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Courtesy of Conlon Real Estate

An empty sanctuary at 1300 N. Artesian Ave. is home to the Sure Foundation Missionary Baptist Church until the property can be sold.

Empty churches reincarnated as condos

by Tyler Day
Feb 12, 2013


Courtesy of Conlon Real Estate

Originally listed for $900,000, the Artesian Avenue church recently reduced its price to $699,900.


Tyler Day/MEDILL

The Artesian Avenue church is “ready for a new non-profit organization, potential conversion or as a tear down.”


Tyler Day/MEDILL

A few miles from Artesian Avenue resides the former Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Trinity Congregation at 3101 N. Seminary Avenue. 


Courtesy of D'Aprile Properties

The property was converted in 2003 into five condos.


Courtesy of D'Aprile Properties

A top-floor unit is currently on the market for a reduced $850,000.


Courtesy of @Properties

This former church at 2558 W. Cortez St. in the West Town neighborhood was sold in 2011 for $600,000.  It has been converted into a single-family residence.

Soon there may be no more songs here. No communion given, no offering taken. No rousing sermons or rumblings of the organ.

At 1300 N. Artesian Ave. in the West Town neighborhood of Chicago stands the Sure Foundation Ministry Baptist Church. The congregation’s grandiose red and grey brick structure built over a century ago was put up for sale in November.

The church property like the surrounding community has undergone a demographic, religious and socio-economic transformation that has made it one of many imposing properties in the area that is virtually empty.

“In some ways, the building has outgrown the congregation,” said Ken Dooley, an agent with Conlon Real Estate, which has the listing for the property.

The agency is marketing the property as perfect “for a new nonprofit organization, potential conversion or as a tear down.”

All of these have been done in Chicago but those that have been converted into private residences have garnered the most attention.

Gary Beyerl, partner with Chicago-based architectural firm Burns & Beyerl, has experience renovating a church property. Nearly a decade ago, he helped redesign a former Hungarian Greek Orthodox building at 1339 W. Webster in Lincoln Park.

Perhaps the biggest renovation concern in recreating these types of properties is transforming what was designed as an open public space into a more intimate, comfortable home.

“When you turn it into a home, your probably don’t want it to look like a sacristy anymore, but at the same time you don’t want to completely ignore it was a church,” Beyerl said. “It is that unique quirkiness that really drives people. Unique structures provide a personality that is hard to replicate new.”

Chicago zoning laws make the church to home conversion process fairly simple.

“A church building in a residential district can be used for housing without any zoning ramifications,” said Peter Strazzabosco, deputy commissioner for the city of Chicago’s Department of Housing and Economic Development. Still, the zoning on the specific site may cap how many units are allowed, he said.

Real estate agents say the city also benefits because churches are not required to pay property taxes. When a church transitions to a private residence, it is added to the city’s tax rolls.

Chicago’s ample supply of vacant churches is a testament to its ethnically diverse heritage. The metro area ranks third in the U.S. with more than 6,000 religious communities, according to the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies. And although the number of congregations in Chicago has been on the rise in recent decades that is due mainly to a growth of evangelical, Pentecostal and immigrant communities. Many of the city’s older churches are the ones that have closed their doors.

Chicago echoes a larger trend in American religion. In the past 12 years more than 9 percent of Roman Catholic parishes nationwide have closed their doors. Traditional Protestant congregations including Presbyterians, Lutherans and Methodists also have shrunk, forcing them to deal with large and underutilized, yet valuable, properties. From 2000 to 2011, the number of Methodist churches in America fell 7.5 percent from 35,537 to 33,069.

“The needs are drastically different from what they were in the last generation,” said Daniel Ehrman, broker at Chicago area-based Church Building Consultants Realty, a real estate agency that specializes in church properties. “You’ve got all these urban churches that for all intents and purposes, there is not a need and desire to meet in those spaces anymore. They are functionally obsolete.”

For previous generations, a key reason to select a church was its location in a particular neighborhood or cultural enclave. According to Ehrman, a shift has occurred as more parishioners now drive to church, which makes parking and freeway access critical.

What those congregations leave behind are buildings in some of Chicago’s most desirable neighborhoods.

Linda Christon is a real estate consultant for D’Aprile Properties, and she is currently selling a converted church in the Lake View neighborhood. She said a major difficulty is finding similar homes with which to compare prices. Without so-called comps to validate a sales price, a lender is unlikely to make a mortgage.

Christon is selling an old cathedral, originally the Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Trinity Congregation, which first held services in the building in 1897. The building was converted in 2003 to five condo units. The top-floor unit is set apart by an enormous arched window that overlooks the adjacent street. Christon describes that property as a blend of old and new. It currently is listed for $850,000.

“Once people have lived in a church, they get so used to the uniqueness, not the cookie cutter, not a loft, not a condo,” Christon said. “They do not have the same kind of home as everyone else.”

West of there, a partially renovated building at 2558 W. Cortez St. once was home to both Polish and Hispanic congregations. It sold in 2011 for $600,000 even though its second floor had not been transformed into habitable space.

“Every time you walked in you appreciate it more,” said Thyra DeCicco, real estate consultant for @Properties. “You couldn’t even take it all in the first time. There are so many things you could do to highlight this type of architecture.”

“Because there are so few of them, anyone who has the opportunity and can afford to buy it is really fortunate. They are one in a million. There is so much character and so much history.”

Not all of these properties are as fortunate.

An empty lot mars the corner of Armitage Avenue and Dayton Street in Lincoln Park. It once was home to the Greater Little Rock the Lord Church and its traditionally African-American congregation, which enlivened the community with its gospel choir. The building was recently demolished to make way for a Walgreens.

Other properties linger on the market for years, including two in Hyde Park. At 4840 S. Dorchester, a Greco-Roman style building was formerly the home of a Christian Science Church and later the Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church. It was for sale for years but is currently off the market.

St. Stephen’s Church on East 57th Street and South Blackstone Avenue has been boarded up for more than a decade. Buyers have been close to purchasing the property on multiple occasions, but backed out over renovation concerns, according to published reports.

The future of the North Artesian property is difficult to predict.

Originally on the market for $900,000 in November, the price has been drastically reduced to $699,900. The “as is” listing acknowledges the massive renovation project at hand for potential buyers.

Perhaps soon the wrecking ball will tear through the steeple tower, clearing the way for new developments. Or maybe it will echo with the sound of keyboards and printers as some new business finds vitality in the building’s cavernous interior.

But the possibility remains that the next chorus heard through the building’s stained glass windows will be the sounds of hammers and saws transforming the property into someone’s majestic family abode.

Which, at least according to Beyerl and his clients, is “way more fascinating than living in a dry wall box.”