Increasingly across the Western world, traditional religious buildings are being converted for secular use, like housing, restaurants, or performance halls. At the same time, congregations are appearing in formerly secular spaces, adapting old shopping malls, storefronts, and movie theaters for their spaces of worship.
This study employs a novel methodology to identify where these hybrid buildings are located and to explore what these buildings might mean in the context of the American religious landscape.
Using a database of addresses identified as potential converted structure candidates, I conduct one of the first known attempts to systematically identify these building conversions. I employed the Google Street View tool to locate these buildings in six mid-sized cities in the United States. Once these buildings had been located, I collected visual data of the exteriors using Google Street View and identified the presence of sacred and secular formal and functional elements present in the buildings.
Based on the formal and functional elements identified in each conversion, I expanded Hackworth and Gullikson’s (2013) typology for converted structures to include eight potential categories of conversion, five of which are represented by cases from my sample. I located 175 secular-to-sacred building conversions and 12 sacred-to-secular building conversions. Of the 175 secular-to-sacred building conversions, 89 buildings fell into the “secular form, mixed function” category, while 86 fell into the “secular form, sacred function” category. Of the 12 sacred-to-secular building conversions, 10 fell into the “sacred form, secular function” category, while 2 fell into the “mixed form, secular function” category. Additionally, while not an initial focus of this study, my sample included 2 building conversions that fell into the “sacred form, sacred function” category, revealing the third direction of building conversion: sacred-to-sacred.
Conclusions and Implications
While these findings are limited in their scope, I argue that continued exploration of these structures by expansion of this methodology and the addition of ethnographic research foreground the interaction between material objects and human relationships in the construction, deconstruction, and preservation of sacred and secular boundaries.
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Hartson, T.E. Converted Structures: Exploring Material Expressions of the Sacred and Secular. Rev Relig Res (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13644-021-00447-0
- Religious buildings
- Religious architecture