NH Preservation is seeking input on converting religious buildings into housing

The 154-year-old South Wolfeboro Meeting House has been redeveloped into residential space, receiving a Wolfeboro Heritage Award from the Wolfeboro Heritage Commission earlier this year. NH Preservation is conducting a survey of religious buildings in the state that could potentially be converted into housing. Photo/Google Street View

Concord, New Hampshire – The New Hampshire Preservation Alliance has launched a survey of religious properties that might be ripe for development as a way to spark another path to solving the state’s housing crisis.

the The survey was launched last month It continues until September 18. It asks four questions regarding religious properties in communities that may have potential for residential development.

The survey includes not only religious organizations and developers, but also congregants and community members, said Althea Barton, who does special projects for New Hampshire Conservation.

“We see churches, religious schools, parish houses and other properties neglected,” Barton said Tuesday. The nonprofit, which provides resources and education about preserving and maintaining historic properties, thought it could play a role in finding a use for the property, Barton said Tuesday.

The state needs 23,670 housing units immediately The 2023 New Hampshire Housing Needs Assessment was found Earlier this year. It is estimated that 60,000 new units will be needed by 2030, and 90,000 by 2040, based on population growth, according to the study.

The concept of redeveloping former religious buildings into housing is not a new idea, but the study aims to bring it to the fore.

Besides exciting housing development possibilities, the survey is also a way for religious organizations to explore ways to use or utilize unused, difficult-to-reuse property.

NH Preservation also wants to use the results to start a database of unused religious properties across the state.

“The survey will help us evaluate the possibility of creating new housing that will include churches and religious buildings,” Barton said. “There are literally hundreds in New Hampshire.” She said no one had evaluated the inventory and capabilities.

While the survey results “will not be comprehensive,” they will give the concept a fact-based perspective.

Once the survey deadline passes, NH Preservation plans to put together a toolkit that includes a booklet that can be used by both developers and communities. The organization also compiles case studies of successful projects. Barton expects everything to be completed within the next 12 months.

She said the response to the survey so far has been good, with lots of input from community members, church members and parishioners.

Some of the input so far has been from landlords, but “most of it is from the communities themselves. Some are really struggling,” she said.

Potential developers may be experienced in doing such work, but can also be individuals, organizations and contractors who have not done this type of work before, but would like to get involved.

Concord’s Sacred Heart Church has been converted into 10 housing units, winning a 2018 NH Preservation Achievement Award. NH Preservation is conducting a survey, hoping to stimulate similar projects and collect data on potential conversions of religious buildings into housing. Photo/NH Preserve

Part of our landscape

A concern for some of those who participated in the survey is that many religious buildings, even if vacant, are still part of the fabric of the community and development may have a negative impact on this.

One question that was asked was how the congregation could find new owners who would be sensitive to this concern. NH Preservation, in its role of guiding and advocating for the maintenance and preservation of historic properties, is sensitive to such concerns.

“If I’m someone who’s been going to services (at a church or religious building) for decades, and even if there’s only five other people in the pews, I’m sitting there trying to think ‘How can we turn this into a single-family home or apartments?’ “It’s a tough step to take,” Barton said.

Recent success stories show a wide range of possibilities when considering how to convert religious properties into residential properties.

Sacred Heart Church in Concord has been converted into 10 residential units by developer Jonathan Chorlian. The complex project, which involved the reuse of a 90-year-old Gothic Revival church, won the 2018 NH Preservation Achievement Award.

At the other end of the spectrum is the South Wolfeboro Meetinghouse, a two-story white frame building dating from 1869 that was converted into a single-family residence with an attached dwelling unit in the basement. The redevelopment won the inaugural Heritage Award this year from the Wolfeboro Heritage Commission.

Barton said converting religious properties can be difficult, beyond the requirements that already exist for historic properties. For example, some buildings will have to be dismantled. The buildings often have large open spaces, unusual shaped windows, and unique layouts.

When Corlean purchased and redeveloped the Sacred Heart Church in Concord into Bienvenue Condos, church officials requested that no religious icons be visible. Any icons or items of a religious nature have been removed from the building, including stained glass windows shipped from Germany in the 1930s (much of what was removed was reused by the parishes in Concord and Manchester).

“We try to be sensitive to people’s feelings, (buildings) are a big part of people’s lives,” Barton said.

This may include not only the congregation, but residents who consider the buildings part of their community’s landscape.

“The meeting houses and towers are part of our landscape,” Barton said.

Corlean took this into account when he developed the Bienvenue Condos from a church that had been the center of the city’s French Canadian community.

“When I step back and think about Sacred Heart now, what I often think about is the commitment and faith of the parishioners who built this magnificent building, and the extraordinary gift they gave us and Concord,” he said when he said. He accepted the New Hampshire Conservation Achievement Award. “Think about it, there is not a single person who donated money to this building – with its Gothic details and stunning variegated sandstone – still alive today. And yet, every day people still enjoy this building and are inspired by it.”

The 154-year-old South Wolfeboro Meetinghouse is a very different building, but it inspires similar feelings. Susan Bunting and Philip Deitch bought it in 2006. Contractor Steve Dana, of Alton, did the conversion into residential space, according to preservation standards.

Maggie Stier, chair of the Wolfeboro Heritage Commission, noted in May, when she was honored at the inaugural Heritage Awards, that it was a “brilliant reuse” of a historic building located in a prominent location in the city.

“Reusing old churches is becoming increasingly important,” Steer said. “As New Hampshire’s demographics change, these vulnerable buildings need new uses to survive. This example is a model for the rest of the state.”

NH Conservation Survey

“Some really unique stuff.”

Like a meeting house, some buildings with development potential may be listed on the National Register of Historic Places or in a historic district. Almost all of them will have regulatory systems and other municipal regulations that a potential developer will need to be aware of, Barton said.

A building doesn’t have to be officially historic to benefit from the guidelines NH Preservation hopes to develop, and they may have a smoother process. “Some of them are just old, unregistered places,” she said. They may not have the requirements that a registered building requires, but that does not mean the development will not be regulated. Prospective developers still need to know what requirements apply to converting a property into housing.

There are also older shifts from the 1980s, when this development occurred for a while, that could also be considered, she said. They may need upgrades like new windows, and it may also be worth looking at the outcome of this trend.

Possibilities include parishes that have consolidated and now have empty churches that they pay to maintain, as was the case with Sacred Heart. The Catholic denominations merged in Concord, and the church was put on the market in 2014.

Some congregations also have additional buildings (parsonage, school, church, convent) that are no longer in use. It could be a property from a small congregation that is downsizing to a new building, or a church community that has faded away, leaving behind a vacant building.

Conversion to housing is not limited only to large buildings in populated areas. Small buildings and meeting houses in rural areas can be developed into single-family homes, duplexes, or accessory dwelling units.

Gathering information will also evaluate trends to determine if needs and availability are different in different parts of the state, she said.

Trends in how the property is developed or developed will also be explored. “Does it seem easier to convert a small place into a single-family home, or convert a larger church into apartments?” It is one aspect that can be explored.

Case studies show that redeveloped properties “have some commonalities, but also some really unique things,” she said.

While redeveloping a religious building has its challenges, the building’s quirks and features can result in a space a resident won’t find anywhere else.

Such a development, given the societal and historical impacts, could also have benefits that go far beyond the housing and other needs it meets.

Despite the complex architectural challenges that came with converting a nearly century-old Gothic-style church into a residence, “It has been one of the greatest joys of my life to undertake this project,” Kurlian said when he received his award.

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