Retail's Afterlife: The Mall-ification of the American Church

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summer grove baptist churchBy Alice Hines

Stroll through White Oaks Mall in Springfield, Ill., and you'll see the usual suspects: Spencer Gifts, Panda Express, Gap Kids (GPS). If you're preoccupied, you might not even notice iWorship. The low-key illuminated "iWC" sign, flat-screen TV, and a welcome banner splashed with what look like '90s-era tech-company logos give it the appearance of a computer repair shop. Only if you look closely -- or happen to be there on a Sunday morning -- might you realize that iWorship is a church.

iWorship Center isn't your typical Christian congregation. The self-proclaimed "media-driven" church opened in the space previously occupied by the White Oaks Mall Cinema in 2010, when membership at its first location had reached capacity. Sermons are preached in the theaters, with portions simulcasted onscreen. Originally, two of the theaters were to be converted into the aptly named "Paintball Heaven" in a deal struck with mall management to help the church pay its lease.

Malls and churches may seem like an strange combination, like Auntie Annie's pretzels washed down with communion wine. Still, over the past decade, congregations in Kentucky, Alabama, Tennessee, Michigan, Florida, Ohio, and Colorado, among others, have taken advantage of cheap suburban retail space to expand.

Store Purgatory; Seeker Paradise

As malls across the country empty out, it's no wonder their remains are being scavenged. According to the International Council of Shopping Centers, a third of America's indoor malls are currently in "financial distress." Retailers are leaving indoor and strip malls for popular outdoor "lifestyle centers," those cutesy, mixed-use developments that resemble the Main Streets their predecessors helped destroy.

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Retail's Afterlife: The Mall-ification of the American Church

“Be not simply good,” Thoreau once mused. “Be good for something.” With another Earth Day fresh in our minds, AOL Real Estate has compiled a list of repurposed homes that speak to the heart of sustainable design. Instead of building homes from the ground up, consider some of these breathtaking, eco-friendly designs. From converted churches and grown-up tree houses, to futuristic grain silos and reclaimed war bunkers, the unique homes on our list crisscross the country in search of new life for old haunts. Click through to see the full list.  

Location: Adirondack Mtns, NY

Price: $2.3 million (cash)

Ever wanted to live like a Bond villain? The Atlas F missile base was built during the height of the Cold War, but when the Soviet threat came and went, the field would lay barren for years -- until a pair of entrepreneurial cousins decided to revamp the underground lair. Click on to see the A-bomb-ready interior.

Located in New York's Adirondack State Park, the secrets lurking beneath this 20-acre property are well-hidden by a quaint cabin facade.   

Inside, the home offers scenic views of the natural preserve surrounding it. With Lake Placid nearby and a private air strip on the property, visitors could easily mistake the property for a quiet millionaire's retreat. That is, until they venture down the winding staircase.

The giant pillar in the center of this entertainment room is actually the launch control center tower. The designers maintained many of the original structures from the home's past life as a radiation deflecting, Cold War-era missile silo.

The two level, 2,300 square foot underground portion of the home is built around the launch control center's unique cylindrical design. Pictured to the left is the kitchen, where you and your loved ones can ride out the next nuclear holocaust in total luxury.

Location: Chicago, IL

There's nothing sacrilegious about reclaiming some of Chicago's prettiest real estate - especially when said property was a former house of worship.

This 19th century Lutheran church was previously owned by a print media professor who converted the cathedral into a loft space. 

This venerable home includes 40-foot ceilings, oak staircases and three bedrooms. Best of all, the designers retained the church's bi-level bell tower. 

Location: Portland, Oregon

Price: $225,000

This 1949 Portland sleeper car has been completely remodeled to suit the modern needs of any railway history buff. At 85 feet long (or roughly half the size of a Portland city block, according to the seller), the car is surprisingly spacious. 

At 9 1/2 feet wide with a 10-foot domed ceiling, the interior cabin is perfect for hosting social or business gatherings and beats the heck out of renting downtown office space. There's also a parking space out front, but who needs wheels when you can hook up your sleeper car to a working train engine and cruise the west coast?

Go to sleep in Portland and wake up in Santa Fe in your first class bedroom. And lest you start feeling too disconnected from the outside world, the train car comes equipped with high-speed Internet.

While the property is technically considered "rolling stock" and not real estate (since the track is not part of the deal), living in a train car does have its advantages. No property taxes, for instance.

Location: Olympic Peninsula, WA

Is there anything greener than actually living amongst the trees? Treehouse Workshop, a Washington-based architectural think-tank of sorts for the arboreally inclined, constructed this stunning home in 2005. 

Built in the Swiss Chalet style, this grown-up treehouse features a two-tiered bedroom arrangement that sleeps up to four children-at-heart.

Talk about circle of life. The treehouse comes with its very own wood-burning fireplace. Even the restored leaded glass windows are eco-friendly.

Speak to your inner Peter Pan by venturing off your wooded terrace and into the lush forests of the Olympic Peninsula.

Location: Philadelphia, PA

This former trolley-repair garage may look old-fashioned on the outside, but inside it's an haute-contempo loft residence. After it housed trolleys, it had a second life as a firehouse. We think it's still pretty hot.

The original condition left a lot to be desired--proving once again that repurposing an old building takes a little bit of vision and a lot of elbow grease.

Transformed, the loft shows no signs of the firehouse it once was--except, perhaps, for the stovepipe, which in the right light looks just like a fire pole.

Location: Woodland, Utah
The lavish reimagining of two linked grain silos on the Provo River gives the term "gentleman farner" new meaning. According to the architect, the corrugated-metal cylinders--the larger one only just 27 feet in diameter--are "a cozy home to accommodate a single man and weekend guests."

Crawl into your sleeping pod. You may not have a lot of room to move around, but each "bed in a box" is complete with its own built-in stereo and flat-screen television.

Lounge beside the big picture windows while taking in views of the Provo River. Don't worry if you don't have your slippers--radiant-heated floors keep tootsies toasty.

The sleek galley-style kitchen has a corrugated-metal backsplash and rubber tile floors, appropriate for a former hard-working building.

Don't sit too close to the metal siding, you might get burned. But it's great for holding in the heat during the winter months--as is the propane stove that can be turned on and off over the Internet.

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