Raised to new life

Certain developers have discovered that the increasing number of empty churches can be turned into lavish housing. Cheryl Markosky sings the praises of some conversions
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The Independent Online

In these secular times, with diminishing congregations and the increasing expense of trying to keep a listed building standing, many churches are dispensing final blessings and closing their doors for the last time.

In these secular times, with diminishing congregations and the increasing expense of trying to keep a listed building standing, many churches are dispensing final blessings and closing their doors for the last time.

However, a kind of resurrection is upon us in the form of church conversions and the transfiguration of other religious buildings into single homes or small developments. Churches are popular as homes, because of the double-height spaces, unusual shapes and interesting features.

You know something is hip if Harry Handelsman from the Manhattan Loft Corporation, the guy credited with bringing Friends-style New York loft living to the UK, is doing it. Two current projects revolve around the ecclesiastical - the conversion of a church hall in Lexham Mews in London's Earls Court, and refiguring an old church in über-cool Westbourne Grove in Notting Hill into shells. "Churches offer us quite a challenge and I have always been fascinated by them. I worked on a project in Petersham, where I turned a church into a stunning 14,000 sq ft house with views of the park, and have always liked experimenting with such large spaces," Handelsman says.

Manhattan Lofts has already sold all nine of the shells at the Westbourne Grove church which rubs shoulders with Emma Hope, Heidi Klein and Joseph (alas, not neighbours, but neighbourly boutiques). Handelsman says the original idea was to sell 14 apartments, but he decided to opt for a "big and beautiful" clutch of nine instead, achieving £750 a square foot, which isn't bad for a husk of a home.

There is only one house left at Lexham Mews through FPDSavills (020-7535 3301). The contemporary three-bed townhouse, with its private garden backing on to the church itself and upper bathrooms rising into the heavens, is a hefty £895,000. You need to gather up a lot of coins from the collection plate to pay this tithe and some agents think these homes have taken a bit longer to shift because of the price, but you can't fault how Handelsman has crafted homes out of a religious hall.

Tim Wright, from Knight Frank in Kensington, believes that although churches are fabulous spaces to play with, they can put off some buyers. "Certain nationalities think they are a bit creepy and they do appeal to a limited market. The Chinese are a bit superstitious about them and some churches have dark and slightly forbidding religious overtones." On the other hand, Wright points out they can hold "bags of character and atmosphere".

Paul Grimwood from FPDSavills' new homes department in Birmingham (0121-634 8484) agrees. He is marketing the converted Victorian St James Church in Edgbaston, comprising 12 apartments ranging from £275,000 to £350,000. "It was derelict for many years and now reception rooms are vaulted into the roof and big circular windows are features in the best two apartments. In Birmingham, there are few chances to buy this kind of architecture."

Up the road in Manchester, King Sturge (0161-238 7400) is selling a triplex apartment in St George's Church for £295,000, with an irregular-shaped lounge and gallery level with glass bricks for flooring and the balustrade and electronically operated Velux windows. The clock tower at £850,000 also is on the market, ranging over nine levels with a steam and sauna room, study, reception and cinema rooms, each on separate storeys. Further north in Glasgow, Slater Hogg & Howison (0141-552 8599) has a first-floor duplex for £169,950 in a converted Gospel Hall, with a glass lift, open courtyard and mezzanine level space overlooking the living area.

St Judes in Bristol (Ocean Estate Agents, 0117 946 6007), once a mid-Victorian church, is a loft-style development of eight houses and two apartments by architects ShedKM and Michael Jones. Original features like full-height stone windows, vaulted ceilings and bays have been retained, alongside contemporary roof-lights. St Saviour Chapel in Maidstone, Kent has been converted into six dwellings and Bradford & Bingley, Geering & Colyer (01622 759891) is selling a three-bedroom unit there for £295,000.

An old favourite, with its pleasingly jarring old church remnants next to a modern adjunct, is Spire House in Lancaster Gate, London. Two recently developed flats are up for sale through Cluttons (020-7262 2226), each at £1.6 million. This includes parking space, integrated lighting and electronically operated blinds, multi-room music and plasma/LCD TV systems. There is also St Stephens Court in Ealing, where a gothic church has been turned into modish apartments. A two-double-bedroom flat costs £290,000 (Townends, 020-8579 9282).

The jury is out on whether churches can be turned successfully into single homes. Tim Wright from FPDSavills says: "Some conversions have been done well - and some not so well. The key is leaving the original heights in place."

A host of churches converted into one-off houses have fluttered on to the market, including The Old Presbytery in Frome, Somerset through Cluttons (01225 469511). The Grade II-listed building is currently used as offices, but there is consent to change workspace into a residential dwelling. The guide price is between £500,000 and £525,000.

A former chapel of rest, St Clare's Chapel, in the market town of Barnard Castle near Darlington is on at a guide price of £250,000, through Jackson-Stops & Staff (01325 489948). Stone built in the gothic style, with a steep-pitched and tiled roof and a bell tower topped with a spire, St Clare's has tall leaded windows and other original features. This could be the answer to a prayer - an architect has already carried out all the hard graft when the building was converted to a house six years ago.

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