My Most Unique Conversion (to date)

Derek Coppess
Apr 19 · 3 min read

I will never forget walking through the neo gothic (recently vacated) old church for the first time. Like many of the old churches you have been to, there was the original (turn of the century) sanctuary, then an educational wing was added on (mid-century). This was going to be my most challenging conversion to date.

I left the walk-through with absolute certainty I would take on this project.

As an entrepreneur, one of the things I constantly find myself doing is finding the next “hole” (problem) in the idea or concept. This is what my next few months of holes looked like:

Problem №1: The educational wing was an easy conversion. You are simply turning classrooms into apartments, the corridors & egress are already in place, it’s pretty straight-forward. The sanctuary was the problem (opportunity?). What do you do with this massive volume of space. I remember hearing concepts from the previous owners of the project. Community space, a bar/restaurant, one large condo — none of those felt right. I added a floor in mid-air and created another 7 apartments, literally out of thin air. So cool.

Problem №2: That solved one problem, but quickly created another. Because the neighborhood had seen a lot of development in a neighboring corridor, they had parking sensitivity so we were capped at 22 units. Solution, we made the units larger, not perfect but in development I’d rather be ‘quick and good’ over ‘slow and perfect’.

Problem №3: Oh yeah, the structure was a National Historic Landmark, so we could not touch the exterior of the building. The biggest issue this created was the inability to get daylight into each, residential unit because they were all stained glass windows. I went through a grueling process and received a precedent setting approval to selectively remove certain sections of stained glass to allow for daylight. Big win.

Problem №4: Finally, after all that, my final worry. Would people think it was weird to live in an old church? Now, this wasn’t the first church-conversion in the world, Europe had started converting churches long before this project. After some soul-searching (literally) I came to the conclusion that the soul of a church is its congregation, its people. When the people leave, it is simply a beautiful vacant structure that needs another life.

It worked, residents loved it and this beautiful structure received another generation.

Derek Coppess

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Real estate entrepreneur, husband/stepdad, chronic maximizer. I’m building a community of great leaders (and humans) @TheEstablishment