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:
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.
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.
“And what is so rare as a day in June? Then, if ever, come perfect days,” opined poet James Russell Lowell. Perfect days, I think, for a little outdoor project.
I painted a couple of beat-up chairs on just such a day last year. We found the chairs in our former rental house, and the property manager told us when we moved in, “They’re yours now!” One chair had been sitting outside through many rain storms from the looks of it. The seat had a crack in it. The other was stashed in the basement, covered in cobwebs. But whenever I encounter solid wood furniture that has seen better days, I see a potential paint project.
I sanded these beauties and swished on a couple of coats of Fusion paint. First the back spindles were painted in Sterling gray and then the rest of the chairs was painted in Raw Silk. I find the subtle contrast of two similar colors preferable to more dramatic color choices, but you do you.
I draped a quilt top on one of the chairs. The unfinished quilt top was gifted to me from a former parishioner who believed it belonged in the church. It is quite old, I’m guessing from the early 20th century, and each of the white blocks features the name of a woman (and a few men) who belonged to the Methodist congregation at the time. I agree with my benefactor: the memento belongs here.
As I have mentioned many times here, I am repeatedly impressed with the way a couple coats of paint can improve a hunk of wood. The hardest part is the waiting between coats, and even that’s not so difficult when you can enjoy June’s gentle breezes.
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.
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.
Before and after photos are satisfying. In the same minute, you see the agony of the mess along side its potential: the thrill of victory. Plus, there’s a little spot-the-difference mystery. Is that really the same person/pantry/porch/plastic surgery patient?
But I think the subject of the before and after photos finds them even more satisfying than just any old viewer. Because they know the work that came between the before and the after. As I prepare to launch Church Sweet Home, the memoir based on this blog that has depended heavily on the power of transformation, Tyler and I have been reflecting on our favorite before-and-afters of our church conversion project.
Tyler’s favorite before and after transformation is so obscure, I haven’t shared photos of it until now (and it wasn’t easy finding these shots among the 10,000 photos I took of the renovation). His favorite transformation is the back egress.
Here’s the before:
Originally, the only back door in the church was below ground level. This would never do for Tyler’s vision, which included an attached garage. We needed to get from the garage into the house without having to go through the basement. This transformation required many things: relocating the wires that anchored the power pole, jack-hammering the concrete steps to reroute them inside the garage, building a garage, removing the lean-to, cutting a doorway, and building a walkway over the stairway.
This walkway is what Tyler is most proud of—that he thought of it at all and figured out a way to make it happen. The walkway could have been built of wood, but its depth would have intruded on the headroom over the stairway. Instead, he had a steel fabricator make a bridge that was inches shallower but still strong enough to convey a person over the stairway.
Here’s a look at the before-and-after from inside the church:
A closet originally filled the space where the back door was cut.
Now my favorite transformation: the headboard in the master bedroom.
Tyler built a new wall on the right side of the window seen above. Then he and my stepson built a half-wall, an idea for a headboard that I saw on an episode of Fixer Upper. Tyler then created a feature by nailing on wood we salvaged from the basement. It came in a rainbow of distressed colors; all it needed was a couple of coats of clear polyurethane.
The headwall was dressed up with some church-window wall art on the shelf. The space is lit with chandeliers we found in storage when we demoed the church. I cleaned them up, spray-painted them and lit them with new lightbulbs. Tyler tracked down a couple of old bank safes on Craigslist, and they became our nightstands.
The room also has a tray ceiling. Rope lighting is tucked inside, and Tyler can change the color of the lighting with his smart phone. Very romantic! This before and after is my favorite because it’s just so pretty.
If you’re a fan of before and after transformations, check out the Before & After tab on the blog for lots of satisfying projects we accomplished around the church.
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: 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Or a 100-year-old desk into a fresh-looking focal piece.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
Now Tyler was ready to add some fun to the function. He drew inspiration from this picture of a slated ornamental 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.
Then Tyler stained everything in a couple of coats of Mountain Cedar.
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!).
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 painting
Spire after painting
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.
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.
The belfry, described as “rooted” when we bought the church, required three phases of improvements, but it looks (and sounds) beautiful now.
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