Heavenly Home

A 19th century church converted into home still has choir loft, bell tower, stained glass

August 21, 2005|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

For sale: House with 20-foot ceilings. Comes with working bell tower. Buyer must like stained-glass windows.

In historic Ellicott City, you can purchase all sorts of unusual homes -- even one that spent 127 years as a church.

The building, which overlooks Main Street from one of the town's many hills, belongs to a real estate agent who bought it in 2002, gave it an upscale overhaul and recently decided that it was too much space for one woman and one dog.

A church-to-house conversion is uncommon, but this is the era of new twists on old buildings -- especially when they result in more homes in this regional market with greater demand than supply. Office towers are turning into condominiums in downtown Baltimore. A grain elevator is going residential near the Inner Harbor. Clipper Mill on the northwest side of the city is being transformed into offices, apartments and condos.

"We're seeing a lot more of that," said J. Rodney Little, director of the Maryland Historical Trust.

It's happening everywhere, said Karen L.W. Harris, a Denver architect who is past chair of a committee for the American Institute of Architects. Churches, schools, even firehouses are fair game.

"I think people are seeing the economic viability of using that old stock so you get something more charming than ... starting new," she said.

Many of the conversions don't make for cheap buys. At nearly 5,000 square feet, the former Ellicott City church is twice the size of the average American house and is priced at $799,900.

Owner Kimberly Kepnes said she had a contract on it six days after she first listed it, but the deal fell through and the home went back on the market two weeks ago.

Selling it is "in many ways ... a bittersweet decision," she said. "I've become a part of the building."

It took three months of thinking and sketching and measuring to decide how to revamp the place. Kepnes spent more than a year doing the renovation. She doesn't want to reveal how much that cost but said it far exceeded the $230,000 purchase price.

The yellow building is tucked on the appropriately named Church Road, which is notable for its range of historic homes -- including the 19th-century Castle Angelo, designed to look like a French chateau.

Built in 1875

The church was built in 1875 for a German Lutheran congregation, which spent $3,500 on the original construction, said local historian Joetta M. Cramm. Kepnes bought it after its last congregation, the Church of God, built a new house of worship.

It is a world away from its former life in some ways.

What was once the pulpit is now a breakfast room; the new kitchen is carved out of the sanctuary. The choir's changing room has been transformed into a pantry with a wet bar.

But much of the church remains. The bell tower is still topped by a cross. The Gothic doorways were retained as were the 13 large stained-glass windows and the choir loft.

Kepnes notes with amusement that she has to keep the door locked or passers-by will wander in, unaware that the building is not what it seems.

Marriage licenses found

She hears from people who once attended services or were married there. (Marriage licenses she found in the attic will be donated to the county historical society.)

"I'm known as the church lady," she said.

It wasn't until the renovation was complete that she could truly appreciate the sheer size of the place, however. That's why her new home -- up the street -- is significantly smaller.

But no less unusual. You see, she's moving into the neighborhood castle.

"As we see more and more development, more of the same, the different becomes more interesting," she said.

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