The Brookline Neighborhood Theater, now the iconic Coolidge Corner Theatre, was opened in 1933 in what was once the Beacon Universalist Church, but it wasn't always as beloved by all as it is today. Proposals to open the theater faced strong resistance for decades, especially among the Christian clergy. The Coolidge's redesign as a theater almost completely masked its sacred origins; walking into its lobby or main theater hall today, you'd be hard-pressed to find anything marking it as a church, yet the bones of its former incarnation still support the building.
The Coolidge is one of the earliest, if least visible, examples of a phenomenon that has become commonplace in Greater Boston in the last decade—that of the redeveloped former church. The early 1980s saw the first batch of churches being reused for a variety of other purposes in the Boston area. Some became condos, others community arts centers or dojos. However, as the number of vacant churches rapidly increased, alongside the price of housing in Boston, almost all vacant church buildings that have come on the market in Boston have been snapped up by developers and reborn as luxury condos.
The story of church conversion in Boston mirrors the way our city has changed over the last 30 years—the gentrification of neighborhoods, the dwindling rates of church attendance, the reckoning with widespread sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, the skyrocketing rent, construction, and housing costs. As more and more churches come on the market, and many are slated to become luxury condos, it is important to understand the options for and restrictions on repurposing and preserving these beautiful and historic but often prohibitively expensive-to-maintain buildings.