Technology and Small Business

Born again: Old churches gain new life as commercial space

October 10, 2005

God may be eternal, but His houses aren't. Congregations expand, move or fade away. When they leave a house of worship behind, sometimes they find a different congregation to take over the brick-andmortar expression of their faith. Sometimes they don't.

In the latter case, finding a new life for churches and temples-often solidly built and packed with unique architectural details-can be something like working a miracle. But a handful of developers have managed to give new life to old churches, converting them into office, school or studio space.

The challenges to a successful conversion may require nothing less than divine inspiration, say those who are working on such projects.

"There were times when we had to consider whether to tear it down and start over," said Fishers architect Rick Renschen, who worked with a local partnership to convert the former Cathedral of Praise Bibleway Church near 62nd Street and Keystone Avenue into office space.

Now nearly complete, the church-renamed Muirfield I-is about 40-percent preleased to office tenants, mostly small businesses.

Asked what was particularly challenging about the conversion, Renschen replied, "The whole thing."

On the plus side, the building, constructed in 1953, was structurally sound, with concrete block construction and a brick exterior. However, that block construction also constrained attempts to redesign the interior spaces, such as classrooms and gathering spaces, Renschen said.

There were plenty of other issues to contend with, too. All mechanical systems-including plumbing, electrical and HVAC-had to be updated, and the building had to be brought into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The results, however, were worth it, said John L. Wechsler, one of the partners rede- veloping the building. Wechsler and his partners, mostly small-business owners, were looking for an investment opportunity and decided on the church, less because of its divine history than because of its location and availability.

Of the 16,600 square feet in the building, Muirfield has managed to convert 13,000 square feet into leaseable space. The sanctuary, with its high arched ceilings, has been left open with the hope that a single tenant will take it over, although it could be divided if necessary, he said.

Throughout the structure, the original layout has been preserved as much as possible, said Wechsler, who founded technology firm Wishoo Inc. and served as its CEO following its sale to an Israeli firm in 2003. Wechsler left the firm earlier this year when he and his wife adopted a baby from Kazakhstan and now "is learning to be a good father" along with overseeing construction at the office building.

From the start, Muirfield Partners knew they wanted to cater to small-business owners like themselves in their office building. Thus, they kept five entrances to the building, added several rest rooms, and made the floor plans as flexible as possible to accommodate those who need one-room offices as well as larger spaces.

"This was our chance to fix some of the pet peeves we've had as tenants," Wechsler said.

He declined to say exactly how much the partnership is spending on the conversion, except that it is "into seven figures."

Elsewhere on the north side, a former temple is undergoing remodeling for an unusual reuse-a pilates studio.

Pilates with John plans to move into the former Etz Chaim temple at 64th Street and Hoover Road on Nov. 1, after a substantial remodeling. The Sephardic Jewish congregation sold the building this summer when it moved into a new temple farther north on Hoover Road.

"It's a very special building," said new owner John Mulligan of the former temple, parts of which are more than 100 years old. "You get a very good feeling about it as soon as you walk in. It's a unique, warm structure."

Mulligan and his wife, Savvy Décor owner Linda Mordoh, hired local general contractor Randall Collins to help them with the technical aspects of the renovation, such as redoing the parking lot and putting on a new roof. Much of the interior work, however, is being done by Mulligan, his wife and a friend.

The layout of the 6,500-square-foot building will be left much as it was when the synagogue called it home, with group classes in the main part of the temple and individual training in smaller rooms. The new location will be an expansion for the 4-year-old pilates studio, which draws about 1,400 people each month to its current location, an apartment clubhouse nearby.

The former temple works so perfectly for his business, Mulligan said, he would change very little if he had the chance to build a studio from scratch. The first time he saw the temple, however, he had to be convinced.

"The first time I walked in there, I said, 'No way,'" recalled Mulligan. That was before the pews were taken out and the carpet was removed, revealing open spaces and original oak floors in near-pristine condition.

Occasionally, former churches and temples find an almost-perfect fit in their new life. Downtown's Phoenix Theatre is in a former church, with performance spaces in the former sanctuary and in the church basement.

Harrison Centre for the Arts, likewise, is full of activity after years of neglect. In 2000, the former Presbyterian church at 16th and Delaware streets-the church President Benjamin Harrison attended-was redeveloped as office space for notfor-profits and gallery and studio space for emerging local artists.

After the redevelopment began, a local congregation, Redeemer Presbyterian Church, purchased the building and began using the sanctuary for its services, while continuing to rent out other buildings on the site to other groups.

Now, the Harrison Centre is full, with regularly scheduled special events and activity throughout the week.

Other times, reuses for churches struggle, particularly downtown, where suburban flight or expanding congregations have left behind often-elegant, but frequently landlocked, buildings.

A former church sold by Indiana Business College in 2002, for instance, has struggled to find new tenants after the college moved to a former car dealership on East Washington Street.

Local entrepreneur Jerry Smith purchased the church at Meridian and St. Clair streets and began tearing out IBC's offices, which had been built in the sanctuary. Plans originally called for luring small-office and not-for-profit tenants to the building, but switched gears when a charter school expressed interest, said John Pappas, a broker with locally based Acorn Group who worked on the building with Smith.

That school eventually found other quarters, followed by another charter school that lost its charter before opening. Smith later sold the building, now listed for lease or sale.

Whether a conversion is a success, like Harrison Centre, or a struggle, all adaptive reuse projects are challenging, Pappas said.

"One of the greatest problems is you're typically dealing with older buildings" that need new mechanical systems and ADAcompliant access, he said. "You also have to be creative and figure out what a neighborhood needs and what a neighborhood wants."
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