During the Druid Hills Tour of Homes and Gardens last year, the development company that had bought the old, tall church where Briarcliff Road meets Ponce de Leon Avenue flung open its doors to the public, revealing a sanctuary emptied of its pews and a gutted former preschool. Curious, sentimental Atlantans poured in.
Couples recalled being married within Druid Hills United Methodist Church’s three-story sanctuary, standing before a grandiose pipe organ. One lady, the niece of John S. Candler, reminisced about playing on the grounds as a child, back when they housed tennis courts and the judge’s stately home. Others remembered attending preschool there, including my eldest daughter, who used to race me up the easternmost stairwell each morning during drop-off.
But sentimentalism contributes little to bottom lines, and developer Brian Davison, a Minerva USA managing partner, understood that the church and school building, like a lot of adaptive-reuse projects at the outset, was essentially worthless. If not worse than worthless.
“Sometimes it’s worth negative—it’s painful,” says Davison, a homebuilder in Atlanta since the 1990s. “You think you get all this steel and concrete, but the cost of retrofitting everything and running plumbing through it is huge, the same or even more than building brand new. But we got something approved here when no one else could.”
The multi-phase church redevelopment and condo hub that Minerva passed through the Druid Hills Historic District to begin construction in 2019 is expected to start welcoming its first residents in coming weeks. It’s proof, developers say, that a range of buyers are still keen to buy condos and share walls despite a lingering pandemic, so long as the concept, location, and quality is right. A unique backstory doesn’t hurt, either.
The 1200 Ponce project, so named for the church’s address, could be the most high-profile example of Atlanta’s trend toward converting (or demolishing) churches for new purposes, which began in the early aughts with Providence on Ponce, a 22-condo former sanctuary a few blocks west on Ponce, next to Publix. Other holy redoes include Inman Park’s Lizzie Chapel Flats condos, architecture firm Kronberg U+A’s office remake in Reynoldstown, and comedy troupe Dad’s Garage’s overhaul of Atlanta Metropolitan Christian Church in Old Fourth Ward. Elsewhere in recent years, congregations such as Shy Temple CME Church, formerly located on Memorial Drive in Kirkwood, and Second Church of Christ, Scientist, which used to stand among skyrises on Buckhead’s Peachtree Road, have sold houses of worship to developers who wiped the land clean for large-scale ventures.
Demolition was never in the cards for the Greek Revival-style church, a protected landmark at the southwestern tip of Druid Hills for nearly 70 years. Minerva has experience in adaptive-reuse; they transformed a 1923 warehouse downtown into The Giant Lofts just prior to Atlanta’s Olympics and, a couple of years later, a 1916 Chattanooga factory into the mixed-use Signal Knitting Mill near that city’s riverbanks. For the church project, they wanted to produce an intown condo community—still relatively rare amid Atlanta’s post-recession, apartment-building frenzy—in a place where many big redevelopment ideas had faltered. But puzzling residential units into a former sanctuary is never easy, especially when they’re so cavernous, says project architect Dennis Hertlein, a principal with Surber Barber Choate + Hertlein.
“It’s not like new apartments where you’re dealing with a formulaic layout and just have to plug them in,” says Hertlein. “We did some similar multistory units in gymnasiums at Bass High School [now Little Five Points lofts], and Roosevelt High School [now apartments in Grant Park], but this is a whole different challenge, with three stories instead of two.”
A brief history lesson: Famed American landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, the visionary behind New York City’s Central Park, came to Atlanta in 1890 at the request of Inman Park developer Joel Hurt to create a chain of parks and a surrounding “suburb” from farmland that would become Druid Hills. Olmsted’s blueprints called for the rolling, snaking green space to begin at Ponce and Briarcliff. Today, Olmsted Linear Park remains the neighborhood’s verdant front yard.
What’s thought to be Druid Hill’s first home was built around 1900 by the Candler family, across the street from the park’s entrance, but by the middle of the century it had fallen into disrepair and was razed. This set the stage for what a 1951 fundraising campaign called a gleaming modern sanctuary large enough to host 840 worshippers at once, topped with “a new landmark” tower standing 125 feet that “points each passerby to God, our Maker.”
Druid Hill Methodist Church, a congregation of nearly 3,000 bursting at the seams in nearby Inman Park, had purchased the Candler land for $50,000 in 1946. To help quickly raise $275,000 for the new church’s construction, a “Day of Destiny Banquet” was held in Midtown’s Biltmore Hotel. In what may have been the understatement of that year, campaigners noted of the Druid Hills site: “Careful students of our city’s expansion agree that Atlanta is expanding residentially in this direction and beyond.”
The fundraising “dream” was realized, and construction launched in 1953. It’s the work of architects and developers Ivey & Crook, whose traditionalist designs include churches throughout Atlanta and Decatur, nearly 40 buildings on Emory University’s campus, and stately residences on deep lots throughout Druid Hills, according to an online compendium.
As metro Atlanta’s growth swallowed the eastside of town, the popular Druid Hills United Methodist Church Preschool—colloquially called DHUMP—opened in 1982. But as Davison, the developer, tells it, the church’s congregation in more recent years had dwindled to only about 60 members, reflecting trends of shrinking congregational participation nationwide and what’s been called an “epidemic of empty churches.” Multiple attempts to sell off the church and land ultimately sputtered.
“We’re at this sort of pinnacle corner here,” Davison says of the site, wedged between two high-traffic state highways. “People have tried to rezone this multiple times over the years. It would be an amazing shopping center corner, but Druid Hills kept shooting it down. [Other developers] wanted to do apartments, townhomes, always something different, and [the neighborhood’s] historic board didn’t want it as their front door.”
Minerva closed on the property in January 2017, and the church’s remaining congregation merged with Candler Park’s Neighborhood Church (formerly Epworth Methodist), taking the cross atop the steeple with them. The preschool eventually found a larger facility in Inman Park, at the church where Druid Hills’ congregation had branched away from in the 1950s, marking a homecoming of sorts.
Demolition included the removal of the massive church organ and its hundreds of pipes, which Minerva donated to a Tallahassee church under the condition they had to use it for services. The Florida church suggested that Minerva might earn tax credits for the organ’s value, which Davison had figured was very little—until the church’s appraisal came back at $600,000. Oops.
Developers stumbled on the church’s original construction plans in a bin during a yard sale the preschool hosted. Davison says those documents “helped amazingly,” mapping out the building’s steel structure of massive I-beam and walls, floors, and wide hallways of solid concrete. Hertlein’s team designed a third story over the preschool to add density, and decided to fill the sanctuary with six multi-story units, as opposed to stacked flats.
“It’s not cookie-cutter—it’s outside the box,” says the architect. “We love working on old buildings, to make something special out of given conditions.” The former meeting room and outreach kitchen in the church’s basement is being morphed into the amenities area, with a gym, yoga studio, TV lounge, art studio, and boardroom for meetings.
Plans for the overall community of four buildings and 51 condos—which Davison expects to possibly finish in 2023, depending on sales—call for a melding of architectural styles from neighborhoods in each direction. A new, four-condo building that would face Ponce could be mistaken for a Druid Hills estate, with its dormers and hefty scale. Other buildings will take design cues from the traditional, stacked-porch apartments of Virginia-Highland and even the industrial-modern aesthetic of Springdale Park Elementary School next door.
The first 23-condo piece to open includes the sanctuary, preschool, and a two-story extension toward Ponce, with prices from the mid-$600,000s to well over $1 million. Ceilings are at least 10 feet, and even the smallest one-level homes of 1,625 square feet are meant to live like ranch houses, minimizing unusable space and incorporating large patios. The flipside is one “mega unit” that consumes 4,400 square feet at the front of the sanctuary, engulfing part of the former balcony, with a price tag expected to be around $1.5 million.
As of late September, eight condos were under contract—a pace that’s surprised Davison, given the virus-walloped economy and project’s raw status. Initial buyers are expected to move in next month. So far, they’ve run the gamut from downsizing retirees to a single, mid-30s remote Facebook employee who’s decamping from New York and choosing to buy in Atlanta.
“Most of the stuff in here is unlike anything else, and there’s all kinds of different buyers,” says Davison. “It seemed, from all levels of logic, that there’s a market for it.”