Saving Grace: How A Good Story Can Protect Your Old Church

People have restored and repurposed old churches across the country. You never know what stories an old church can tell. Credit: Flickr CC user Want2Know

Churches used to be the cornerstone of a growing town. Oftentimes, they are the oldest buildings in a community, and the setting of a city’s most famous moments. These seemingly weary old buildings, though, usually have a very valuable hidden asset: a good story.

Here lies opportunity. A crumbling, old church building has a good chance of being torn down. Sadly, when the congregation closes its doors, the spark tends to run out of the place. A former church can become just another old building with a leaky roof and boarded up windows on a list for demolition. For those who remember the good times, it can be painstaking to see.

On the principle of historic preservation, the case can be made that a building with a story not only has sentimental value, but a monetary one as well. This story can be the architecture, associated people or even the objects inside it.

In the 1990’s, a crumbling church in Palo Alto had little hope, but it did have a glimmer of history living in it’s walls. It was the oldest African American church in the city, where the University A.M.E. Zion Church gathered in the 1920s. To those who remembered, it was considered Palo Alto’s most important ethnic landmark. A developer took a liking to the building and its story. He embarked on an ambitious restoration that ultimately turned the old church into a home and office space.

California Leads the Charge to Protect Old Churches

People will fight to save old churches, and donors are often eager to open their checkbooks to save a landmark.  What’s more, people have been willing to buy these historic churches and their stories. So, preservation is not just sentimental, its good money.

California, specifically, has seen a great deal of church restorations and subsequent cash payouts.  An old church was moved from Pennsylvania in 2000 to the wine country of Napa Valley and restored into a home. It was recently put on the market for $2.2 million.

Last year, an effort to save a century-old church and five other buildings in Huntington Beach was gathering steam on the power of its story: it was the earliest Japanese church in Orange County.

Old church buildings and missions have been successfully saved and restored all across the United States. Some have been repurposed into charming homes, stores and restaurants. A developer in Pittsburgh turned a former Baptist Church with 51-foot ceilings into a brew house. Some of these old churches have become ritzy homes in desirable getaways.

In San Miguel, The Mission San Miguel Arcángel, serves as an example of the support and money that a historic building can bring. The 191-year-old mission between San Francisco and Los Angeles was almost destroyed in an earthquake in 2003. It needed to raise millions more than its insurance covered. Notably, the mission had a good story. It was the only mission in California with its original artwork intact. In 1821, local Salinas Indians had painted murals inside the church. People eagerly gave donations to save the building, and a nonprofit took up the cause. The mission was saved, and reopened six years after the disaster.

Churches Have a Chance: Public Money Is Available

The San Miguel mission project also received state and federal grant assistance. People may assume that a church can’t use public grant money because of the separation of church and state issue, but this just isn’t the case. Congregations are free to apply for federal grants, just like any other organization. Since the Bush administration, churches have been able to use federal money to restore their buildings based on historical merit – leaving their belief structure out of the equation. Governments tend not to discriminate against religious organizations in evaluating historical projects.

This is not to say that these reclamation projects are easy. Taking on the restoration of a historic church can be a huge job. An applicant faces significant hurdles in getting a building placed on the National Historic Registry. Also, many of these federal and state grants are highly competitive. A job like this has to be a labor of love, but if there is a will, there is a way.

Churches have been repurposed all over the country. They are often stately and unique, and people love them. Even if a church isn’t technically “historic” it could be worth saving for the charm and community endearment. A church should not necessarily be demolished if it sits empty, and especially if it has a good story to tell. Many churches are important parts of their community’s timeline, and possess a hidden value that only needs to be discovered and told.

If your local church building has grown weary and you want it restored or repurposed, you don’t have to go it alone. You can get a thorough analysis of the obstacles and the monies available from a consultant whose community values align with your own. Contact DCG Real Estate today to learn more.