A home AND a concert venue? That’ll do nicely
American-British classical pianist Kit Armstrong has no particular religious attachment, but the practical possibilities of living in a church attracted him and his mother, May, when the idea was first put to them.
“We were looking for properties and the estate agent suggested this church, so we went to have a look,” he said. “Once we were there, the possibilities opened up and we decided to buy it in 2012.”
Although not a churchgoer, Kit is familiar with churches due to his work as a concert pianist. “They are often used as venues for concerts,” he said. “In smaller towns they are sometimes the only venue suitable for a concert. The acoustics in churches are usually very good for music because they were built with music in mind. And of course, over the years there has been a lot of music written for the church, which sounds best in churches.”
Kit and May approached the town council in Hirson, Aisne, where the art deco, reinforced-concrete Sainte Thérèse de l’Enfant Jésus church is an important building opposite the railway station.
“The town council was keen for the building to be used for cultural purposes and when we first approached them with our idea for the main body of the church to be used as a concert venue, as well as my practice area, they gave us full-hearted support,” said Kit.
“The help of the town has been invaluable in getting all the planning permissions and other administrative help.”
The main body of the church has remained largely untouched. It is where Kit practises and where concerts are held. He and May live in what was the sacristy, which they have converted into a six-bedroom apartment. “We needed space to put up the visiting musicians and friends who we invite for concerts,” Kit said.
Being of relatively modern construction and in the centre of town, the church was fully supplied with water and electricity.
Work on the building had started in 1929 and it was designed and paid for by the inventor of reinforced concrete pipes, Aimé Bonna, who grew up in the town.
Kit left most of the work to professionals, but did and does, some DIY projects.
“When you own a building there are always things which come up,” he said.
He and May spent €125,000 to buy the church in 2012, but the work has added to the bill ‘by several factors’.
Grants from the town, department and cultural organisations have helped with the public part of the building, especially in meeting the standards for fire safety and other public access requirements. They have also helped with the promotion of concerts held every year since 2014, which have been packed out.
Kit formed an association to promote music in the town, which also provides help and support. His contacts in the music world have helped get some big names to Hirson, a small town of around 10,000 people, which was not previously known as a cultural centre.
“Everyone who has come to play has been very enthusiastic.
“It is a very nice town, and the countryside around it is wonderful.”
While there is a lot of on-going maintenance, (and a roof which will need repair work in the future) the experience of living and working in the church has been overwhelmingly positive.
“There are times when you get up in the morning and come out into this magnificent space which is our living room, and you are just conscious of how very special it is,” said Kit.
“They are moments to live for.”
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