An Old Storied Church Becomes an Ethereal Modern-Day Home

A renovated church becomes a home

The Spruce / Marnie Hawson

Home renovations are exciting creative endeavors as well as huge labor-intensive projects. Though each one is distinct, some of the most fascinating processes involve expanding the boundaries of what the meaning of "home" is. Not all renovations are simply a house after all.

In this series, This Is Home, we're sharing unique houses from all around the world in which everyone from DIY enthusiasts to design experts has transformed an unexpected space into one that's not only livable but design-focused, too. These stories delve into the backgrounds of remarkable places, the processes, and all the challenges and wins along the way while making a home out of it, whether it's a barn, castle, cabin, or schoolhouse. No matter what, they're spaces that people call home.

There is something staggering and awe-inspiring about churches—beliefs aside. Deeply religious or not, the grandiose arches, vast space, and intricate details make them a wonder to any person who has even the smallest appreciation for architecture. Adorned with stained glass windows and tall steeples, built up high with Gothic buttresses, or a more modest stony fortress, it's hard not to want to peek inside when you pass one by.

Sarah Hall, one half of the interior styling studio Read & Hall, can relate. This intrigue led her and her husband to renovate a church into a livable space. "My sister Emma lived in the town of Willunga in South Australia where the church was located," explains Hall. "We used to walk past it when visiting and I’d always talk about dreaming of living in it. When it came up for sale, we made a low ball offer which was initially rejected but then accepted many months later after several contracts fell through. We were the last ones standing!"

There were numerous reasons it felt like the perfect fit. Hall says the "blank canvas" appeal drew them in, as did how close in location they would be to her sister, and a Steiner school for their kids. But being drawn to a church goes back further than this for Hall.

Separate childhood memories for both Hall and her husband made their choice to renovate a church all the more kismet. "There was a pencil sketch of a church on the wall of our family home that I used to look at a lot as a kid and dream of what it was like to live inside it," explains Hall. "My husband Adam grew up in an old convent that his parents converted to a house. We are not religious, but something about living in the architecture of a building such as a church or old factory appealed to us."

Blue church door with plants nearby

Marnie Hawson

Garden outdoor area of the church home

Marnie Hawson

A Long History

The particular church they picked came with a long, fascinating history, starting as a Church of Christ back in 1870, which then shut down in 1903. "It has variously been used by the community, including the Country Women's Association, was a POW command center during the war, yoga studio, chiropractor, dance hall, and was also a Masonic Lodge for 30 years," explains Hall. Now it would become a home, but with such a rich history and it being a beautifully unique space, they decided to tread carefully and it took time to get it to the place it is today.

To be expected with any renovation, the process isn't instantaneous, so Hall and her family had to get creative with their lifestyle and sleeping arrangements. "We lived in the church for two years with tents set up as bedrooms whilst we were waiting for heritage grants, council approvals, and just taking our time working out how to divide up the space sensitively and minimally, so we could preserve as much of the 5.5-meter ceiling height as possible," she says. "Once that was decided the building process was quick—a few months—as my husband Adam built the mezzanine."

Living area of church conversion

Design: Sarah Hall / Photography: Marnie Hawson

A Renovation Not Without Challenges

As the renovation progressed, a few challenges presented themselves along the way. Waiting on the State Heritage approval slowed things down and several additions had proven to be a no-go. They couldn't build skylights into the slate roof, additional windows weren't possible either, and ducted air conditioning was impossible because of how thick the walls are.

While that could've been enough, they were presented with another challenge when the ideas they had for an extension quickly came to a standstill. "We had an extension planned for the rear of the church and our finance fell through at the last minute due to its State Heritage listing," explains Hall. "It’s still not done, so we had to add our [primary] bedroom under the mezzanine for the time being. It’s worked out great because our kids are still young but it’ll be great to do the extension and create our [primary] bedrooms, and ensuite."

Despite axed bedroom extensions and finite parameters on windows, it still wasn't enough to slow their ambitions. "Adam is a drafter so we knew how to get creative with the plans, room sizes, ceiling heights, etc.," says Hall. "We felt we had all the skills to do it and our excitement kept fueling us even through the delays, although certainly there were times we thought it was easier to have just bought a house. Very happy we didn’t though!"

A peek into the kitchen area

Design: Sarah Hall / Photography: Marnie Hawson

Rooms in the church house

Design: Sarah Hall / Photography: Marnie Hawson

The large open area with the record player

Design: Sarah Hall / Photography: Marnie Hawson

Fortunately, there's almost always a positive side to the tougher aspects of creating your own home. Every long and stressful day and renovation limitation has an equal and opposite perk of living in a place that's a stretch from the standard idea of a "house." Hall says, "I love having room for big artwork and furniture, I’m not living with the restrictions of usual house dimensions." She also adores the openness of the space: "Seeing the clouds from the windows is so beautiful. The fact that we can move furniture around and create different vignettes and 'rooms,' you can play a lot more creatively."

Creating a Space With a Unique Style

If she had to play favorites she would look to the first room you see upon entering, which is where "we spend most of our time, playing records, lounging on couches, sitting by the fire, [and] doing jigsaw puzzles on the round table." The space is even equipped with a swing, plenty of comfy seating, and an eclectic, yet cohesive gallery wall.

A bedroom in the house

Design: Sarah Hall / Photography: Marnie Hawson

Decorating a space as original as this might feel intimidating at first, but Hall takes an approach that's authentic to her own style that still complements the space. Her stance isn't heard very often but it's a refreshing and brilliant bit of advice anyone can use for determining their own home decor style. "I only select what I like at the time," she says. "I don’t use Pinterest or create mood boards; it’s too intimate being our own space. I just add in what I like and it all seems to work." She also adds, "Mostly, I think if you love each piece it all just seems to work well together."

Though she gravitates toward neutrals, she's not scared to mix and match different hues and shades from that palette. Much like her home, decorative pieces with a story, too. "I like the history of objects and grouping them together by colors or tones," she says. "Styling that tells a story is what I am always drawn to."

Living area equipped with a swing

Design: Sarah Hall / Photography: Marnie Hawson

They sourced a lot of the items in their home from charity shops, auctions, and flea markets, which certainly helped maintain a look that's appealing to the modern eye but completely original and true to their tastes. And it didn't hurt that they're used to finding these pieces in treasure troves of markets and stores, Hall and her sister Emma occasionally sell vintage items through their website and on @readandhalltraders.

Could another renovation like this entice her again? She gives a resounding: "You bet!" Although the home still has projects in progress (like the garden and extension) it hasn't stopped her from continuing the renovation excitement. "Whilst we’ve been renovating the church, we have also been renovating old beach shacks with my sister and turning them into accommodation @mysisterandthesea and @loveandmutiny," she explains. "It’s such a good feeling bringing buildings and old houses back to life!"