In more than one previous article, I have explored the challenges that urban or inner-city church congregations face. Their aging buildings are costly to maintain; parking is inadequate in an area where land prices are usually high; the multiple floors and narrow hallways rarely accommodate disabled people; the higher rates of poverty nearby result in elevated crime, which costs more to insure and to install deterrent devices. But the biggest hurdles are demographic. More often than not, these churches are Catholic or Mainline Protestant (Lutheran, Episcopalian, Methodist, Presbyterian), a theological branch whose congregants have been steadily shrinking in number for over thirty years. The resulting population attending these churches is smaller and often older, compounding the strain to budgets, because the members are more likely to depend upon fixed retirement incomes and to demand greater access for wheelchairs.
The church I featured as my archetype for this pervasive problem is First Lutheran in downtown Indianapolis. When I first covered this church as part of a broader feature on shrinking old Protestant denominations, it was vacant—closed since 2006. I sharpened my focus on the church a few months later by adding an interview with a former First Lutheran congregant into the whole analysis. This congregant had come to terms with the fact that it would probably never be a church again; she would have been content watching it evolve into multi-family housing, if it meant salvaging the building. And that was what the owner at the time had hoped to achieve: after First Lutheran closed, he stripped it of all its carpet and most of the religious accoutrements, then marketed it to developers for a condo conversion project. But this was 2008, and the housing market in general—and the downtown condo market in particular—went completely bust. First Lutheran was in limbo.
A recent visit reveals a much more promising future ahead.
Now called The Sanctuary on Penn, it is no longer a church, but it still conveys the historic use of this 140-year-old building well enough that a shrewd entrepreneur recognized its viability as a venue for hosting events. Built in 1875 as Mt. Pisgah Lutheran Church, it is one of the oldest surviving structures in Indianapolis and is on the National Register of Historic Places. And, for the past year, First Lutheran has hosted weddings, wedding receptions, banquets, sorority balls, live music/shows, charity fundraisers, corporate parties, and poetry slams.
The current owner bought the property in 2011, at a point when it was sitting in a semi-mothballed state. It wasn’t in imminent danger of collapse; it wasn’t infested with vermin. The previous owner had clearly taken just enough care of it with the hope that an entrepreneur would find a new use for it. Here’s a view of the chancel, which now serves as a stage.
The elegant decay was a conscious decision. One of the biggest goals of the new owner was to retain (or even enhance) the aged look while returning the old church to basic functionality.
Prior to the transformation, most of the walls of the main sanctuary were covered with the weathered, discolored drywall visible on the left side of the photo above. The restoration team stripped most of the drywall, leaving the plaster underneath, which obviously reveals its own fair share of weathering. When the team achieved the desired patina, it applied a sealant to mitigate against further flaking of the paint and plaster. At various points, a rudimentary stenciling is still visible on telltale portions of the old wall.
And here’s a view looking from the opposite end of the nave. The faint stencils sit on the plaster to the right of the opening at the center of this photo.
The renovation of First Lutheran into The Sanctuary on Penn is thorough. A smaller room once served as a separate chapel directly behind the chancel:
According to the owner, this chapel is the most acoustically perfect room in the building, so he recommends it as the live music space for shows that are particularly small (under 80 people). Since this has historically been a Lutheran church, wine was a key element of communion. So it should come as no surprise that it had fully dedicated space for a bar, along with a motorized retractable partition that required considerable refurbishment to make it usable again. This bar rests along the wall where I stood to take the previous three photos. Pivoting around and stepping back, I was able to capture the emergence of the bar as the partition came down:
Meanwhile, the loft above offers additional lounge space:
Venturing to the lower floor, the patina continues on the stairwell:
The owner could have easily delegated the expansive undercroft to storage, but instead he took advantage of the garden-level sun exposure and exposed brick by opening the majority of it to the public. The largest room is another lounge to escape the din of a noisy reception party.
The owner strived to retain as much of the original church that the previous owner hadn’t already removed, so the bar on this level is actually the part of the chancel where parishioners would come to receive communion.
Since the overwhelming majority of clients have used the space to host weddings and the receptions, it was prudent to dedicate the smaller rooms to wedding parties. The bride and her bridesmaids can claim two rooms in the front of the church:
While the groomsmen get the man cave in the back:
The restrooms also feature some whimsical touches.
The floor consists entirely of old pennies encased in a laminate.
And more medieval stenciling on the original plaster walls:
The exterior may not have consumed the majority of this $400,000 renovation, but it certainly involved the largest amount of new construction. The exterior fell under greater scrutiny with Indiana Historic Landmarks as well, not only because of the status of First Lutheran Church as a freestanding structure, but because it sits on the southern edge of the St. Joseph Historic District.
Using the appropriate wrought iron and wood to meet IHL’s approval and respect the historic integrity of the building proved a challenge for the owner and his team. Even the location of the dumpsters elicited dissent; they must sit on the property’s periphery. But the result is a significant improvement over what had previously been an overgrown dumping ground. The elevated deck offers respectable views:
And this arrangement raises the critical concern of how this ancient building is accessible persons with access and functional needs, since this consideration undoubtedly led to its obsolescence: the aging congregation at First Lutheran was increasingly wheelchair dependent, and this old church did not accommodate them easily. The new owner completely refurbished an old ADA-compliant ramp through this back entrance.
The building has no elevators, so access to the undercroft (where the main restrooms are located) is impossible by wheelchair. But the chancel has a ramp.
Which leads to a small restroom that the renovators added in order to accommodate wheelchairs.
And perhaps my favorite hat-tip to the age and history of this plot of land: at the Pennsylvania Street entrance, in a small anteroom, rests the cornerstone of the original church at this site.
First English Lutheran Church, established in 1854, didn’t survive very long, but the same congregation rebuilt at Mt. Pisgah just twenty years later, under the supervision of architect Peter P. Cookingham. Stepping outside of this anteroom, the visitor faces the American Legion Mall: another National Historic Landmark and a fantastic site for taking those outdoor wedding photos. Speaking of photographs, since my own obviously don’t entirely do justice to this shrewd adaptive re-use, I’ll let the website for The Sanctuary on Penn fill in the gaps, including a much better depiction of the space while it is in use and some showing the inclusion of the American Legion Mall for the wedding party.
Lest this article come across as nothing more than a promotion for The Sanctuary on Penn, it’s essential to step back a bit further and evaluate the implications of the owner’s decisions from a historic preservation standpoint. While a renovation of the exterior would have faced inevitable obstacles from Indiana Historic Landmarks and other preservation advocates, most of the interior was fair game. After all, the previous owner had largely gutted it. And most adaptive re-uses require some changes to the interior configuration to allow for the building’s new function.
So what if the new owner had decided for a complete interior renovation, making the church look as if it had been built last year? Obviously such an approach would have increased the costs exponentially, and it might have attracted a different clientele—those who may find the cracked plaster and exposed brick a bit off-putting. But at the same time, it could have symbolically tethered the building to its ecclesiastical roots: by suppressing the intrigue elicited by its age, the only other conspicuous point of reference is its “churchiness”. So, instead, he wisely chose to intensify its ancientness, diluting the allusions to religion: it is first and foremost an old building, and it was at one time a Lutheran church. By doing this, he opened The Sanctuary up to a much broader audience: it’s not just going to attract Lutherans, or the church-minded (though it certainly won’t repel them either). Much of this strategy recalls the point made at the beginning of this essay: the majority of Americans no longer attend church in century-old buildings. While the shrinking Mainlines are more likely to conduct services in an edifice from the 19th century, they too have largely migrated to newer buildings in the suburbs. Meanwhile, the burgeoning non-denominational churches overwhelmingly meet in new structures, many of which are unadorned. A conventional old church building like First Lutheran is almost a novelty. It’s simply a classy relic that now serves as a multi-purpose venue, without the restrictions for hosting exclusively Lutheran weddings that might have stymied it back when it was a church.
The “dechurchification” of this building has clearly expanded its breadth of potential uses. The smart adaptation warrants one last comparison to a well-regarded Indianapolis venue, the Earth House, which closed operations last summer at Lockerbie Central United Methodist Church. The Earth House was first and foremost a community non-profit, but hosting live music shows proved quite lucrative and became a primary source of revenue. However, the fundamental bylaws of the United Methodist denomination forbade the consumption of alcohol within the church buildings, which ultimately could have deterred some musicians from performing there (though it did allow the Earth House to host all-ages shows). Near the end of the organization’s life, it managed to secure an exemption to the alcohol restriction from the UMC conference, though it still closed within a few months. Now, the Sanctuary on Penn has begun to fill the void left by the Earth House, but without any restrictions on alcohol.
The minds behind The Sanctuary wisely blended what they knew about historic preservation with just the right interior changes to maximize the building’s fungible character. First Lutheran still evokes a church, but a quick visit inside shows how well it downplays this history, while still retaining many of the old surviving church references. The renovation found the perfect compromise, and in a niche market as competitive as event hosting, these aesthetic negotiations should significantly improve its chances of long-term viability—as well as the survival of one of the city’s oldest buildings.