ABCs of church architecture turned private residence

It required fresh thinking to turn our church’s unique architectural features into functional elements of a private home.

Every church conversion is different. Here’s our translation, in alphabetical order:

Altar: a structure upon which offerings such as sacrifices and votive offerings are made for religious purposes. The altar in our church was removed when the congregation exited.

Altar piece: an altarpiece is a picture or relief representing a religious subject and suspended in a frame behind the altar. The altar piece on our church was a red velvet curtain, which we used as a furniture blanket and drop cloth before it met its end.

Altar rails: a set of railings, sometimes ornate and frequently of marble or wood, delimiting the chancel (the part of a church near the altar, reserved for the clergy and choir). I really wanted to repurpose this, but I lacked the creative thinking; we dumpstered our altar rail.

Bell tower: a tower which contains one or more bells. Our church’s bell, estimated to weigh 600 to 800 pounds, was returned to functional in the reno.

Bell turret: the ornamental feature above the bell chamber. This is the most distinctive exterior feature of our structure. We reroofed it and kept it intact.

Church kitchen: a place of welcome, where congregants join to share fellowship, celebrate joyful events, or sustain one another through moments of pain or suffering. The kitchen in the basement of the church was deconstructed. When we take up the basement remodel, we plan to install a new kitchen.

corbel
I played around with a few options for repurposing our corbels during construction, but they are sitting in the basement, awaiting a new life.

 

Corbel: a piece of stone jutting out of a wall to carry any superincumbent weight. We had wood corbels in the sanctuary of the church. We removed them, and they await inspiration for re-use.

Portal: a main entrance, on the church facade, sometimes highly ornamented. The original portal to our church, beneath the bell, was ornamented. When the entrance was moved in the 1940s, the dooryway was, shall we say, rather plain. We installed new doors and exterior lights, bringing back some of its glory.

Baptismal font: an article of church furniture or a fixture used for the baptism of children and adults. Like the altar, the baptism font was removed when the congregation exited.

Confessional: a cabinet-like unit in a church used for conducting confession. Catholic churches have confessionals. Methodist churches do not (thank goodness).

Pulpit: a small elevated platform from which a member of the clergy delivers a sermon. The pulpit was removed when the congregation exited.

Pews: a long bench with a back, placed in rows in the main part of some churches to seat the congregation. The pews were gone when we came along, but we brought one of our own, salvaged from a church in Belvidere, Illinois.

Vestments Closet
The vestments closet was eliminated in our remodel (for more of that story, tune in to ChurchSweetHome.com on Friday.

Sacristy: a room in a church where a priest prepares for a service, and where vestments and other things used in worship are kept. In our church, this was a closet, which was removed to install the back door.

Sanctuary: a sanctuary, in its original meaning, is a sacred place, such as a shrine. Also known as a haven, by extension the term has come to be used for any place of safety. The church’s sanctuary is now our great room, housing the kitchen, living room and dining room.

Spire: a spire is a tapering conical or pyramidal structure on the top of a building, often a skyscraper or a church tower. The original spire on our church was damaged or removed mid-century. But we found a new one at a flea market and installed it on top of the bell turret.

Stained glass: glass that has been colored by adding metallic salts during its manufacture; the colored glass is crafted into stained glass windows in which small pieces of glass are arranged to form patterns or pictures, held together (traditionally) by strips of lead and supported by a rigid frame. Our church had no stained-glass windows, only etched glass transoms, which we preserved.

red chair
Historic Sunday School chair.

Sunday School room: a room or rooms in a church where teachers tell Bible stories and help children do craft projects. We found the cutest little tables and chairs for Sunday School on the second level, which we donated to Habitat for Humanity’s Restore. An older, historical children’s chair was gifted to us by one of the congregants; I repainted it and it finds a home in the second-story playroom under the eaves.

CSH Book Front Cover Only# # #

My memoir Church Sweet Home: A Renovation to Warm the Soul comes out May 5. Preorder the ebook at Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble Nook.

 

Quasimodo’s library

Our belfry has a little room on the second story beneath the bell.

The space is about 8 feet square. Not big enough for a bed but it would make a huge closet (in fact, the space beneath it on the first floor is a closet).

We chose to build a closet elsewhere on the second story so the belfry room could be something else. I toyed with making it my office, but the window (which was covered up when we purchased the church) is too high to see out of when seated. I decided it would make a great library. We haven’t finished the work, but the space has been much improved.

BEFORE

It was a scary place when we began demolition. Filled with miscellaneous boxes and Sunday school supplies, it was dark and dirty. The room is not ducted, so it’s cold in the winter and hot in summer. We found out later that piles of animal detritus filled the space above it (beneath the bell); I can only imagine the dust and junk that fell from that space every time the trap door on the ceiling to the bell was opened.

These both look like after photos (looking back into the second story from the little room), but trust me, the little room is much cleaner in the photo on the right.

IMG_1498
Here’s a shot showing the new window before it was trimmed out.

Much progress was made just by cleaning it out. Oh, the power of soap and water. We also uncovered the exterior window (it had a bullet hole in it) and replaced the boring hollow-core door to the room with a windowed door we found elsewhere in the church. Light makes the little room so much more pleasant.

Though I don’t have pictures of it, I painted the interior in the same silver gray we used elsewhere in the house. We decided to leave the original shiplap exposed, but we definitely need to build more shelves for all my books.

shelves empty
That new cording hanging there is what we pull to ring the bell.

We will also put a little bench on the side opposite the shelving for a reading nook, but the one I have in mind needs a new paint job (a project and a post for another day).

“Oh! No, please, I-I-I’m not finished; I-I-I still have to paint them.”

~ Quasimodo in the Disney version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame

 

The art of wall art

Hanging artwork can be the hardest part of a renovation.

When I last blogged about the north wall of the great room (the former altar area), it looked like this:

back wall with pantry
The north wall, semi completed.

The cabinetry, shelving and stereo speakers were installed, but a big blank space was left to the right of the fireplace. I planned a massive family photo display.

First I had to choose the right photos (as anyone who takes a lot of family photos knows, this is no easy task, not to mention finding them). Along with wedding photos and graduation mugshots, I mixed in a lot of meaningful travel photos so the resulting combination looked more like art and less like studio shots. Then I figured out how to size them so the whole display of 18 images looks like a single unit. After determining I wanted them all to be canvas-wrapped, I sourced a vendor. Then I had to pay for them (it was a lot). And then they had to be hung (Dad was roped into that project, handing each image exactly two inches away from the others, and believe me, it was tricky, but he prevailed). Each step took time and focus, and the stakes were high–these were treasured family photos to be hung in a highly visible area.

I succeeded, just in time for the open house last fall.

Photo wall after
The biggest image is a photo my stepdaughter took when we were on a family trip to the Croatian coast; it’s a stunner.

I also set framed photos on the countertop at the bottom (not shown here). (That cross on the upper right shelf, by the way, is original to the church, another tip of the hat to the former while featuring what’s new.)

Speaking of, here are before and after photos of the Hall of History, the hallway between the great room and our master suite. The hall is another photo gallery where we hung photos of the church throughout history and our ancestors.

This space turned out spectacularly. The light fixtures all hung elsewhere in the church when we acquired it and were moved here, the wood flooring (underneath old dirty carpeting) is original to the building and now protected with an old-fashioned braided rug, and there is lots of room to hang more photos as I get my act together. All the photographs in the hallway are framed in black to tie them together, but they are hung more randomly than the canvas-wrap display in the great room. The hallway just makes one want to linger–in a hallway!

Maybe my approach to themed family photo display inspires you to do something with all those family photos you have on your phone, that you own, in a box, with a fox … but I digress. Surround yourself with pictures of your loved ones if you can’t surround yourself with your actual loved ones.  Stay well, my dear readers.

Nailed it! Not

I’ve often written about how paint can make anything better, and I believe this strongly most of the time. I am proud of the way I transformed a beat-up dresser into a bathroom vanity.

upstairs vanity in place
The guest bath on the second floor.

Or a 100-year-old desk into a fresh-looking focal piece.

Desk closed after
Tyler’s desk now graces a corner of the great room.

And especially light fixtures. I spray painted the chandeliers in the great room and our master bedroom, and also the collars for this historic lights in the Hall of History.

hall of history lights
The “collar” of a light fixture contains the wiring. These collars were all found in the church during the demo phase.

But alas, sometimes paint fails. Or maybe just I do as the painter. I share this failure here, lest you think every project we take on around Church Sweet Home is a home run. Sometimes, we strike out.

failed lamp

This lamp base has interesting marble accents, but I hated the gold leafy scroll work. It once sat in our living room in our former house. I spent a morning taping off the marble accents, and spray painted the gold parts matte black.

It was horrible (not even worth sharing the after photo). There was just no camouflaging that scrollwork.

However, Tyler used black spray paint to great effect recently on some furnishings and décor for our new winter condo. I share those transformations tomorrow on my Minnesota Transplant blog. Check in with me there if you’re looking for some lake home inspiration.

Outdoor party zone

Another project we wrapped up early enough last summer to enjoy it was the deck.

Some might call it a patio. Some might call it porch. We call it the deck.

From the beginning of Tyler’s Garage Mahal dreams, he envisioned a deck off the three-season “room” (also known as the fourth stall of the garage).

When the garage was built in late 2018, it got a roof but there was no time for siding. And certainly no deck. Even the windows on the east side were simply boarded up for the Wisconsin winter.

So the first element of finishing was to install enormous four-panel vinyl windows with screens. But the siding on that side of the garage awaited final placement after laying the deck.

deck in progress earlier
First windows, then stringers for the decking.

Excavation to ground level was first. Then Tyler and You-Can-Call-Me-Al laid the stringers (perfectly level, of course). A little corner was made to accommodate the biggest pine tree in the yard. Then they used 3,500 screws (no kidding) to secure the deck boards (the deck is roughly 34 feet long, 16 feet wide–we Go Big or Go Home around here, as regular readers are well aware).

deck in progress
First piece of furniture: the “contractors’ table.”

Now Tyler was ready to add some fun to the function. He drew inspiration from this picture of a slated ornamental wall:

deck inspiration
This “Pinteresting” image described the structure as a wind-breaker and privacy wall.

Tyler wanted a bit of a shield from gawkers passing by on the south side (a man likes to enjoy a beer in peace), and a wall of some sort seemed workable. I like how nice it looks. So You-Can-Call-Me-Al was set to work building a wall from this picture, not the first time our “blueprints” came from Pinterest.

deck finished
Privacy wall in place.

Then Tyler stained everything in a couple of coats of Mountain Cedar.

deck from street
Here’s the “gawker’s” view from the street (picture taken last summer, when the grass was lush).

The deck still requires lighting (which awaits garage wiring). But we enjoyed it a few times and it was ready for the open house last fall. At some point soon, warm weather will return and we’ll enjoy again. And soon after that, I hope, we will be able to socialize there (even though we could probably entertain at least two or three couples and still have six feet between each of us!).

 

 

The playroom

We made good use of the bonus space under the eaves on the second story of Church Sweet Home.

On one side, I store office supplies and Christmas decorations.

lucy's door with knob
The entry door to the playhouse.

On the other side of the roof, Tyler created a little playhouse for our grandchildren. It’s about four feet wide, seven feet long and five feet tall and accessible from the guest bedroom.

Little Doors Closed
This is the window to the playhouse with the doors closed.

A window on the balcony side was the finishing touch on the playhouse. For the window frame, Tyler found a doored mirror at Ginger Blossom, one of our favorite local furniture stores. He removed the mirror, and in its place, the frame looks like a little wooden treasure box.

Little Doors Open
This is the window with the doors open.

Look how thick that wall is! That’s one of the original exterior walls of the old Methodist Church. It’s dark inside there because the little room still requires proper lighting and some nice comfy carpeting. But what’s inside there right now has a story, too.

IMG_3898
The current residents: Raggedy Andy and Raggedy Ann, though even at 40 years old, they hardly look ragged.

This couple was given to me by a dear woman, a new friend I knew not long enough. A talented sewing congregant at our church made Raggedy Anns & Andys for the annual bazaar, back when our church still had a women’s group and bazaars. (They were made from what must have been a widely circulated pattern because my own mother made me a vary similar pair– twice! Oh, how many times Raggedy Ann listened to my troubles!) My friend bought this particular pair for her son, when he son was still a little boy who might appreciate such things.

A couple weeks before our open house last fall, this friend called me up and invited me over because she “had something to give me.” I was honored to be granted an audience, let alone a gift, because my friend had long been battling a terminal illness and she was nearing the end. (When I first met her when I moved to town, I didn’t even realize she was ill, she carried herself with such optimism and grace.)

I paid her a visit, and she gave me these handmade treasures because she thought “they came from your church, so they belong there now.” I accepted them with gratitude and made a home for Raggedy Ann and Andy in the playhouse, to display during our open house. (By the way, Andy there is seated on another gift from another generous benefactor. That little chair, repainted to match my design scheme, was once a Sunday School chair at our church.)

Very sad for me (and anyone else who knew her), my friend died the day of our open house.

These dolls make me think of my friend Deanna, and whenever I think of her, I think of her fondly. She was wise and generous and very kind to think of me and support our home improvement project so enthusiastically.

“Life is a song. Sing it.
“Life is a game. Play it.
“Life is a challenge. Meet it.
“Life is a dream. Realize it.
“Life is a sacrifice. Offer it.
“Life is love. Enjoy it.”

                      ~ Sai Baba

 

Stained glass presents unique challenge in church conversions

Original windows
You can see the etched glass transom windows in the sanctuary on the right. The transom above the former front door, which may or may not have been stained glass, has been lost to history.

That the little Methodist church didn’t have stained glass windows was a plus for us in renovating it into our house.

Incorporating such obviously religious architecture into a private home is tricky.

Here’s a church conversion that did it well.

stained glass example
You can see how the ceiling was adjusted in the bathroom design to accommodate the window, but it’s lovely.

I found this on Houzz under the banner “the best church conversions.” Located in Chicago’s Little Italy neighborhood, this former Methodist church, built in 1901, is described as a “dream project for a young couple who wanted an open, light-soaked home in which to raise their three children.”

Stained glass has been around for a thousand years, and it is typically featured in the windows of churches and other significant religious buildings. It has the benefit of allowing light without tempting parishioners with outside distractions during services. The most elaborate stained glass windows in churches tell stories, such as the stations of the cross or of saints.

IS23n2gjuc7vk01000000000
This image captures how the church, and its windows, looked when we purchased it.

The windows in our church were not stained glass, but they were clouded glass to keep worshippers’ attention within. We swapped that out for clear glass. The original transom windows were etched glass. A kind of decorative glass, etched glass is the result of a series of small cuts made to the glass, by acidic, caustic or abrasive substances, after the glass has been manufactured. The cuts normally appear white against the glass and can be made into patterns or images.

etched glass window
The etchings in our windows feature flowers and geometric designs.

One of our transom windows has a small crack, but we resolved that by installing storm windows.

At some point in the reconstruction process, Tyler hit upon a way to incorporate stained glass into our design—as interior windows on the balcony. All the stained glass windows we found in antique stores were too gold or red for our color scheme until we found these leaded glass windows. They were the perfect “stained” glass without stain.

leaded glass over tub

One of these windows overlooks the tub. It’s not as dramatic as the Chicago church conversion, but it suits our aesthetic.

 

The pinnacle of success

I realized I dropped the ball, or maybe “dropped the spire” is a better metaphor for what happened here.

I wrote last summer how we found the perfect spire for our belfry when we went junking at “Wisconsin’s Finest” antique flea market in Elkhorn. The steel spire with Victorian era fleur-de-lis detailing had been salvaged from the turret of a decrepit late 1800s mansion in Vilas County, Wisconsin.

But I failed to show you how it turned out.

Spire, before and after painting

The junk spire required a bit of straightening. We had it sand-blasted before applying a few coats of rust-proof paint.

spire on articulating arm better

Tyler rented an articulating boom to provide safer access to the belfry forty feet off the ground. You-Can-Call-Me-Al enjoyed using the boom (it was easier on the legs than a ladder by far). He and Tyler accomplished some other repairs up there (Tyler remained on the ground), and early one clear Sunday morning, the spire was hauled up there.
I went to church that morning (a different, actual church with a worship service), and I specifically recall asking for protection for You-Can-Call-Me-Al. The good news is, he was fine and so is the spire.

Al waving on spire
You-Can-Call-Me-Al gives the thumbs up after he bolted the spired to the turret. That guy is fearless. My hands get sweaty just looking at this picture.

The belfry, described as “rooted” when we bought the church, required three phases of improvements, but it looks (and sounds) beautiful now.

belfry fall 2107
This is an early picture of the belfry, taken after Reroofer repaired the flat roof beneath the bell.
finished spire
And here’s the finished belfry. 

Now you know the rest of the story. The belfry is an exceedingly public result of the church’s renovation. Fixing it didn’t add a lot of value to the private residence, but I’m proud we pursued excellence and restored that historic bell tower to glory.

# # #

“Every person is endowed with God-given abilities, and we must cultivate every ounce of talent we have in order to maintain our pinnacle position in the world.”

~ Ben Carson,
retired neurosurgeon currently serving as the
U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development

Church Sweet Home becomes a book

I started this blog because I’m writer. Having already written three books and thousands of blog posts, I sensed I had a great story, no matter how it turned out, and it needed to be documented.

Without knowing how it would end, I chose the unconventional approach of a real-time-memoir with the intention of turning my blog posts into a book. I’ve spent months polishing my prose and having it professionally edited, and finally, the launch day for the book Church Sweet Home: A Renovation to Warm the Soul is coming soon. Mark your calendar: May 5.

CSH Book Front Cover OnlyIf you’re here, reading this blog post, you’ve probably read most of the story and you sort of understand it all ends well. I have hundreds of loyal readers who cheered us on through months of dirty demolition and construction, and I am so grateful for the moral support you offered with nice comments and Facebook likes on so many nights we were exhausted and feeling sorry for ourselves. You helped pull us through.

You might be asking, why would I read this book if I followed the blog? Well, here are five reasons you might enjoy the book as much as you liked the blog:

  1. The book has an all-new prologue about abandoned churches.
  2. The story has a proper heart-warming ending.
  3. All the those annoying “our story so far” and “tomorrow” teasers are gone.
  4. You’ll find out how the real budget compares to the Tequila Budget.
  5. If you’re technically challenged or just too impatient to click through all the blog posts, you can page through the story easily and at your own pace.

I suppose you might know some people who would enjoy the story but aren’t blog readers. Voilà, a book is a nice gift for your friend.

So stay tuned for all the information you need to get yourself a paperback or ebook of Church Sweet Home in May.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to share updates about the renovation. I have a few in the archive, and we still have projects ahead of us.

Again, thanks for reading.

 

Shake that booty

As I pondered news to share here about progress we’ve made on the church, I realized I never shared before-and-after photos of the west side of the church.

This area of the old Methodist church received a lot of attention last summer when we sided the garage and finished repairs to the belfry.

Here’s how it looked “before” when that functional-but-less-than-pretty fire escape was still attached:

fire escape after new windows
This picture was taken after we replaced the windows. 

Note the distinctive architectural feature between the first- and second-story windows. After finding the original wooden shakes on the fluted portion of the belfry, Tyler suspected wooden shakes were also hidden beneath that aluminum siding on the west side. So he had You-Can-Call-Me-Al remove the siding, and behold, the original shakes.

west side revealed
Removing the aluminum siding revealed wooden shakes in the peak and between the windows.

The wood shakes were in pretty good condition, and we wondered why on earth they were ever concealed. They desperately needed paint. You-Can-Call-Me-Al replaced about 20 of them. Tyler rented an articulating boom to make the belfry repairs, and You-Can-Call-Me-Al also used it to fix and paint the west side.

west wide articulating boom
Useful tool, that articulating boom.

You-Can-Call-Me-Al painted the wooden shakes a similar color gray that we painted the stone foundation. Those century-old shakes soaked up the latex.

west wide after
A few pieces of white siding are missing on either side of the center fluted area in this picture (let’s be honest, in reality, too). Still, a huge improvement.

The west side turned out so well, we decided to copy the fluted peak and shakes on the new-construction garage, too.

west side garage match
Note the fluted peak of the garage. These shakes are a man-made substance manufacturered in rows, not individual wooden shakes like on the west side.

If you look carefully at the belfry, you’ll see the new spire. I’ll share more about the installation of that spire in a future post.

# # #

CSH Book Front Cover OnlyIf you enjoy renovation stories or more specifically, this renovation story, mark your calendar. The book version of this blog, Church Sweet Home: A Renovation to Warm the Soul, will be available May 5. Stay tuned for details.