“Built on the Rock the church doth stand,
Even when steeples are falling;
Crumbled have spires in every land,
Bells are still chiming and calling;
Calling the young and old to rest,
But above all the soul distressed,
Longing for rest everlasting.”
Choir loft, that is.
Elizabeth Bolton, a Caldwell Banker residential real estate broker in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has launched a website called Centers and Squares. On the home page, under the headline Condos in Renovated Churches, she writes:
“Churches and synagogues converted to condos often result in dramatic spaces with soaring ceilings, beautiful oversized windows, and preserved architectural details. A number of former churches have been turned in condos in Cambridge, Somerville, and Watertown. Loft buyers will appreciate the wide open spaces in these reused buildings.”
Scroll down the page and you find photos of eight different former church buildings, with accompanying listings:
“The church at 101 Third Street in East Cambridge is one of the oldest church buildings in Cambridge. Built in 1827 as a Unitarian Church it became the Holy Cross Church in 1940. In 2000 it was converted to four luxury condos. The condos range in size from 1300 to 3160 sq.ft. and sold for $585,000 to $1,300,000."
I worked on the organ in that church in the early 1980’s, and remember watching a favorite off-set Yankee™ ratchet screwdriver fall through a hole in the floor, and then waiting a long time to hear it hit bottom. I wonder if a worker found it when they were demolishing the building’s interior. If so, I hope he appreciated it – it’s a classic and useful tool that’s impossible to replace.
Other features noted in Ms. Bolton’s listings include “heated indoor garage,” and “ceiling heights soar to 60ft.” in one of the units. The trouble with ceilings that high is that the Christmas tree costs five grand. But what a great place for a radio-operated helipcopter – the ideal Christmas gift for a kid (or daddy) living in a converted organ loft. One of the properties is called “Bell Tower Place,” another is “The Sanctuary Lofts.”
In my work with the Organ Clearing House, I’ve been in and out of countless buildings destined to become loft apartments. I can picture the story the instant a developer introduces himself on the phone. (You’ll accuse me of profiling, but real estate people and church people have different telephone voices.) “I bought an old church and I need to sell the organ.” My first question is, “what’s the schedule?” “Demo starts on Wednesday.” Recently we closed a deal in which a large Möller organ in Buffalo, New York is being given to a church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, because the developer that purchased the property allowed enough time before demolition.
Having seen quite a few of these completed projects, I can tell you that it takes a really skillful architect to make usable comfortable living spaces from old church buildings. I’ve seen the top four feet of a large gothic stained-glass window rising from a dining room floor –The Ascension of Christ from the navel up. I’ve seen a ten-by-ten foot home office with a wood ceiling sloping from twenty feet on one side to twenty-four on the other. Changing the battery in the smoke alarm is an ordeal. And I’ve seen a bathtub in a fourth-floor bathroom, placed in what was the top eight feet of an apse. Picture yourself showering against a liturgical backdrop.
A grand stone church building in Meriden, Connecticut was purchased by a comedian who planned to create a comedy club. The belly-gripping name of this inspirational venue, “God, That’s Funny!” (I’m not kidding.) The magnificent three-manual 1893 Johnson Organ (Opus 788) has been on the OCH website for years. In response to a recent inquiry, I tried to track down the owner, who was of course long gone. (I guess God didn’t think it was funny.) A few calls around town revealed that two different worshipping communities had subsequently purchased the building. I drove through town yesterday hoping to track down the present owners to see if the organ is still intact. There was a fancy electronic sign out front, flashing information about weather, time and date, bible study, and Sunday “Praise!”, but no phone number. A Google™ search revealed a phone number that rang endlessly with no chance to leave a message. I guess I should go by on a Sunday morning.
Yet another committee.
We’re all familiar with the traditional list of church committee: Memorials, Flower, Property, Finance, Education, and Music. Lots of church members think that the Nominating Committee is the worst assignment because you spend your three-year stint listening to people explaining why they have to say “NO.” I remember chiming in once along those lines when I was asked to be on the Nominating Committee. But I think the worst assignment for a church member is the Dispersement Committee. (Spellcheck says there’s no such word – but I’ve worked with several of them, so I know it’s true.) These are typically the last members standing, the most loyal, diehard people in the pews. By the time the Dispersement Committee gets down to work, the work of the Dissolution Committee is finished. The corporation has been closed, the denominational leaders have followed the rules of deconsecrating the property, the last service has been held, the building has been put on the market, the congregation has found new spiritual homes (or not), and all that’s left to do is empty the building.
Anyone who’s been involved with the life of a church can picture the list:
- 533 hymnals
- 346 pew bibles
- 7 rolling coat racks with Christmas Pageant costumes
- 217 metal folding chairs, some with broken legs
- 22 folding banquet tables
- 26 adult choir robes, 33 child choir robes
- 433 monogrammed teacups with saucers
- 275 ten-inch dinner plates (ivory with green edge stripe)
- grand piano
- 4 upright pianos (one blue, one black, two white)
- 58 small bottles Elmer’s™ glue
- 6 framed 8x10 “Smiling Jesus”
- 7 boxes elbow macaroni, 2 cans gold spray paint
- 3 step ladders (6-foot, 8-foot, 12-foot), poor condition
- 1 Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ, 49 ranks, 1937 (G. Donald Harrison)
When a church has reached this stage, about the best thing that can happen is a crew arriving to dismantle the organ. When the organ has been sold and renovation has been planned, the members of the Dispersement Committee take solace in knowing that some last breath of their beloved church will blow its inspiration across another congregation. Committee members arrive early in the morning with family photos they’ve taken off the walls in their homes – photos of their parents’ weddings and funeral, their children’s baptisms and confirmations, or the sanctuary decked out in Christmas finery. In each photo, that organ is standing proudly in the background, a monument to a century or more of parish life – celebrations, tragedies, triumphs, and disappointments.
As we thunder through the nearly abandoned building setting up scaffolding, building pipe trays, and unpacking tools, taking down the first façade pipes, we see people sitting quietly in the rear pews with tears streaming down their cheeks.
A movable feast.
Through the disappointment and sadness of the loss of a church, the organ lives on, and it’s fun to be able to share a couple stories in which the relocation of an organ brought a little light to a story.
In the middle of 2011, Christ Episcopal Church in South Barre, Massachusetts closed its doors, and most of the remaining parishioners transferred their memberships to St. Francis’ Church in nearby Holden. The Diocese of Western Massachusetts contacted us to place the organ in a new home, and after only a few brief conversations, someone had a bright idea. (As my colleague Amory often quips, “Light dawned over Marblehead!”) The outdated and malfunctioning electronic instrument in the Chancel at St. Francis’ Church needed only a little push to make way for the quick installation of the lovely 1910 Hook & Hastings organ (Opus 2344). How lovely for the members of Christ Church to be welcomed into a new congregation with the opportunity to bring a beautiful and living piece of their church with them. It took a little over three weeks to make the move, and as I write, the relocated organ is to be dedicated in a recital by Robert Barney the Sunday after Thanksgiving.
Some twenty years earlier, the First Unitarian Church in Woburn, Massachusetts closed. The three-manual 1870 E. & G.G. Hook organ (Opus 553) was sold to a church in Berlin, Germany. The money from that sale was entrusted to church member Charley Smith, who salted it away confident that a good use for the funds would come up someday. And in 1995, the Stoneham (Massachusetts, two miles from Woburn) Unitarian Church closed. The two manual 1868 E. & G.G. Hook organ (Opus 466) was placed in storage, and advertised in a U.U.A. District Newsletter as available, “free to a good home.”
The Follen Community Church (UUA) in Lexington, Massachusetts (five miles in the other direction from Woburn) was studying the home-built instrument in its historic sanctuary when their Minister noticed the bit about the Hook organ and handed it off to the chair of the committee. It didn’t take long for the arrangements to be made and the Bishop Organ Company was engaged to renovate and install the organ in Lexington. Charley Smith got wind of all this, and presented the Follen Church with the funds from the sale of the Woburn organ to support the organ’s maintenance and to assist in the presentation of annual organ recitals. Charley passed away before the project was complete, but his widow and several past members of the Woburn church were in attendance when the Stoneham organ was dedicated in its new home. Two organs, three Massachusetts towns, one European city, and a lot of good will in the face of disappointment.
The Sistine Condos
The New Yorker magazine is an intelligent literary periodical, packed chock-full of commentary, fiction, poetry, reviews, and in-depth feature stories. It’s published weekly so it’s difficult to keep up. I’ve subscribed online which means I have a year of issues archived on my iPad. I think that combination of content and format is the ideal companion for long flights. I often fly long round trips over a single weekend for consultation engagements, and love to spend that time catching up. The New Yorker is definitely a product of the American Northeast, and it’s possible that some of you may disagree with the editorial content. But anyone who follows the arts in this country would do well to read the opening ten pages or so each week. “Goings On About Town” is a regular feature that announces events in popular and classical music, museum exhibitions, dance, opera, recitals, theater, and cinema. Each week’s issue gives a succinct overview of what’s happening in the forefront of American culture.
Along with the serious, thoughtful, and often humorous prose, each issue’s cover is an original artwork that comments on some timely issue, and each issue is bestrewn with delightful, often provocative cartoons. Anyone who has walked the sidewalks of New York City is familiar with the ubiquitous double-decker tour bus. The upper deck is typically open, and they careen around the city giving tourists a neck-snapping, neck-craning view of the city. One New Yorker cover showed two of those behemoths from recognizable rival firms, dressed up as nineteeth-century two-level frigates under full sail, fire broadsides at each other as they passed through Times Square. Another showed Aesop’s Hare hailing a taxi while the Tortoise descended the steps into the subway. Perfect.
When this cartoon appeared in the September 10, 2012 issue of The New Yorker, it caught my eye. In fact, it caught more than my eye – it struck a nerve, and took my breath away. I’ve seen decorated Victorian organ cases that were spray-painted over (sky blue) because a long-deceased rector thought the organ detracted from his preaching. I’ve seen historic organs wrecked because alarm company employees tramped across the windchests as they stapled wires in place. (I hope all those nasty pipes cut their ankles.) I’ve visited Diocesan warehouses and seen the Procession of Saints, orphaned by demolished buildings and bedecked in bubble-wrap, waiting for another church to offer them a home. And I’ve seen frescos concealed by new plaster and paint because there wasn’t enough money to do it right.
It’s unthinkable that the Sistine Chapel would ever be subdivided into condominium residences, and Michelangelo’s masterpiece ceiling painted over. We’ve seen otherwise mild-mannered and rational people crashing across the waves of the open ocean in rubber boats, chasing after Russian and Japanese whaling ships. Imagine the phalanx of art historians and preservationists who would circle their wagons around the Vatican if word got out!
But every day, in many countries, beautiful church buildings and their decorations are falling. Aging congregations can no longer support the grand buildings left for them by previous generations. A typical church sanctuary (60’ x 40’ x 40’) encloses about a hundred thousand cubic feet. If the congregation dwindles to a hundred people, that’s a thousand cubic feet to heat for each congregant.