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.
The movies were wrong. While they may have viewers shouting at the main character to avoid that abandoned church at all costs, the cinema has overlooked the exciting discoveries and potential home life that masterfully-crafted arches, wooden beams, and flying buttresses can provide.
Some may be haunted at the prospect of taking up residence in a former church, but Gunther and Anastasiia du Hoffmann of All Saints House fell in love with the potential. Their journey of crafting a comfortable home out of a Gothic Revival church in Maryland has resulted in an appreciation for giving buildings a second chance and a space that would make anyone want to pack up their bags and find the nearest steeple for sale.
It's not every day that a Gothic Revival church appears on the real estate market, much less that word gets out about it. So how does one come across such a place?
"Well, we have always loved the idea of purchasing an old home—one with history, character, and enough renovation projects to keep us busy for a while," explains Anastasiia du Hoffmann. "This church, in particular, was a mysterious old building overrun with vines, down the road from our little farm house." After admiring it during daily drives, in 2013 it appeared on the market. "We inquired with the seller's realtor, but never heard back, assuming it must have been sold relatively quickly," she says.
Four years later, on a day in January, the couple passed by in a car and clocked an "Open House" sign outside of it. "We slammed on the breaks and quickly pulled into the driveway," she explains. "This was an opportunity we couldn’t pass! "
They were instantly in love. A combination of features—such as original stained glass and gothic arches—completely won them over as well as the "overall feeling that it's meant to be ours."
An old church may not be the most common house type to live in and renovate, but it wasn't a strange idea for the du Hoffmanns. "This beautiful building that once served as a place of worship has been abandoned and was in danger of being lost to time and elements," she explains. "The very first owner put an incredible amount of work into preserving it, and we are so grateful to now be the stewards of this unique place in continuing that work."
The family was now responsible for giving the church its next reincarnation following a long and winding history. "All Saints Church was established when George R. Goldsborough donated 35 acres of the Mill Farm to the local diocese for the purpose of building a church," says du Hoffmann. "The first structure was built in 1870 and burned to the ground on the New Year’s Eve of 1899."
A new structure rose from the ashes during the last year of the 19th century. She notes that the building was actually paid for by the widow of the man who initially donated the acreage for the church. "In a will executed on May 3, 1899, George Goldsborough had directed that the remainder of the Mill Farm be sold and the proceeds set apart for the support of All Saints' Church," she says.
The parish brought together local farming communities and was eventually deconsecrated in the 1950s. The area formerly contained other buildings, too, including a mill, sexton's lodge, and barn. When religious services halted, so did the use of the building.
It stayed dormant until 1982 when it was purchased and turned into a private residence and artist studio. Three owners later, the du Hoffmanns are now making it a well-designed home for their family. Although there were plenty of projects for them to take on, because of the renovations that begin in the 1980s, the church was fortunately fairly livable when they moved in.
A "functioning (ish) home" is how du Hoffmann describes it, which didn't necessarily cut down on what tasks had to take place. "The sheer scale of jobs that need to be done is quite overwhelming—roofing, repainting of the exterior, as well as bringing the building up to date on many other utilitarian aspects," she says. "While we believed ourselves to be prepared for this project, I don’t think we truly realized the volume of work that this place requires, as well as continuous maintenance. Even furnishing this home has proven to be quite a task!"
With the frustrations that tag along with renovations also come unique findings, of which they had a few—the most exciting being a buried pathway. "One day, after hosting a Cub Scout event for one of our sons, I was busy putting the Great Room back together," explains du Hoffmann. "With a mop in hand, I noticed Gunther poking the ground by the front entrance with a screwdriver. I, of course, perceived it as an excuse to get out of hours of cleaning, and grew quite impatient, when I saw Gunther bring out a shovel."
After a bit of digging, a brick herringbone walkway appeared. "This was a stellar find, and I am forever impressed with Gunther for making that discovery," she says. "We’ve lifted all the bricks, added proper drainage, and laid the path back in the original pattern."
The treasure troves of discoveries that come with unique homes are a definite perk, but there are many more reasons why the renovations of old storied homes and structures are worth the time and financial investment they require. "We, for instance, enjoy being a part of this building’s history, having an opportunity to appreciate its grandeur, craftsmanship, and remarkable beauty, as well as a chance of learning quite a few renovation skills," she says.
She also adds that there is a sustainability and societal impact in showing antiquated homes extra TLC. "In addition to keeping things out of the landfill, there is the preservation aspect of saving an old building and its history for many generations to come."
When a home already comes with such a striking personality, handling renovations isn't the only complicated part—designing and decorating are equally as difficult. Finding the right look for a fascinating space is easier said than done. "In the first year we went through quite a few style iterations, ranging between ostentatiously uncomfortable, and contemporary functional, finally striking a good balance somewhere in between," remembers du Hoffmann. "Some spaces came together rather effortlessly, while others required time to be 'understood.'"
As of right now, the home has been infused with a mixture of eclectic pieces as well as more classic staples. They've sourced a large portion of their home goods from antique shops and thrift stores. "As keen preservationists and somewhat environmentally conscious individuals, we love to be able to fill our home with things that have history, things that weren’t made in the 'fast fashion' industry, and are truly of great quality," she says. Occasionally, new items do make the cut, but this is rare. They have to be unique and one of a kind in order to "earn their place" in the home and be worth the purchase.
This blend of old and new creates the perfect environment for experimenting with different color palettes. To start out, they played things safe, opting for an off-white color as default. Now, bold colors are now beginning to tiptoe their way in. "For instance, we recently braved a deep dark green for our kitchen, and are contemplating a turmeric yellow for the Great Room," she says.
She's particularly fond of both of these rooms, though the one she has the most affinity for depends on the time of day. Upon waking, it's the kitchen with "beautiful morning light streaming through the windows." When the late afternoon rolls around, the Great Room earns the title of her favorite hangout. "The kitchen is quite cozy and intimate, while the Great Room has a 'wow' factor with 25-foot ceilings and incredible woodwork," she says.
There is also a future favorite area that's top of mind. "We get to embark on the adventure of renovation of the belfry—our favorite spot to be! While we are still far from beginning that project, we are looking forward to creating a 360° viewing room on the third, and a beautiful guest bedroom on the second floor of the tower."
Still in the midst of renovating their church home, a new project isn't a priority right now for the du Hoffmanns. That being said, they haven't avoided toying with the idea of big plans down the road—one of their "long-term dreams" is working their renovation magic on a property in France or Italy.