The motel manager in Cambridge, New Zealand, told me I could get something to eat ‘at the old church across the road’. It was 8pm on a cool November evening and I was tired and hungry after driving direct from Auckland airport.
The old church across the road was hosting a lively Monday night crowd, eating and drinking indoors and outdoors in a trendy bar and restaurant. A waitress, who knew a tired, hungry tourist when she saw one, seated me in the old church nave, which also contained a brewery, its cylinders and tanks reaching up into the vaulted roof space of what was once a place of worship.
Previously known locally as The Pink Church, the Cambridge property was tastefully renovated in 2016 by Hawkins Construction and transformed into the Good Union Bar and Good George Brewery. The $1.8 million project is just one example of how very old churches (this one was built in 1878), can be repurposed. The Cambridge church had also been a cafe and gift shop since being deconsecrated in 1981.
You’ll see a lot of that in this secular 21st century; old wooden churches converted into residences, galleries, restaurants, bars, hotels, commercial offices, bookshops, libraries, carpet warehouses and bingo halls. Some have been taken over by religious groups and continue to be places of worship.
If you do a search of www.realestate.com in your part of Australia, you will probably find up to a dozen churches for sale. Most are offered when congregation numbers dwindle or merge with nearby parishes. There can be other reasons for disposing of church property; in Tasmanian the Anglican Church is set to sell 70 properties to fund redress for survivors of sexual abuse.
Former churches being offered for sale are usually deconsecrated, which is a Christian ritual to secularise the property. It may still contain physical relics of its holy past (pews, fonts, and pulpits but the spiritual link to its past is, in theory, dispelled.
Real estate agents are fond of using the term ‘blank canvas’ when describing an old church, which typically will have a vaulted timber roof, timber floors and stained-glass windows.
Most churches being sold are more than 100 years old. They will most likely be sold ‘as-is’, which is OK if you are paying between $60,000 and $160,000, which are typical prices for these original properties. There are exceptions. At the moment in Warwick, the Abbey of the Roses, a 14-bedroom, 19th century sandstone mansion operated as a hotel/wedding venue, is on the market for offers over $2.2 million.
I had put this topic on hold until now, when it was re-activated by divine serendipity. I was walking down to the Yangan pub on Saturday, hoping to put a bet on the Caulfield Cup. The pub doesn’t have a TAB so as I told the barmaid, ‘you saved me from myself’. On the walk home I passed three people, one of whom turned back and said ‘What the hell are you doing here?’ A sound engineer/musician friend from Brisbane, he introduced me to his friends – who had just bought the old Anglican Church in Yangan’s main street.
St Peter’s Anglican Church occupies an elevated position in Yangan’s King Street, with views across town and out to the mountains.
The new owner told me his intention is to renovate for preservation and use it initially for commercial activities, with long-term view to residence.
In case you thought moving to the outback plains had limited my outlook, this is a world-wide trend.
As church attendances drop away, religious organisations look to consolidate their property portfolio by selling off that which is deemed ‘surplus to requirements’.
Marcos Martinez wrote a well-researched blog for Spanish multinational infrastructure giant Ferrovial. He explored what happens when, as he put it, ‘the infrastructure ceases to be related to the faith from which it emerged’.
He cited examples including a 13th century gothic church in Maastricht, Holland. The building was abandoned and in an advanced state of deterioration before architects Merkx and Girod came up with a plan in 2006. They converted it into a bookshop, adding asymmetric catwalks. Visitors ascending the catwalks can enjoy the temple’s frescoes and architecture.
Churches have been converted to unusual uses: a circus school (Quebec), a skateboard arena (Asturias, SpaIn), a music venue (Leeds, UK) and a supercomputer (in a chapel on the Polytechnic University of Catalonia, Spain).
Martinez estimated that in England alone, there are 55,000 deconsecrated churches which have been converted to other uses. There’s no shortage of opportunity for commercial refurbishment, with some 200 churches abandoned in Denmark and 550 churches closed in Germany between 2005 and 2015.
Europe’s Martin’s Hotel Group set the bar impossibly high with its 2006 transformation of the 600-year-old Franciscan church and friary in Mechelen, Belgium.
Martin’s converted it into a four-star hotel. You can find a room in Martin’s Patershof Hotel from 129 euros a night, but if you want to lash out, the grand suite, positioned in the Gods, if you will, costs 449 euros.
Back here in Australia, the most common re-use of an old wooden church is to convert it into an open-plan residence. The church house became quite popular in the artistic communities of regional Australia. Songwriter Joe Dolce, who had a No 1 hit with Shaddap You Face, recently listed for sale the old Methodist church he and writer/artist Lin Van Hek acquired and enjoyed for the last 25 years at Natte Yallock, 200 kms from Melbourne. According to realestate.com, the property is under offer.
I suppose after all this you are wondering had we considered buying an old wooden church and converting it into a residence (and a venue for house concerts).
As we sometimes say, having owned four houses in the time we have spent together, everybody has one renovation in them. We learned that the hard way, restoring a 1930s colonial cottage in Annerley; it had bay windows, leadlight windows and domed ceilings. We discovered, after spending what seemed like three months without a kitchen, that preparing and painting horsehair plaster is a job for experts. We did the initial hard work – peeling off layers of wallpaper, lifting three layers of lino to reveal pages of the Brisbane Courier from 1930 relating Phar Lap’s Melbourne Cup win. I donated the pages to then Courier-Mail racing editor Bart Sinclair.
We wanted to polish the wooden floor in the kitchen but someone had replaced damaged boards with metal plate, so we laid cork tiles instead.
Meanwhile, the twin tubs under the house and a laundry bench doubled as a crude kitchen until the new kitchen was finished. We ripped up the carpets in the lounge and dining room and had the hardwood floors polished. Afterwards, we looked at the two main living rooms with the gorgeous domed ceilings, badly in need of restoration…and hired a painter.
Nostalgia aside, my ambition regarding old churches is now limited to a night at Martin’s Patershof Hotel, next time we’re in Europe. Not sure if I can justify $731 Australian dollars, but it’s free to dream, eh.