Look around: church conversions are everywhere

Our little Church Sweet Home is just another in a long line of church conversions. Churches across America (and the world) are losing membership and going on the market, so the opportunities to renovate an old church into a new home abound.

As I admit in my memoir about our church renovation project, Pinterest inspired me:

A quick look through the Pinterest website reveals some spectacular transformations, the sort of metamorphosis that inspired me. But you’ll also find some horrors of awkwardly chopped-up spaces, dark rooms, strange window configurations and thoughtless appropriation of church symbols—like an altar reused as a bar. Ugh.

Search “converted churches” or “church conversions” and you’ll find enough transformative pins to distract you for hours.

Google, of course, will serve up a heaping platter of converted churches, too:

Want a church of your own to turn into your home or one already transformed? Check out realtor.com (someone there has a lot of fun with the headlines):

  • Truly divine! Your personal sanctuary awaits at this Indiana church
  • We pray a buyer finally makes an offer on this former Wisconsin church
  • Bow your heads: Awesome church-to-home conversion for sale in Pennsylvania
  • Hallelujah! Divine townhouse in converted church in Washington, D.C.
  • Strike gold with a converted church and miniature mining town in Eureka, UT
  • This colorful $1.6M converted church could start your Airbnb empire

Tyler still frequents these real estate listings. Quite often, he’ll often show me a run-down church in the middle of nowhere and ask, “Wanna do it again?”

I would do it again! For the right place and the right price, yes, I would.

# # #

I tell the story of how we converted a 126-year-old Methodist church into our home in Church Sweet Home: A Renovation to Warm the Soul.

To get your hands on Church Sweet Home: A Renovation to Warm the Soul, the paperback is $12.49 on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Prefer an ebook? You’re in luck. The ebook is $4.49 and available at Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble Nook and Kobo.

Of basements, gutters and excuses

Let’s talk basements.

Our basement remains one of the outstanding projects here at our chome. Early on, we demolished the church kitchen and one wall in the bathroom, but now the basement expanse is simply storing Christmas decorations and lamps. Lots of random lamps.

The toilet in the basement bathroom is the only original bit of plumbing that came with the church. With a missing wall, it’s not a great space, despite the functioning flusher.

We’ve hesitated to get to work down there for three reasons. One, we’re still recovering from the renovation of the rest of the church. Lots of homes have unfinished basements, right? What’s the hurry? Two, finishing a basement costs money, and we’re spending money elsewhere (can you say “boat,” Tyler?). And three, and most notable, we’re watching for leaks. A wet basement is not a basement into which you want to put a lot of drywall.

When we purchased the church, the basement flooding was so frequent, standing water on the west side had damaged the floor tiling. I can only imagine the panic that gripped organizers of the food shelf that operated out of the basement when it rained hard on distribution days. We once observed an inch of water in this area. We solved the problem with a functional gutter before we even closed on the sale of the church.

Then we saw how groundwater leaked through the 18-inch thick foundation walls, especially on the south side. Tyler solved this problem by painting all the walls with basement waterproofing paint.

Heavy rains during construction that first spring caused water to pour in through the window wells on the north side. This, we addressed by building a garage and eliminating some of the window wells.

Still, when it rained a lot, we’d get water on the east side of the basement. We had gutters installed all around the church, and Tyler put St. Johnny to work installing a French drain system on the east side of the church. Proper dirt grading was implemented. This helped a lot.

In fact, we thought we had the basement water problem licked. For more than a year, the basement stayed dry, even when rain poured down.

But a couple of weeks ago, Tyler noticed a couple of gallons of water on the floor in the furnace room on the east side of the church. He traced the problem to the gutter on the east side. It’s twenty feet off the ground, but Tyler guessed it was clogged with pine needles since it hangs beneath the boughs of our beautiful and enormous pine trees.

Since he wasn’t interested in cleaning out a gutter twenty feet off the ground on the regular (or ever), he determined we needed gutter guards of some sort. Why all gutters don’t come with guards, I can only guess, but they don’t. Research led him to Leaf Filter.

I’ll spare you the sales presentation, which was exhaustive, let me assure you. The salesman delayed our supper by an hour the evening he visited. But he was effective. We invested in Leaf Filter gutter guards for all the gutters on the church structure and garage.

Leaf Filter
You go, gutter guy!

The Leaf Filter guys worked their magic earlier this week. When they cleaned out the gutter on the east side, they found four inches of pine needles and silt up there. Yuck! No wonder water was spills over the edges, into the ground and seeping into our basement. The Leaf Filter system comes with a lifetime guarantee against gutter clogs (lifetime of the building, people!), so we’ll see if system works to keep our basement dry.

This morning, we woke up to a pouring rain and a dry basement, so fingers crossed. Not that a dry basement will hasten the finishing, but at least a wet basement will no longer be an excuse for procrastination.

TV news story shows polish of Church Sweet Home

The story Pauleen Le at CBS 58 worked up about Church Sweet Home casts a flattering light on our renovation project in a way my amateur photography on this blog or the black-and-white shots in my memoir never could.

video screen shot
A screen grab of the video.

To see Le’s Sunday Morning show story, click here. It’s worth five-and-a-half minutes of your time just to hear the church bell and creak of the door into the sanctuary. If you’re a regular reader who hasn’t had the opportunity to visit this little Methodist Mecca/Phoenix from the ashes in person, this video will satisfy your curiosity. The drone shots gave us a look even we have never seen of our house!

At one point in the video, I say “And we did it!” In a story about us and our house, that’s absolutely correct, but I feel compelled to credit here the workers and skilled craftsmen who helped us: St. Johnny, You-Can-Call-Me-Al, Reroofer, the Michelangelo drywallers, Glimfeather the plumber, Low Talker the painter, the spiral stairway proprietress, the electrician, the Lighting Savant, the expert at the glass store, our friend at Home Depot who rented us a floor sander twenty times, the guys who poured the driveway, the man who operated the crane that dropped the rafters for the Garage Mahal, several relatives who helped us in various ways, and many others. We did it, but we didn’t do it by ourselves.

Check it out, and let Pauleen Le know if you like her story. Thanks to her and her team, too.



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 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

Open house, check

And we didn’t take a single picture.

This time last week, Tyler and I were recovering our breaths from our open house, which can only be described as a spectacular success.

After two years of planning, demolition and reconstruction, we were racing to the finish to get the church into show shape. My dad hung a thousand pictures on Saturday (he says a thousand, I think it was more like 22), and Tyler sent a lot of time making the lawn look presentable. Mom arranged a half dozen flower vases with fresh flowers gifted to us by a friend, so we had fragrant blooms in almost every room. As for me, I emptied all the trash cans as my last act before accepting guests; the message, of course, is that we have functional things like garbage cans, but we don’t actually use them (it’s a joke). 

Tyler estimates we had 250 people drop by in the two-plus hours we opened our doors to neighbors, contractors, former members of the church and interested onlookers. We had 105 sign our guest book. So I guess we had somewhere between 105 and 250 come to take a look at our church-house renovation. It felt like 250, for sure.

All four of us–me, Tyler, Mom and Dad– talked non-stop for two hours, and we ran the church bell a hundred times, at least. It was so nice to see people ooh and aah and to hear people say nice things about the church and our work. Among our visitors were three former pastors at the church, which was a fun and enlightening surprise.

We were so preoccupied, we didn’t take a single picture, though I know some people took a lot of them. If you’re willing to share, please let me know.

The best part was the booty we collected. We asked visitors to bring a non-perishable foot item for the Loaves & Fishes food pantry, which got its start in our basement when it was a functioning church, and our guests came through for the charity. More than 600 pounds of food was collected! Wow! Thank you!

If you attended our open house, thank you for being here, for contributing and for saying nice things (at least in earshot, ha, ha).

As for my regular readers who didn’t have the opportunity to be here, I will try to share some of the projects we finished this summer during the next couple weeks. The biggest project I finished that I’m excited to tell you about is the book I wrote about renovating the church. Much more to come on that subject, I assure you.

The details are not the details, they make the design

Our story so far: Decision paralysis was beginning to affect our church renovation. We were faced with decisions that affected the look of the entire church cum house, and we would have to look at them every day: Wall paint and trim.

# # #

The next day (and I’m not compressing chronology here—literally the next day), Tyler gathered You-Can-Call-Me-Al and me in the great room to start measuring for trim. I was supposed to be taking notes, but the conversation was over my head about ninety seconds in. I knew what a baseboard was and I understood we needed some sort of wood around the windows and doors, but after that, I was lost. You-Can-Call-Me-Al threw around words like casing and chair stops and measurements like five-and-a-quarter topped with one-and-seven-sixteenths, and I said, “Wait, huh? What am I writing down?”

Tyler threw up his hands.

You-Can-Call-Me-Al, with all his people-pleaser mediation skills, suggested we call his Trim Guy.

Before Tyler could say “What’s his number?” You-Can-Call-Me-Al dialed his cell and left a message for Trim Guy.

A few hours later, Trim Guy was standing in our great room with thick books of trim descriptions and a clip board.

original trim
Fortunately, the sanctuary of our church came with a lot of beautiful trim. The window casing was five inches wide, and the beadboard wainscoting was topped with a bold chair rail. The narrow original baseboard, however, was long since removed (I’ve painted a fake baseboard here). And if you look closely, the casing on the main door doesn’t match the window casing; it must have been a more modern addition.

# # #

Today’s headline is quote from Charles Eames. He and his wife “Ray” were 20th century American designers.

Tomorrow: Learning a foreign language. Read it here.

It’s the fixtures and fittings that finish you off

Our story so far: After much backing and forthing, we found a reasonably affordable way to construct an extra-large custom shower in our master bathroom in our church conversion, but we couldn’t put away our shopping list yet.

# # #

Ah, the fixtures.

I wanted a rainfall shower head. I naively believed that’s how they were sold: Shower head, rainfall; Quantity: One.

Um, no.

One needs valves. They’re the parts you can’t see, but if you don’t have them, you don’t have things like water pressure or temperature control. Then you need something called “valve trim.” This the knob that turns on the water.

Then you need the shower head. But sometimes you might also need a shower head arm and a shower head flange.

Naturally, each of these parts has its own price.

Oh, and you’re not done yet. Now you choose a style. And don’t forget the finish: brass, copper, bronze, chrome—oh, not so fast—would you like that in polished, brushed, matte?

bathtub faucet
Mm, pretty.

Tyler chose a distinctive Kohler bathtub faucet for the upstairs bath but we went with the “contractor special” for the shower up there. For the master bathroom, we also considered Kohler, a manufacturer based in what was now our home state of Wisconsin, but in the end we went with polished chrome Moen fixtures. I was reading everywhere that brass was new and trendy, but I hated brass; polished chrome would look clean, be durable and would make it easy to find accessories and other fixtures.

# # #

Tomorrow: Why brass is crass. And other judgy opinions from the peanut gallery. Read it here.

Simple wall construction turns into odyssey of blood, sweat and tears

Our story so far: As we progressed through the mechanicals phase of our church conversion project, we learned it was tricky to build walls between 126-year-old floors and ceilings that may or may not be level.

# # #

The day began with a family crisis and progressed to a business crisis, but eventually we put out the fires and made our way to the church. Our goal was to construct the walls for the powder room, the water closet in the master bath and the wall behind the vanity in the master bath, all in the overflow area behind the kitchen so the plumber could begin roughing in plumbing.

Unlike the walls for the master bedroom closet which were supporting walls built to the ceiling, the walls on the day’s to-do list would have a false ceiling to accommodate the HVAC ducting and the plumbing from the second-floor bathroom. If your eyes are glazing over with the details, let me emphasize this important point: All the walls we were building were to be as tall as the false ceiling.

We began by haggling about room sizes and laying down two-by-fours on the floor to outline the walls. Just as Tyler was about to measure the studs and build vertically, he decided he needed a new tool: A laser level.

We couldn’t just measure down from the actual ceiling or up from the floor because each was crooked or uneven in their own unique ways. If we wanted a level false ceiling, we needed this crucial tool Tyler didn’t already possess.

OK, it was lunch time. Let’s go get lunch and drop by Home Depot. And spend more money. On another tool.

This was a battle I wasn’t going to win.

So we dined at a Chicago hot dog joint and dropped another couple hundred at Home Depot. Driving back to the church in the pickup truck, Tyler asked me to open the laser level box (with the Fort Knox unbreakable plastic clamshell, a feat in it itself) and read the instructions.

This was not poetry or a steamy novel. This was the instructions on how to set up and use a laser level.

All I remember is this one thing: “Looking into the laser light will cause blindness.”

Before returning to the work site, Tyler dropped me off at the rental house to check on the dog, throw the washed sheets in the dryer and run some quick paperwork. He returned to the church to set up the laser level.

When I arrived at the church twenty minutes later, the laser level was screwed to the wall, red laser lines marking the bottom of our false ceiling.

laser level
Looking into the laser light will cause blindness.

We got back to work exchanging nouns for tools and constructing studded walls.

Not infrequently that afternoon, my sweaty Romeo (thank you, Erin Napier for this “Home Town” description) would bend over to nail a stud into the bottom plate and sprinkle a few drops of perspiration on the floor.

That was the sweat in this story.

# # #

 Tomorrow: Part II of building walls: Blood. Read about it here.

An appearance before the commish

Our story so far: Our church conversion project had created quite a stir in town.

# # #

Our day of reckoning had arrived: The rezoning hearing.

We’d been feeling out neighbors and other interested parties for weeks, trying to determine if anyone might object to rezoning the church from “park” (the tax-free designation also bestowed on churches) to residential. We paid the fee, read the notice in the paper, put on clean clothes and showed up at the planning commission meeting to observe the public hearing for our rezoning.

We were the only ones there.

Besides the members of the planning commission, of course.

This was good news because it meant none of the neighbors objected.

A couple of the commissioners asked questions, mostly of curiosity (“Are you keeping the bell? Will you be ringing it on New Year’s Eve?” “Do you plan to have off-street parking?”), and within seventeen minutes, they’d approved of the rezoning.

Thirteen minutes later, the village board convened to consider the planning commission’s recommendation. The only question we got asked: “Are you going to keep the lilac bushes?”

“Bushes? Plural?” I questioned silently.

Those unidentified bushes along the sidewalk that we aggressively trimmed the third day we owned the church were identified by one of the board members as flowering bushes, known to bloom extravagantly in the spring.

“Yes, yes, all but three of them, which have to be removed for our driveway,” I said.

“Replanted,” Tyler corrected.

I nodded. If we could replant lilac bushes (or whatever they were), then absolutely, we would.

The village board made the planning commission’s decision official: Approved.

We were now part of the village tax rolls.

Which is exactly what we wanted.

# # #

Tomorrow: Our project makes news as we wrap up Chapter 14. Read it here.