Historic Church Preservation in the US

Tuomi Joshua Forrest


  St Mark's Church, Philadelphia
  St Mark’s Church, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (John Notman, 1847-49): the church participated in the Partners for Sacred Places ‘New Dollars/New Partners’ programme in 2007.
(Photo: Tom Crane Photography Inc, all other photos: Photos for Sacred Places)

Comparing the conservation of historic religious properties in the US and the UK one notes some broad similarities and some significant differences. The general trend of historic churches having smaller worshipping congregations, and consequently fewer financial and human resources on which to draw exists on both sides of the pond, as does the ongoing need for these volunteer-led organisations to use proper maintenance and restoration procedures and professionals. In the US, one finds a society in which the majority of citizens regularly attends religious services; where the government funds heritage projects to a much lesser extent, and in a less coordinated way, than in Britain. In general, the private donor is the engine that drives the majority of preservation projects – individuals provide 85 per cent of the total giving in the US. And the twin guarantees of religious freedom (begetting an astounding diversity of faiths) and the formal separation of church and state further complicates the public’s role in supporting church preservation.

Consequently, to understand the critical issues facing historic churches in the US, one must attempt to fathom the current dynamic of the owners of the vast majority of these churches – religious congregations or parishes and their regional administrative bodies. Working to preserve church buildings involves both serious research into understanding their ‘public value’ (including, but extending beyond the architectural and historical value of a church building) and working to help build the organisational capacity of a congregation to maintain its buildings and fund conservation through a diversity of funding sources. From a preservationist’s point of view it also requires an ongoing advocacy campaign toward all potential funding sources – individuals, government, business, organised philanthropy – to become more open to supporting these places.

The US is a remarkably religious country in terms of the number of people who regularly attend religious services as well as the number and diversity of congregations. Two hundred years of (relative) religious freedom, combined with a competitive, entrepreneurial spirit fostered a dynamic of church creation, building, and philanthropy that caused tens of thousands of churches to spring up. This impulse remains strong as new congregations are born daily. However, the story for those older houses of worship, built in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, is more complex. European centred religious groups – Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant: Presbyterian, United Methodist, Episcopalian, Lutheran; United Church of Christ, and American Baptist (along with Jews, Quakers, various German protestant sects, Unitarians and Universalists, and a handful of African American denominations) – constructed the majority of historic religious sites. As a whole, the older denominations have shrunk in size, have fewer human and financial resources, and occupy buildings suffering from years of deferred maintenance.

  The Module II session of Partners for Sacred Places’ New Dollars/New Partners training programme focuses on teaching congregations to learn about the myriad assets in their historic buildings and the service programmes they offer.

The ‘average’ US historic church today faces several hundred thousand dollars worth of necessary repairs, as well as bearing the cost of hosting a variety of events or programmes that benefit the wider public. These factors contribute both to the complexity of successfully executing capital projects and to the potential for raising funds beyond the immediate membership. In any case, the process of assessing, deciding, and acting upon a major building conservation project impacts all facets of congregational life: the way clergy and lay leadership relate to each other, to the wider congregation, and to church officials; how mission and vision are conceived and lived; how resources are collected and allocated; how the congregation relates to the wider world; and how worship is conducted. An event that pulls on all of these strings disturbs the ‘normal’ day-to-day life in a congregation. This stress can be magnified in cases where the funds to do what is necessary to conserve a church are well beyond the means of the congregation. Tens of thousands of US congregations find themselves in just such a scenario, often without knowing where to turn for help.


Until recently there was no formal assistance organisation to help congregations maintain church property. This task fell, as it still does to a large extent today, to clergy and lay leaders at the local level, with only occasional assistance or funding from their larger denominational body. Congregational leaders tasked with overseeing restoration projects usually learn on the job.

Conducting a major building project is overwhelming. Because these projects typically happen once a generation, or less often, there is little institutional memory. Clergy receive no training in fundraising, grant-application, or construction management, and yet spend considerable time on these tasks. Some congregations do have lay leaders with experience or skills in these areas, but they are too rarely put to effective use. Many denominational offices have few resources to offer.

In the past 20 or so years, this situation has been eased somewhat by groups like Partners for Sacred Places, America’s only national, non-sectarian, preservation organisation dedicated to preserving historic houses of worship of all faiths.

  Elementary school children visit the Second Presbyterian Church in Chicago, Illinois as part of the first educational programme for children offered by Partners for Sacred Places, Chicago.

Much of Partners’ work centres on training congregational leaders in documenting the community value of their place of worship, articulating its cultural and architectural importance in a way that speaks to a wide audience, and creating a sound plan for building repairs. In our experience, congregations can transform a crisis into an opportunity by broadening the definition of what constitutes the church or synagogue ‘family’.

Both congregations and their wider communities recognise the value of historic sacred places as key assets – along with the faith, passions, and skills of lay and clergy – that transform neighbourhoods. Congregations which seek to develop new relationships with the wider public recognise their historic church building as a tool for realising their mission. The question, so often incorrectly posed, was never ‘do we care more about the people or the building?’ (one hears variants of this in many congregations), but rather ‘how can we use all of our gifts and assets to live out our mission?’

This debate also speaks to the relative lack of value placed on historic buildings in the US. Church leaders, and even the general public, do not assume that if a building is registered at the local or national level as having historic importance it deserves protection. While congregations clearly invested much money and effort in building their churches, appreciation of the value of these assets remains patchy at best. Some religious groups dislike being listed on such registers, for fear of having restrictions placed on the building and the ways in which it is used. Consequently, many important church buildings have not been listed and so there are no definite numbers on how many historic churches exist. Only a handful of local or state-wide religious property surveys have been conducted by Partners or other preservation organisations.


  Inside the church, the children learn about Louis Comfort Tiffany’s stained glass.

Churches in the US play an important, although only recently documented, role in building communities. They offer a myriad of programmes to the public including after-school tutoring, soup kitchens, English as a second language classes, musical performances, job training, and addiction support groups. While this pattern also exists in the UK, it is more pronounced in the US as the government here provides less support for many of these services than its UK counterpart, leaving the voluntary or non-profit sector to fill the gap (the two countries may, however, be growing more alike in this regard). In addition, service to the poor is a central mission of congregations, and historic church buildings are both plentiful and offer large amounts of flexible space.

In the mid 1990s, Partners initiated the first national academic study, published as Sacred Places at Risk, documenting how congregations used their historic church buildings and ancillary structures to serve the wider public. We learned, for example, that over 80 per cent of those who use these churches are not members of the congregation. On average, each historic church hosts over four major programmes that serve the needs of the community, and helps leverage over 5,300 hours of volunteer time every year to support these programmes. The study also assigned a ‘replacement’ dollar value to a congregation’s subsidy of these programmes, including the value of space provided at no or low cost; staff, volunteer and clergy time; utilities; in-kind and direct cash support. In today’s dollars, a conservative estimate is over $200,000 in subsidy per year, an amount that never appears on any church budget. This is one way of quantifying the social safety net that congregations provide, and bolsters the argument for more private and public spending.

At the time of Partners’ founding in 1989, no state or federal government agency granted funds to historic religious sites, due to the prevailing interpretation of the US Constitution’s provision regarding the separation of church and state. In the following decade, through local and national advocacy and an increasing understanding of the public importance of sacred places, state preservation funds (which vary considerably in size, purpose, and funding source from state to state) became available to congregations. Under the Clinton administration, the Save America’s Treasures grant programme – modest in size by British standards, but representing a big step forward for American cultural funding – was established. After joint advocacy by Partners and the National Trust for Historic Preservation the programme opened its funding to active houses of worship. In the past 10 years, 58 historic sacred places have received $15.8 million through this programme.


  A participant and his mentor at Neighborhood Bike Works, an innovative programme hosted by St Mary’s Episcopal Church in West Philadelphia. Children aged 8-18 can join the Earn-a-Bike programme to learn about bike safety and repair. Those who complete the programme earn their own bike, helmet and lock.

The challenge, and the opportunity, for historic churches is to make better use of this dynamic and to bolster their case for public support, as well as continued support from members and other individuals. This more expansive constituency, properly recognised and cultivated, has a vested interest in the health and wellbeing of these sacred places.

There are also other natural, if often untapped, groups that have an interest in what happens at and to a particular sacred place: past members and families historically associated with a congregation; people interested in the culture and heritage of their town or city; neighbours, friends, and colleagues of lay and clergy; those invested in re-building the neighbourhoods and commercial districts anchored by so many of our sacred places.

We now also have a new opportunity to expand the Sacred Places at Risk research. By exploring the complex and interrelated ways in which a congregation impacts its immediate community we can discover the ‘halo effect’ it has on the local economy (spending and job creation); property values; green space and trees; and social service provision.

We are currently piloting this new research methodology in Philadelphia, and hope to conduct a larger national research project. What we know is always unfolding, but for certain it will both deepen and broaden our understanding of the dynamics within congregations and between a congregation and its community. Most importantly, this knowledge, although never perfect, will help us serve sacred places more effectively.


Partners for Sacred Places is the only national, non-sectarian, non-profit organisation dedicated to the sound stewardship and active community use of America’s older religious properties. Partners provides assistance to the people who care for sacred places while promoting a new understanding of how these places sustain communities. Partners was founded in 1989 by a national taskforce of religious, historic preservation and philanthropic leaders. Since then, Partners has served several thousand congregations and other local organisations and represents the needs and concerns of over 100,000 older, community-serving sacred places in every town and city across America. For more information please visit www.sacredplaces.org.



The Acworth Meetinghouse sits prominently on a hill overlooking this small New Hampshire village. Designed by Isaac Carter and built in 1821, the church is a fine example of Wren-Gibbs architecture and has a magnificent three-part steeple, its most distinctive feature. ‘There wouldn’t be an Acworth without the church sitting here,’ states Jon Putnam. ‘It’s an architectural wonder, when you realise what they [the original builders] did.’

It’s also a centre of community life, hosting public events, meetings, and visiting nurse programmes. It has the only institutional kitchen in town. However, recently the congregation, and the town, nearly lost this symbol that had marked the small New England village for generations. Putnam, although not a member of the congregation, joined the effort to restore the steeple. ‘I just jumped in. Somebody had to do it’.

Putnam was not the only one to ‘jump in’: in a village with only 880 residents it was hard not to be concerned when in January, 2006 the steeple that defined the village was taken down due to structural instability.

In 2008, the church, represented by the Rev Peter Howe and three lay/community leaders took part in Partners’ New Dollars/New Partners training programme, along with 11 other congregations from across New England. The training supported the direction that the church was taking, and helped give some new ideas for formalising this church/community partnership and raising additional funds. Howe explains: ‘We formed a steering committee that was half church members and half people from the town. We have a lot of folks on the committee who were dedicated to the building as a historic structure’. Currently, the church is planning to create a separate non-profit charitable organisation to perpetuate this informal collaboration, and to help ensure continued funding and project management.

The fundraising effort has been a joint effort, with the biggest sources of funding ultimately coming through a combination of individual, corporate and philanthropic gifts, just as the team learned in the New Dollars training. ‘There are people who continually give $100 dollars a month or have made multiple $1,000 or $5,000 gifts. The committee also received funding from two local banks and $2,000 from a local power company. Bascom Maple Sugar, the largest employer in Acworth, contributed $5,000. The campaign received two major boosts – through an anonymous gift of $100,000 from a non-church member and a grant of $130,000 from the New Hampshire Land and Community Heritage Investment Program (one of around 20 state preservation funding programmes that allow active religious congregations to apply for grants).

One of the most compelling aspects of the project was the collaboration between almost all of the town’s skilled carpenters to offer their services at reduced rates.

Aaron Sturgis was the lead contractor and consultant. Ken Christie, a well-respected local contractor became the in-town manager of the project. He picked all the sub-contractors, making the process open to everyone. On 20 June 2009, after three and a half years stationed on the ground in front of the church, the steeple was raised and put back into position on the bell tower atop the Acworth Meetinghouse.


Historic Churches, 2010


TUOMI JOSHUA FORREST BA MA has worked at the preservation alliance for Greater
Philadelphia and as an architectural photographer.
He is currently the associate director of Partners for Sacred Places and has offered technical advice and consultation to thousands of congregations of all faiths on the care and active community use of their historic religious buildings.

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