Afternoon Chat: Repurposing Empty Churches

By Kate Riley October 10, 2019

Down the street from my studio, a new school opened this year in a structure that was formerly a church. There is a growing trend across the nation, with thousands of churches closing their doors each year. While many faith communities are flourishing, there are some that aren’t. Declining congregations and lack of attendance are attributed to a transformation of modern religious behavior, causing some traditional churches to end their worship services, leaving beautifully constructed structures behind. What is a community to do?


church to school conversion

Adaptive reuse of traditional buildings isn’t new. Architecturally speaking, it’s similar to converting an old mill or factory built into a hotel or modern residences. Community leaders and architects can come together to transform the space into a thriving new venue. In another part of the small town where I live, a small Gothic style church structure is being remodeled for use as a performing arts center for the city.

The idea of converting churches does tear at my heart strings. I grew up going to Sunday school in my youth. I attended a Catholic high school, and throughout my life I’ve participated in protestant services across denominations. I have great appreciation for these institutions and respect for the faith based community. I’d much rather see new life brought to the structure, instead of watching it be torn down to make way for cookie cutter condos.

chicago conversion: church to residence

There are many examples of churches being converted into residences as well. One enormous challenge to note is the traditional high pitched ceiling. Originally planned to draw the eye up in contemplation, as a personal residence, the vaulted ceiling poses greater heating and cooling costs. Also challenging is how to make wide open spaces cozy and inviting?

What are your observations on this topic? How far should a community go to preserve religious structures? How do you feel about churches being repurposed as community centers, school, or art venues? Has this happened in your town too?


More articles of interest:

Repurposing Places of Worship

Historic Churches Reborn

Repurposed Churches of New Orleans




  1. I would much rather have churches converted to other uses instead of torn down. I like seeing these (usually) unique, beautiful buildings, even if they’re being used for something else.
    One thing I’ve noticed about the West is it seems like things are constantly being torn down or refurbished to always look “new.” It makes so much of the West so generic. (I’m CA born and raised, now living in the South.) Holding onto churches stems that tide somewhat.
    I think preserving churches also makes sense for the environment. Construction creates so much waste! Why not keep a beautiful building around and save the planet a little?
    In Boston, I took ballet classes in a historic church converted into a dance studio/theater. I loved it. I think the arts can be very spiritual (and so can education, come to think of it), so for me a school or art space doesn’t feel all that divergent from a church.

    • I love the idea of vacated churches transforming in order to serve the arts, like you said, they can be very spiritual. I went to hear a musician perform at a concert hall that used to be an old church and the acoustics were amazing, the music brought tears to my eyes. So yes, using an empty church as a new venue for artistic expression makes perfect sense.

  2. Love the idea of pivoting or repurposing … if the church can stay but figure out other uses for M-F. Although the other ginormous challenge is often the city permitting process … makes it easy for developers to buy out the church property because the city wants those with deep pockets to repurpose the land to commercial use for the tax revenue.

  3. What a wonderful discussion. I agree with everything you said. It is also sad to me that these churches close…hopefully it’s just a sign that religion has changed and is not gone. Society is trending away from organized religion as we know it. I am in hopes that some might reopen for “church” in a new form. But until then, I think the use of it for residences, art centers and schools is lovely! I am also open to restaurants, but not as much. I live in Virginia and we don’t see that happening as much here. When a church closes, another takes its’ place in the building.I guess we are in the bible belt.

    • There are a lot of churches in my state that operate in non-church buildings, perhaps it’s just too costly to construct a new church structure so they will find something else that serves their needs. These modern congregations don’t need steeples and stained glass, they’re fine gathering in more modest conditions.

  4. The show ‘Restoration Home’ in the UK followed a couple in their 20s who financed and renovated the listed church in St Thomas à Becket in Pensford. I was nervous for them and the renovation, but the husband single handedly renovated and converted the interior of the church into a home. It was done with such an appreciation and respect of the building, the community and its architecture!

  5. I am a huge fan of historic preservation. I LOVE the idea of taking any vacant building – church or otherwise – and repurposing it rather than letting it sit and rot into the ground or tearing it down to build new. I realize some buildings are beyond preserving, but I am grateful when I see those with the resources to do so, rescue an old building and put it to use. Hubster and I love historic architecture and would love to live and/or open a small business in such a place if we could ever make it happen.

    • Agreed! Wouldn’t it be fun to remodel an old building and breathe new life into it? I think about that a lot too.

  6. I also like the idea of re purposing a church rather than tearing it down. So often, they are beautiful, historic buildings. Near me, in the Midwest, it seems to be opposite. Churches are opening in non church buildings such as old movie theaters, gyms, and other places that have gone out of business.
    I am not religious, but I do enjoy seeing the beauty of the old churches and hate to see them torn down.

    • We see that too on the west coast, church congregations gathering in non-traditional church buildings.

  7. We live in a small city in Southern Oregon called Ashland. I just read that a vacant church in our outskirts will be dedicated to a warm shelter for the homeless! Great News as it’s already down to freezing here at night.

  8. Cool Ideas!! It is very important to preserve our spiritual heritage. We are also taking appropriate steps to care for him. It is very important for spiritual peace. What are we going to give to our children in inheritance? Thank you for sharing this information. keep it up. if you need to renovate a church or office, home. Check out the helpful detail about commercial furniture here!!!

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