Remodeling gives Indianapolis schools, churches new life as homes

When planning for his next house, Matt Owen wanted both the creative freedom of starting from scratch with a custom home and the challenge of restoring something historic. He got a bit of both in an 1800s two-room schoolhouse on Walnut Drive, west of Greenfield, Ind.

"It gave me a historic shell to restore and the interior was basically nothing, so it gave me complete freedom," Owen says.

Although he declines to reveal the project's total cost, Owen says he and his wife, Katherine, spent about $160,000 last year to buy the 1.5-acre property, weatherproof the schoolhouse and install basic amenities such as a bathroom and kitchen.

"It was probably more costly than building a more typical custom home, but I think the end product is worth the extra cost," he says.

From single-family projects like the Owens' to larger condominium projects such as Fletcher Pointe Condominiums in Fountain Square (formerly a church), schools, churches and commercial buildings are finding new life as homes.

Mark Dollase, vice president of preservation for Indiana Landmarks, sees the movement on the rise in downtown, with several former churches now home to condominiums. The nonprofit group's new headquarters will be in the former Central Avenue United Methodist Church at 12th Street and Central Avenue, now being renovated and expected to open in April.

Indiana Landmarks also bought the former Second Christian Church on Ninth Avenue in Indianapolis' Ransom Place neighborhood this year to save it from demolition. The group is offering it for sale as a home or condominium conversion.

The desire to live close to where you work is a very old idea made new again, Dollase says. "That's the way we were doing it 200 years ago in our downtown areas," he says. "It's definitely not a new concept, but a good one."

David and Tracy Gamble live close to where they work. The two artists are never more than a few steps from their studios inside the former First Baptist Church of Plainfield on North Vine Street. Both artists say they wanted room to create and display their work.

Now the 1886 sanctuary is a gallery and parking space for David's Harley-Davidson, and the Sunday School space is now the living quarters, kitchen and studio space. They bought the church for less than $100,000, he says, but declined to say how much they've spent renovating it over the last 12 years.

The sanctuary is much the same as they found it. They gutted the education wing, built in 1958 with dropped acoustic tile ceilings and dark brown paneling, down to the cinderblock and plaster walls. "It took me two years to gut the place," he says. "We just ripped everything out and painted everything white."

The Gambles only heat and cool about half of the building's 6,000 square feet, David says, and he's replaced all the casement windows. As insulators, they were "horrible," he says. "If somebody walked by smoking, we could smell it."

His advice to people who want to follow in their footsteps? "Earn more money," he says, laughing.

Indeed, money is a handy commodity when it comes to transforming an unusual space into a house. LindaAdele Goodine says she and her husband, Mark S. Richardson, have done all they can afford to do in their 14-year caretaking of the 11,000-square-foot former All Souls Unitarian Church on North Alabama Street.

"There was standing water in it when we bought it," she says of the 1900s building that had been empty for a year.

But it had good bones, such as an Arts and Craft design by famed Indianapolis architectural firm Vonnegut & Bohn, and Tiffany & Co. stained-glass windows designed by Rembrandt Steele, son of Hoosier artist T.C. Steele. "Our dream was to sustain the space, bring it back from horrible disrepair," she says.

The late Kurt Vonnegut Jr.'s parents tied the knot at the former All Souls Unitarian Church. Before his death in 2007, the writer gave LindaAdele Goodine and Mark S. Richardson his blessing to turn the early 1900s building into an as-yet-unrealized writing center.

Goodine, a photographer, and Richardson, a sculptor, are on the faculty of the Herron School of Art and Design. They live in about 3,000 square feet and use the rest of the cavernous structure for studio space for themselves and four other artists who pay rent.

They've also hosted countless student and faculty receptions and even Tibetan Gyuto monks, the famed "Throat Singers" who count actor Richard Gere among their patrons.

"We've really enjoyed it," Goodine says. "Now we feel like we are ready to turn it over to the next caretaker who can take it to the next level."

Financing can be an issue, however. The Gambles, Goodine and Owen all say they struggled. One problem is appraisals. "They had nothing to compare it to," Owen says of his bank. He doubts a bank would finance his project today.

Doing your own demolition and remodeling work can help cut costs. Owen, a structural engineer with highly rated Silver Creek Engineering in Indianapolis, wanted to be his own general contractor.

He hired highly rated UBuildIt on East 86th Street to guide him through the process. UBuildIt, with several independently owned franchises in Indianapolis, is a building consultant for homeowners who want to manage their own projects.

Owen, his wife and friends worked hard to gut the schoolhouse, chase away bats and make the place livable. But Owen said he still relied on UBuildIt more than he anticipated. "There is no substitute for having three or four guys out there who can work eight hours a day on it," he says. "They get a lot more accomplished."

Despite the costs and hard work, none of the couples regret their decision. Goodine says she and Richardson expect their next project will be every bit as challenging. "Be prepared to love the work, because it is constant upkeep," she says.

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