Blessing in Disguise

A Chicago property that looks like a church, but feels like a home.

What happens to a church when the congregation has gone? Over the last decade, the Western world has seen an inexorable decrease in church attendance, with around 4,000 places of worship closing their doors annually in the US alone. In Chicago, some property owners and buyers have taken a creative approach to rechristening the deserted buildings. Rebirths have taken a plethora of forms, from dance studios to a circus school, but the most common trend by far has

been to redevelop churches into contemporary residences. At least 19 churches in the Windy City have been turned into apartments or family homes, according to a recent report from DNAinfo, a Chicago neighbourhood news source. Many new owners have chosen to preserve original elements of the old structure, investing substantial funds into elegant renovations. One such project, headed by award-winning artist-designer Linc Thelen, won China’s Modern Decoration Space Award, among other design and architecture accolades.

The original edifice was built by an Italian architect in 1901 as a Methodist church. It served for only 19 years before putting out the last candle in 1920. When its current inhabitants – a young adventurous family – came into the picture, the place had been vacant on and off for the last 95 years. Thelen took on the project in collaboration with Scrafano Architects and finished the transformation in 2015. It went on to win the AIA Small Projects Award and featured prominently in architectural publications.

“I wanted a sleek, modern design that could showcase the architecture in a new, contemporary way,” says Thelen. The team took care to preserve the church’s historic details, including the bell tower, exposed brickwork and ceiling turnbuckles. “Lighting was a huge challenge with the high vaulted ceilings,” he says, but he worked around it by exposing the structure’s original wood beams and black metal supports. The result was an imposing room with ceilings soaring to 25 feet (7.6m).

From day one, Thelen knew the project was going to be demanding, but he also saw it as a great opportunity. “When it comes to converting an old church, just about everything regarding design and construction is a challenge,” he says. “How are we going to make more rooms without losing the open loft-like space? How do we heat and cool this home? Where do we put the kitchen? I wanted to keep some of the old characteristics of the home but give them a fresh look.”

Finally the team came up with a single-family home boasting seven bedrooms and six baths, where a couple and their three young children now reside. Entry to the house is granted through a blue door with stained glass arches above it, which Thelen preserved from the original design. “The front door is one of the few things we didn’t change,” he says. “The team thought the shade was both traditional and modern, setting the tone from the first moment one walks in.” Sitting in the entryway foyer, hemmed in by exposed brick walls, is a symbolic pew from the original 1901 church.

The “great hall”, with its high ceilings, features an open layout that comfortably merges the kitchen, dining room and sitting area. Thelen made use of white oak with a custom white wash stain for the wood flooring to create a warm and cosy feel. Over the kitchen’s gas range is a giant stained glass window with frames that were painted black. “We wanted to restore the windows and make them a prominent feature of the home,” says Thelen. At the large central island, five counter-height stools are lined up to face the gothic arches, whose transparent central panes reveal the street view beyond. A black floor-to-ceiling chimney with integrated firewood storage stands in sharp contrast to the white painted walls. The two-sided, see-through fireplace it houses is shared by a separate living room opposite the main area. According to Thelen, he didn’t hold back while designing the dramatic wood- burning hearth, as there are few opportunities to work with one on such a grand scale.

From above, a second-floor balcony looks down into the centre of the house, while a sliding door opens up to a backyard terrace. The master bedroom features floating nightstands and has a two-tiered ceiling hanging over the bed. The master bathroom is the site of one of Thelen’s favourite vignettes: a picture-perfect resin bathtub under a glittering chandelier and stained glass window.

Thelen played with fun elements in the boys’ bedroom, whose centrepiece is a floor-to-ceiling rock-climbing wall made from cement plaster. A sliding bar door leads to the boys’ en-suite bathroom with subway tile walls, gold fixtures and hexagonal patterned cement floors.

The girls’ room was also given a light-hearted touch with its hanging swing chair, and a short ladder leads up to a loft and play area. An adjoining Jack & Jill bath (a his-and-her setup) is tiled with colourful Moorish patterns. Over the tub is a cutout window, bringing fresh air and natural light into the room. The same cutout design is repeated in the nursery, whose rectangular opening also reveals the home’s main living area. The nursery’s bookcase conceals a Murphy bed, enabling residents to convert the space into a guest room.

The home’s pinnacle, though, is its bell tower, which once housed a furnace with panelled windows. Thelen transformed the entire area using glass floors and new windows, which offer a stunning view of downtown Chicago’s city lights.

According to Thelen, the best thing about the revitalisation project was having the opportunity to showcase his abilities as an architect, designer and artist. “I strive to make every day in this business a learning experience,” he says. “I challenge myself to create one-of-a-kind designs that leave a statement.”

This property’s days of serving as a house of worship are long gone, but the homeowners who live there now will likely be singing the praises of Thelen’s sophisticated and innovative design for some time.

Text: Julienne C. Raboca

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