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Righteous condos

In Philadelphia's booming condo market, no old structures are too sacred to convert ... not even synangogues or churches.


Published in the June 2007 Philadelphia Life magazine.

Alex Generalis' first instinct was to buy the landmark grey stone Wissahickon Methodist Episcopal Church in Manayunk and turn the whole structure into a giant home for himself.

Then he considered also purchasing the adjacent building and turning the complex into more than 30 condos.

Ultimately, Generalis, an industrial artist, real estate developer and Philadelphia's leading proponent of live/work-style, loft-space living, decided to fashion the 1901 house of worship into eight spacious, one-of-a-kind condos.

And he reserved the grandest unit for himself.

"For me, this was like buying something other artists made," he said recently while offering a tour of his Gothic-feeling, eggplant-colored, tri-level loft with 30-foot ceilings, vibrant two-story tall stained glass windows and two-foot thick masonry walls. "This is beyond the tolerance level of the typical apartment dweller."


It takes a certain person to live in a retired place of religion - the type who can appreciate the particulars and not be spooked by the otherworldly atmosphere. That alone might deter some potential developers. On top of that, converting churches and other former religious sites into condos is a costly endeavor - they must essentially build entire structures inside massive shells and, at the same time, preserve the defining details that make the units so unique.

But as Philadelphia's condo boom continues, just about every old factory, warehouse, hotel, brewery, bank and schoolhouse is game for conversion, especially if the edifice retains some of its original charm.

And few structures have more charm and interesting features than old churches and synagogues.


"They've struck the right balance," said Duncan Brumby of his apartment at the newly constructed Chapel Lofts condominiums in Fairmount. "They've taken out the Gothic nature."

Brumby's unit occupies four floors of the former Christ Reformed Church, which was originally built in 1860. When the elegant brownstone structure was erected, it reportedly had the tallest steeple in the country.

A 27-year-old computer scientist at Drexel University, Brumby moved into the 2-bedroom, 2.5-bath unit with his girlfriend in November after living in Queen Village for one year. He said that as soon as they saw the open floor plan and 17-foot tall window, they were in awe.

"It's very special," said Brumby, a native of the United Kingdom. "They've managed to make it feel homely and yet retain the church feel."

Gary Reisner purchased the old church for $500,000 in 2003. A Hispanic congregation had been using the lower chapel but they couldn't afford to make repairs to the leaking roof and dilapidated upper floor.

"As a builder, there is so much value in the building," Reisner said.

"There are so many cool things that you couldn't or wouldn't buy for a new construction because they are too expensive."

He spent more than $3 million renovating the structure into 17 units. It cost $20,000 to restore one elaborate stained glass window that was originally donated to the church by Rodman Wanamaker in memory of his grandmother, Elizabeth D. Wanamaker, mother of the famed retailer, John.

The window is now the centerpiece in a one-of-a-kind unit listed for sale at $549,000.

"Someone is going to find this interesting," Reisner said.

Another unit features the former church altar as the dining area. Pews have been recycled around the condos as bookshelves and benches. Restored, ornate plaster molding adorns rooms throughout the old church. The former choir balcony has been incorporated as a loft overlooking the living room of the cupola unit - which also features the window-less, Medieval-looking stone cupola.

"After a while," said Riesner, "there was just too much character."

While construction is continuing on the upper level, Reisner is renting out the ground floor units, including one that has a private fenced-in patio.

"It's the coolest thing ever architectural-wise," said Justin Horn, a 22-year old Temple University student. "My parents can't believe I live here."


The Neziner Court Condominiums on 2nd Street in Queen Village were created inside an old Baptist church that was originally constructed in 1809. The austere building is tucked back from the street, behind trees and a wrought iron gate, with the original herringbone brick patio in the communal courtyard.

"Because you're set back from the street, you feel like you're in a far off place," said Alex Saltzman, a native New Yorker who purchased his unit in 2004.

The Congregation of Friendly Sons of Nezin took over the space in 1889, serving immigrant Jews from the small village of Nezin, Belarus. At its height, the small synagogue served several hundred families - mostly those from Nezin, but also immigrants from Poland and Lithuania.

By the early 1980's, the congregation had dwindled to a few dozen families. The building was converted into eight condominiums in 1985.

Saltzman, the condo board president, completed renovating his two-bedroom condo in the fall, adding black granite countertops to the kitchen and bathrooms, white maple hardwood floors all around and intimate track lighting in the living room. The unit also features a fireplace and the church's original windows with primary colored accent panels.

What Saltzman seems most proud of, however, is the attic space. There you can view the old stone walls, thick wood beams and cedar shingles.

"You see something that is man-made from 200 years ago," Saltzman said. "That's the coolest thing to me. You know people toiled with their hands to do this."


"Philadelphia has an incredible selection of historic buildings," said John Gallery, executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia. "We're interested in keeping the distinctive architectural characteristics that help Philadelphia retain its history."

Gallery noted that alongside the majestic churches and synagogues that have recently have been repurposed during this recent spate of construction, several stately office buildings have also been converted into luxury residential properties, such as The Phoenix near Love Park and The Ayer building on Washington Square.

"What is it that makes Philadelphia different from other cities?" Gallery asked. "It's the distinctive architecture of the city."


The history of the Mission Place Condominiums building, at 21st and Naudain streets near Fitler Square, is unclear but famous spiritual Philadelphians can be connected to the property.

Harwin Homes purchased the thick stone building in 2004 from Mother Divine, widow of the controversial spiritual leader, Reverend M.J. Divine of the International Peace Mission Movement. Father Divine is probably best known locally for the Divine Lorraine Hotel on North Broad Street, another property proposing to go condo.

Most recently, the Mission Church, as it was known, had been used as a convent, according to Lawrence Wind of Harwin. There was a chapel-like stage area with seating for about 400 people.

Father Divine purchased the building in 1944 from the Hotel and Restaurant Workers Union. The union purchased the building from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia but the date of that sale is unknown.

Harwin obtained a copy of an undated contract signed by Archbishop Patrick John Ryan - who passed away in 1911 - which allowed the building to be used for, "dramatics, musical and other entertainments." 

Cardinal Dougherty, archbishop of Philadelphia from 1921 until his death in 1951, signed the document and crossed out Archbishop Ryan's name.

The eight brand new, luxury units are all different but each has 11-foot ceilings and 8-foot tall doors. Some of the light-filled condos retain elements of the original church, including the intricate, lace-pattern brickwork. One unit displays the elegant fireplace.

"This structure is built like a fortress," said Harwin's Philip Harvey. "It draws a different demographic."

A penthouse, with stunning 360-degree views of the city, was built into the old church roof.


Other religious sites around the city have been recycled for a variety of purposes.

One Center City church doubles as a punk rock music venue. A University City church now houses five different faiths as well as a theater troupe and various community organizations. A former synagogue in Bella Vista is now a co-op for antique dealers.

The former St. Agatha's Catholic church in Powelton Village was converted into 61 apartments in 1990 as part of a complex called The Cloisters. The adjacent former school building and parsonage were converted into an additional 106 units.

Temple University's Baptist Temple, built in 1891, is currently being redesigned to house a 1,200-seat performance hall.


"This was an act of love for the building," Generalis said of the renovated church in Manayunk.

When Generalis purchased the structure, another developer was in negotiations to buy the property. But the other developer wanted to tear down the church and use the material to build stone mansions on the Main Line, Generalis said.

Generalis worked with a small contractor who slaved to preserve as much of the ornate architecture as possible. In his unit, for instance, the former altar now serves as the second-floor loft railing. Parts of the old pipe organ have been used in the walls. A wrought iron vent cover was relocated for a similar purpose. The white support arch with gold trim and Corinthian bases acts as a glorious decorative element. 

And the15-foot tall, 12-foot wide stained glass window - which Generalis said was appraised at $250,000 - brings the whole space together.

"I think we did a good thing here," he said. "We saved the building and we've left something amazing."