A Serious House No Longer, Ctd

Sep 1 2013 @ 2:51pm
by Chris Bodenner

A big roundup of entries to wrap up the thread:

While it is still a serious house I suppose, I can’t resist mentioning the Jamme Masjid mosque on Brick Lane in the Spitalfields neighborhood of London. The building started life as a French Huguenot chapel in 1742, changed to Methodist in the early 1800s, became the Spitalfields Great Synagogue in 1898, and finally a mosque in the 1980s. I believe it is still the only place in the Western world to be used as a house of worship by all three major monotheistic religions. It seems, to me, to be a lovely thing that it’s still a holy house after 270 years, no matter who prays there now.

Another points to less serious ones:

There is a church converted into an apartment building just off campus where I went to university, in a neighborhood consisting mostly of student housing. It always made me uncomfortable whenever I walked by – mainly, I suppose, because of the guilt that my behavior in my own college apartment was so far out of accordance with the Christian religion I claimed to follow:

Church2

(Sign reads: “Available September – Efficiency w/ Loft, 4 Bdrm Apartment”)

The Netherlands seems to be a hotbed for church building conversions; the strangest one I saw was a baby clothing shop in a church in a small city north of Amsterdam. Finally, we stumbled across a bar in Edinburgh with a reputation for wild parties; “The World Famous Frankenstein” is located in an old church. It makes for an interesting space, but it’s just tough to get comfortable drinking beer in the light of a stained-glass window:

Church3

Another reader:

You would be remiss to pass over the famous, or rather infamous, disco called The Monastery that operated in Seattle in the ’70s and ’80s in an abandoned church. It was still legally a church, but ran as an all ages, mostly gay night club. The various abuses eventually led to Seattle’s draconian Teen Dance Ordinance.

Another:

I’m really surprised nobody has yet mentioned Mister Smalls Funhouse, a former Roman Catholic church in the Pittsburgh area (map/streetview here) According to their site:

Mr Small’s Funhouse merges together what is becoming Pittsburgh’s new Industry Standard: A state-of-the-art Theatre, two full service Recording Studios, Skate Park, our backstage Rock Hostel for Artist housing, and unique In-House Talent Buying and Production Departments.

I’ve not gone to that many concerts, but this has been my favorite venue by far. For one thing, it’s a neat old building, and for another, being a former church, and having the band playing from the former chancel, the acoustics are pretty fantastic. They Might Be Giants plays there every time they come through eastern Pennsylvania, which is what brought me to the theatre. In fact, as part of their Venue Songs project back in 2005, they wrote and performed one for Mister Smalls:

Another:

You are not allowed to have a thread about churches turned into other things without mentioning the fantastic bar/cafe known as Freud, in the heart of Andrew’s own beloved Oxford!

Another:

No mention of the former Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion is complete without a reference to the Steve Taylor song “This Disco Used to Be A Cute Cathedral” from his 1985 album “On The Fritz.” The song is about the transformation of the former church into the Limelight club. Taylor was a non-traditional musician in the Christian music subculture. His music was often sarcastic, his lyrics clever and witty, and his focus was often hypocrisy within the institutional church. Taylor’s next release was a live album titled … wait for it … “Limelight.”

Last but one of the very best:

Now that the thread has sparked many examples, I thought I would address the original blogger’s comments about his feelings about these places. As someone who has lived in a former church for nearly a decade, I can say definitively that a former church is not “just a pile of stones.” And I also would claim that these spaces should not be torn down.

Our house was a Methodist/Episcopalian church, built in 1889 during the short-lived boomperiod in our town. A lovely but impractical (read: drafty) carpenter’s Gothic, it eventually was sold by the parishioners in 1960 to an antiques dealer, and the parish moved into a new building down the road. With that, the church-house-smchurch swiftly changed from being a sober house of worship to a rooming house that was best known for its wild Halloween parties (with rumored stop-bys by the Jefferson Airplane, Taj Majal, the Merry Pranksters, and more) and informal rental agreements and living spaces.

When we bought the building in 2000, it was on its last legs due to decades of neglected infrastructure, funky hippie carpentry, and full of both weird and wonderful shit left by previous renters and owners. My boyfriend set out to restore the church to its original glory (including rebuilding the tower, which had rotted from the hot tub that had been installed at the base of the tower with no ventilation) as well as turn it into a private home. Since we moved in in late 2004, we have tried to honor the building’s full history: we still host epic Halloween parties, we have hosted house concerts by musicians coming through the area, we have provided sanctuary for friends and strangers who have needed a place to live. And last fall we got married in our living room, which is the virtually unchanged sanctuary of the original church.

Every single day we see people slowing down their cars or stopping on the sidewalk to take pictures. Every adult and child who comes inside is blown away by the feeling that the space gives them. We often meet people who tell us stories of going to Sunday school here – or, conversely, dropping acid and swinging from the chandeliers at some raging ’60s party. No one feels creeped out or unwelcome here. What we do experience is the space calling us “feed” it with community: the church comes alive and positively buzzes as people fill it. Singers love to sing in here; sound engineers compare the acoustics to Carnegie Hall.

But the biggest confirmation that we did a good thing by reclaiming this building rather than tear it down came from the group of former parishioners who visited for the first time since 1960. They had all moved away, and had been very concerned about what might have happened to the church that they grew up in, got married in. Seeing their relief and delight when we showed them the place (despite the skeletons in radiation suits hanging in the sanctuary in preparation for our Repo Man-themed Halloween party the next day) was very gratifying to us. We also learned so much more about the building’s church history that day, and we will continue to pass those stories forward.