When I was a kid my parents had Arlo Guthrie’s Alice’s Restaurant record and I knew it off by heart, including the full monologue. The story is set in a converted church in Massachussetts. Despite this exposure to the idea of living in a church, I never actually fantasized about doing that myself. In 2002 I was looking for a cheap property/house/decrepit pile in Vancouver, when prices were a lot lower around here, and suddenly this small, run-down wooden church came up for sale. On a lark I made an appointment to see it, but more for a friend rather than for myself. Two days later I ended up owning it, something I’ve regretted more than once. Hundreds of people have said to me that they always wanted to live in a church, but truly, I don’t recommend converting a church or any other non-house building into a living space. This is not for most people. Even without altering a church’s basic structure, footprint, roofline or even any of the rooms/doors/walls, it’s much more ambitious than your average house renovation. For one thing, houses are built vertically for a reason—this means a smaller foundation, smaller drain tile perimeter trench, smaller roof, fewer gutters… not to mention the fact that heat travels upward. For another, houses contain storage! Cupboards! Internal walls to place storage units against! A little church, on the other hand, has none of those things. It’s effectively a chilly barn with an enormous roof that will bankrupt you to replace. My place is livable now, if you don’t mind freezing for 2/3 of the year, but it has been an exhausting DIY repair, eight years and counting as of 2010. It has meant constant hustling for money to keep it afloat—in my case, the money was raised by renting it out for TV and movie shoots. Thank god for all those TV shows I never watch, and for Vancouver’s position as Hollywood North. That industry has paid for many renovations in this neighbourhood, not just mine.
And if you think decorating in a small space is hard, try having all your stuff visible in one big room. It immediately defaults to a sort of thrift furniture warehouse fiasco.
For more photos and information about the church and its renovation, see the Flickr set.
Below you can see the church as it looked when I moved in. The pool table and plastic faux-Mississippi-steamboat fans were the first things I disposed of. That is, after some unmentionable items and animal remains. Back then the star and cross were still on the roof (photo above), nailed straight into the shingles and creating major leaks. Jesus may have been a carpenter, but the church volunteers really weren’t.
I took the above photo during the realtor’s open house, the first day I saw the place, and this is pretty much how I inherited it. It included the 1970s cheap green pews and the pool table. Notice the dark ceiling, the dark wainscotting the whole way down the room, the dark red douglas fir floor, the after-market gothic reveal in the altar, and the jade trim.
Above is the same room in 2006, a few weeks after the floors were sanded, bleached and sealed. In 2007 the altar area became a warmer fireplace alcove with a high-efficiency wood stove, below:
The giant timber bamboo in the altar area, above, was brought inside as a party decoration when it was still green. A heavy snowfall had snapped the stems in the garden outside. After a month or two it turned the same blond colour as the ceiling and somehow I never took it back outside. Everything is blank and austere without it.
When first built, the church was just a little 40-person church. Oddly, it was oriented sideways to the street, probably because there was still a house at the back of the lot, built back in 1902. The altar was at the east end; is that a thing? The early church was erected at some point in the early 1930s (scant information in the city archives). Only a few years later, in 1935, one side of the church was knocked out, replaced by an I-beam, and the building was expanded down the length of the property. Now, even though the church seems as if it’s all one room, there are many signs of the fact that it is actually two churches joined together in a T. The ceiling trusses and floorboards run in different directions in the two sections, for one thing (you can see this in the photo further below, the one with the ceiling fans). And for another, there are two altars, one on the east side, one on the south.
Photos above and below show the front area, once the tiny original church. This section of the church houses the front entrance, office (here you can see a temporary desk), and to the right are the master bedroom and bathroom. Above, I had shielded the house from the front doors and nosey passersby with a hanging room divider made from British army snow camouflage netting. This has been replaced by a tall white rolling wardrobe that doubles as a privacy pony wall, an item that becomes necessary when your front doors are at street level. For more information on each photo, click on the image.
Below, you can see one of the only two original pews remaining from the earliest days of the church—they’re made out of the same Douglas fir as the building and have crosses carved into the ends. The greenish pews from the 60s were cheap and had no redeeming features, so l I broke them up and re-used he heavy, old-growth Douglas fir. I want to make an indoor swing with one of the remaining planks.
Above is a view into the bedroom. The bed lies inside the church’s original altar which is in the form of a 5-sided cupola. The bed platform is just a reconstruction of the original altar stage, which had been removed by a previous owner.
Everyone wants to know if it feels weird to sleep in an altar. No, it doesn’t. What should sleeping in an altar feel like? Are people wondering if angels descend, or the wrath of god? It’s the church of restful sleep when the raccoons are not mating and meth heads aren’t trying to break in.
After wondering if the place had been deconsecrated, I did some research and found that there is, in fact, no such thing as deconsecration, which if it existed would essentially be the removal of a blessing and thus the rough equivalent of a curse. It’s encouraging that Christian churches don’t remove blessings, not because I believe in blessings, but because the idea of removing them seems creepy not to mention stingy. When a church sells its building and removes all the altar paraphernalia and the congregation, the place automatically becomes a secular structure. There is in fact a long tradition, going back millennia, of ex-churches being used for other purposes. These included shops and the stabling of animals. Neighbourhood kids used to ask if the place is haunted, but if it is, I’ve never noticed it. If it’s haunted, it’s haunted by the ghosts of the many cats and birds and rodents who died in the crawlspace, and whose skeletal remains, uncounted numbers of them, I had to bury in the garden. And a raccoon. I have photos of all of this in a file called “church horrors” but they are too disturbing to publish.
The worst of the projects are now finished, including the epic sanding of the ceiling, substitution of drywall for plaster, insulation of all walls, ceiling and roof, refinishing of floors, re-roofing, pouring of a concrete slab underneath, minor updating of the kitchen and general repair and maintenance. It just needs much more storage. For more photos of the process, see below or click on photos to go to the Flickr set.
Below, this is how the main room looked after the uninsulated plaster walls were replaced with insulation and drywall, and then painted, but before the ceiling was stripped. You can still see the words “Glory to God” above the altar. The congregation had attached stick-on oak lettering in a bulbous, groovy 1970s font, and when the church moved out they removed the letters, pulling the paint and bits of plaster away with them and leaving this grey ghost lettering behind. The Scandinavian pendant lamps date from that era as well, and I’m pretty sure that at some point the church was very sing-along-with-Jesus and I’m guessing there were guitars. Probably a Hammond organ.
Below you can see the main room from the front area, which was the original smaller church. You can see how the trusses run in the opposite direction in the old and new areas. As I said above, you don’t figure it out right away, because you feel you’re in one large room, but the building’s two buildings joined in an L.
The ceiling doesn’t look nearly as dark in these photos as it actually was, thanks to the auto-contrast in digital cameras. It was a very dark brown, a colour I just refer to as “Anglican” now. A crew of boys and I spent a month up on scaffolds scraping it off (and that was just in the main part of the church – the older church ceiling in the foreground above was sanded a year later and took just as long). Now I know how Michaelangelo felt (see his poem at bottom). Working overhead does something very bad to your neck and everything else. I’m still recovering from the damage to my shoulder joints. In the following photos you can see the process of scraping, sanding, and then bleaching the tongue-and-groove ceiling and the trusses.
At night, after the guys left, I’d bleach the newly sanded sections from the rolling scaffold, board by board with a brush. When bleaching wood you have to try to avoid lap marks. The bleach is a two-part mix of different bleaches. You have to work carefully and fast, and you have to avoid dripping it onto your face. Below you can see the ceiling when it was first bleached – it became so white it was almost green and I thought I’d gone too far. Luckily, the natural tannin darkens over time, somehow coming back through the bleached wood fibres. My conclusion, at least with Douglas fir, is that it’s best to go too far because the wood oxidizes darker for about year after sanding. My reason for bleaching the ceiling is that the extreme redness of the ceiling cast a pinkish, bloody tint on everything, and nothing looked right. The blond ceiling is easier to live with, more modern and less depressing in a grey climate.
Tthe cross and star, which I removed from the roof while re-roofing to the disappointment of many neighbours, had created holes in the roof shingles and eventually massive leaks. When I replaced the roof, I didn’t put them back up because it seemed inappropriate for me to erect a cross, bad for the roof, and a fire hazard. Both of them were made with interior-rated Christmas tree strings.
A note on the neighbhourhood:
The church building is located in Strathcona, Vancouver’s oldest neighbourhood. Originally this area was called the East End, and it was once the city’s downtown centre. Now it’s called the Downtown Eastside (DTES) and is Canada’s poorest postal code despite being only a 10 minute walk from Vancouver’s current downtown. Strathcona is a small community inside this larger neighbourhood. It renamed itself after its elementary school, probably to shed the East End’s stigma. It’s a hidden oasis of character houses just east of Main Street, only blocks away from all the abject poverty, homelessness and drug use. The whole DTES is marked by both intense poverty and intense gentrification. The battles between a humane solution on the one hand and profit on the other are heating up. To read about the way unregulated property speculation is making Vancouver unaffordable for almost everyone, read Unaffordable (That’s What You Are.)
To see other converted churches, start here.
This building could not have been saved without the work of Andrew Carlisle, Randy Schuks, Vladimir Moukhanov, Simon Whippy, my parents and aunt, and all my friends especially Jonathan, Fiona, Brian, Geoffrey, Sarah and many others.
After sanding the ceiling I can attest to most of these symptoms:
Sonnet from Michaelangelo to his friend John of Pistoia
on painting the Sistine Ceiling
I’ve got myself a goiter from this strain
As water gives the cats in Lombardy
Or maybe it is in some other country.
My belly’s pushed by force beneath my chin.
My beard toward Heaven, I feel the back of my brain
Upon my neck, I grow the breast of a Harpy;
My brush, continually above my face,
Makes it a splendid floor by dripping down.
My loins have penetrated to my paunch,
My rump’s a crupper, as a counterweight,
And pointless the unseeing steps I go.
In front of me my skin is stretched
While it folds up behind me and forms a knot,
And I am bent like a Syrian bow.
And judgement, hence, must grow,
Borne in the mind, peculiar and untrue;
You cannot shoot well when the gun’s askew.
John, come to the rescue
Of my dead painting now, and of my honour;
I’m not in a good place, and I’m no painter.
written between 1509 and 1512
Tags: Alice's Restaurant, Anglican, building conversion, Canada, Chinese church, church, conversion, converted building, converted church, daycare, Downtown Eastside, DTES, East End, ex-church, Good Shepherd Mission, John of Pistoia, Michaelangelo, Michelangelo, mission, mission school, Sistine Ceiling, Sistine Chapel, sonnet, Strathcona, Van, Van East, Vancouver, Wayson Choy