in their communities. In doing so, they preserve their rich history, ensuring it resonates with generations to come. Church conversions are more than just architectural marvels; they are living legacies.