Born again: Old Lawrence churches converting to new purposes
Anymore, a church bell pealing at 11th and New Hampshire streets doesn’t mean Sunday services are about to begin.
An attorney who just won a case is probably pulling that bell rope — an attorney who happens to work in a more-sacred-than-average office building.
The English Lutheran Church at 1040 New Hampshire St. is one of several pre-1900 Lawrence churches finding new life as homes or businesses after once-thriving congregations abandoned them. Tenants love the typically light, airy spaces. Architecture buffs love seeing the unique buildings carry on, despite often costly and challenging renovations.
“Buildings can’t really be maintained if they have no purpose,” said architectural historian Dennis Domer, a faculty member in Kansas University’s School of Architecture, Design and Planning. “But if you repurpose them, you can save them.”
Small churches once boomed on corners throughout Lawrence’s residential areas, Domer said. They were well attended, often by ethnic populations living in the neighborhoods where they were built.
Some churches outgrew their small homes and moved, Domer said. Others faced major building repairs and opted to relocate instead of taking them on. Other congregations dwindled and died out.
Repurposing the buildings demands creativity and “special people,” Domer said. “They require people who love buildings and who don’t want to see our past erased right in front of us.”
Here are five of Lawrence’s oldest churches, reborn.
647 Maple St.
Constructed in 1897 as St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church, now being renovated for an artist studio
After more than a century — which at times included flooding, roof damage, congregational schisms and other ups and downs — St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church has moved out of its building at 647 Maple St. in North Lawrence.
The church’s dwindling congregation forced the building’s sale, said new owner John Hachmeister, who closed on the white wooden church the last week of December. Hachmeister, an associate professor of sculpture at KU, owns other art studio buildings in East Lawrence.
The church is now Beacon Studios, and Hachmeister is readying the building for its first tenant’s arrival.
“My plan is to restore the exterior of the structure and make minimal changes to the interior to preserve its remarkable legacy,” Hachmeister said in an email. “During negotiations … I also made clear my intention to never lease to or allow any use of the building that would depreciate the historic nature or legacy of its first use.”
1001 Kentucky St.
Constructed in 1870 as United Presbyterian Church, now a multifamily residence (four condominiums)
The limestone church at 1001 Kentucky St. had Sheilah Tackett at the towering peaked-arch wooden doors.
“I instantly fell in love,” said the KU junior, who moved into her apartment in August. She lives in the Matthew unit at 1001 Kentucky; her neighbors’ units are Mark, Luke and John.
Tackett’s home has high ceilings in the dining area and a loft she uses as an office, not to mention stained glass windows (peaked arches matching the shape of the building’s two front doors). The church was converted into four apartments in the 1980s and updated in 2007.
Tackett said people have asked her if the 144-year-old church is haunted, but, she said, “I haven’t noticed anything.”
1146 Connecticut St.
Constructed in 1873 (possibly earlier) as Free Methodist Episcopal Church, now being converted to a single-family residence
Real estate agent Tom Harper did a U-turn when he saw a “for sale” sign in front of the wood-frame church at the corner of 12th and Connecticut streets. He saw potential, the kind of building that doesn’t go on the market very often.
Harper moved quickly, bought the building from Life Tabernacle and is converting it into a single-family residence — a loft-style studio with no walls but the bathroom’s to break up the openness. Harper envisions the daylight basement as a studio space or workshop for a future tenant.
Upstairs, gone is the circa-1970 drop ceiling, revealing the 12-foot-8-inch real ceiling. Newly exposed is the rustic brick of the chimney. And soon-to-be refinished are oak floors ridged with glue from carpet that covered them for probably decades.
“Believe it or not,” Harper said, “this will shine up and look incredible.”
1040 New Hampshire St.
Constructed in 1870 as English Lutheran Church, now an office building
Attorney David J. Brown, who has had an office at 1040 New Hampshire St. since 1994, wanted to be close to the courthouse and knew the unique building would impress clients.
“The outside leads people to believe that it’s going to be kind of dark and serious and maybe even ominous inside, because it’s a church building,” Brown said. “But once you get inside it’s as though you’re in a whole new world. It is white and bright and airy.”
Lawrence architect Craig Patterson designed the interior of the limestone Gothic Revival church, which made the National Register of Historic Places after its planned demolition was overturned by a landmark legal case. Touches of the past remain, including the bell in the spire and a conference table made with the church’s original shutters.
“It’s an interesting and very nice kind of aesthetic, having the old with the new,” Brown said.
1000 New York St.
Constructed 1872 as German Methodist Episcopal Church, now a single-family residence
Matt Hislope likes thinking about how many people surely laughed and cried together in his home, a 142-year-old converted church at 1000 New York St.
Hislope and fellow performance artist Josh Meyer are renting the building to house a pop-up artist colony they named Pilot Balloon Church-House. Every few weeks, different artists move in to work in the high-ceilinged space where light streams in through eight tall, very church-y side windows.
“Both of us, for most of our adult lives, have been living in apartments that one might say are pretty devoid of personality,” Hislope said. “So it’s definitely a perk.”
Before Harper, the real estate agent who purchased the defunct church on Connecticut Street, bought and renovated the building on New York Street, it housed multiple congregations and even a basketball hoop and rock-climbing wall (those last two were simultaneous, when it belonged to Footprints owner Mick Ranney).
“It’s the only residence I’ve lived in where we can hula-hoop indoors and practically run laps in our main living space,” Hislope said. “The main thing the space represents to me is possibility.”