HomeStory: New life for an old church
By Ulrich Stefan Knoll
Anke Nuxoll-Oster is a DIY enthusiast. She stumbled on her first house by chance, before devoting herself passionately to rescuing old buildings and letting them to guests.
By the end of the year, her fourth HolidayArchitecture project, the old church in Bernkastel-Wehlen on the Mosel, will open its doors, and for the first time in Germany guests will be able to stay in a church, and later the adjacent fire station. An encouraging story for anyone who has ever secretly dreamed of creating their own HolidayArchitecture property.
Anke, you graduated as a business administrator and before embarking on your first project had no direct experience with the renovation of buildings, or of the hospitality industry. Did you, so to speak, “fall into” the role of holiday property architect?
Anke Nuxoll-Oster: You could say that. The story began back in 2007, when we completed the conversion of our home in an old property into apartments for several generations, and it won the 1st prize in the readers’ vote for conversions and extensions in the Zuhause Wohnen magazine.
The magazine sent a photographer and stylist to cover the story for an article in the magazine. No sooner had they left the house when the doorbell rang again. The stylist just had to tell me that she thought I had a talent for interior design and should consider doing it professionally. I was quite surprised, as it had never occurred to me.
In fact I was already beginning to think I wanted a career change, and I managed to make it reality not long afterwards. At that time I couldn’t imagine myself designing the interiors of other people’s homes, so I began by buying a property in Cologne and converting it to a boarding house with six apartments. This was the first time I was able to give full rein to my ideas in my new profession. And it went well, so I then undertook another boarding house, with fifteen apartments, in Essen.
So, how did you enter the holiday home sector?
Anke Nuxoll-Oster: I guess you could say it was again by an indirect route. We often had problems finding a nice apartment in the Sauerland for our skiing holiday, and at one stage I became so frustrated that I thought it might well be easier to do it myself. I came across a suitable house in Winterberg, which we acquired in 2012 and now both rent out and use ourselves. Renting it out was essential, as otherwise there was no way we would have been able to afford our own holiday home.
Things went well in Winterberg, and as I began to feel more confident letting out holiday homes, I progressed to more distinctive properties. Other projects – Monschaubleibe (2013), Sauerlandbleibe (2014) and Brückenvilla (2015) – followed, and are all listed with HolidayArchitecture.
Your latest project is the conversion of a church on the Mosel. Tell us about it!
Anke Nuxoll-Oster: Yes, it’s really extraordinary. I can still hardly believe that I’m now in the process of the first conversion in Germany of a church to a holiday home. There are many of these in the Netherlands and the UK, but it’s new territory here.
We learned from our Sauerlandbleibe property that there is a high demand for modern group and seminar accommodation, so we were deliberately looking for a larger building. I came across the old church in Wehlen as a result of an online notice by the town council of Bernkastel, who had for some time been looking for a new owner. No one wanted to take it on, as it had fallen into disrepair. The town council lacked the financial resources to maintain it, so the rain had been coming in for years, causing substantial damage to the fabric of the building. But its year of construction, 1669, and its many historical features meant it still had plenty of character.
The church was perfect for us, since the local population had outgrown it over 100 years ago, a new church was built and the old one deconsecrated and converted to almshouses – these existing subdivisions make it ideal for a group holiday let. The building had several further changes of use, so the people of Wehlen were well accustomed to the idea of their church being used for alternative purposes – something that I believe was very helpful when it came to acceptance of my new project.
The main body of the church, with its eight-metre high vaulted ceiling, is now being converted to an open-plan kitchen with dining area and seminar facilities. In future, the top floor will provide space for workshops, yoga courses and other group activities. There will be a total of ten bedrooms and seven bathrooms for guests. If there is enough money we will hopefully be able to offer access from one of the bedrooms to the church tower, which has a breathtaking view of the world-famous Wehlener Sonnenuhr vineyard with its distinctive sundial. And the beautiful church gardens will in future be an attractive place for relaxing and barbecues, with further space for parties and events to be developed later in the vaulted cellar.
But this is all to come. At the moment I’m completely immersed in the organisation of the building works, where I am currently particularly involved with the choir – dealing with issues of noise and heating in a space like this is of course a major challenge, and one that is quite new to me.
When you consider how the church used to look, it begs the question: aren’t projects like this usually incredibly time-consuming and difficult to budget for? Or have you always been driven by your passion, so there was never any question about it?
Anke Nuxoll-Oster: Yes, I fall in love with all my houses from the start and then there’s absolutely no going back. It was particularly difficult with the church, because I had to spend nine months fighting to get a bank loan. A building like this is a mortgage valuer’s nightmare and it was reported as unfinanceable several times. And the only bank that was ultimately prepared to lend the money to us set us a very strict budget, which means that every day I’m faced with the dilemma of what I can do and what we have to leave out. It’s certainly been a difficult birth. But when the renovations are complete, I’m sure that all the stress will be worth it.
What do you think are the qualities needed to successfully convert and rent out houses? Could anyone do it?
Anke Nuxoll-Oster: I think a few things are important here. Whenever I see a new property, often a very dilapidated one, I immediately have a vision, a very precise image, of what I can make of it and how it will eventually look. Some people think I’m crazy. I never see the way it is now, but always the final outcome.
Add to this the fact that I love travelling and so often discover places that inspire me. I take the features that I particularly like and am often able to adapt and include them in a new project. In this way I’ve created a kind of archive of all the impressions I’ve gained over the years, which I’ve used to inspire my own creations. Over time I’ve definitely developed the ability to have ideas on the spot, however varied the houses are that I’ve worked on.
But in addition to creativity, you need a good deal of courage and a sense of adventure. I am actually always very confident that the houses will prove profitable and things will go the way I planned them – if you only focus on the problems, you’ll never get anything done. My background in business administration is definitely a plus for me; an enterprise like this one can’t get by on creativity alone. Sadly, old buildings continuously surprise you with some hidden defect requiring more expenditure, and I must admit that we’ve gone over-budget on every project. This means that it’s essential to include a substantial financial cushion in the plans from the start. I always do that. (She smiles.)
What do you like most about renting out holiday properties?
Anke Nuxoll-Oster: The best aspect is saving the houses and apartments from decay, carefully renovating them and then decorating and furnishing them entirely to your own taste. It’s a little like reinventing your own home again and again. And it’s a wonderful thing to get so much positive feedback from guests – to know that they feel at home in “my world”.
Four HolidayArchitecture properties – is that all for now?
Anke Nuxoll-Oster: (laughs) I do intend for this to be the last. I’m gradually reaching my limit, as I manage all the lettings myself. But I’ve always secretly dreamed of a finca on Majorca… so who knows?
Accommodation in the Old Church in Bernkastel-Wehlen can be booked from 2018 at www.bleibe.de. The property offers space for up to 24 people for seminars, workshops or family occasions. The fire station on the same site will be available at a later date, housing 4-6 people.
Rendering: Architecture visualisation: b i s architekten (plans: Anke Nuxoll-Oster).
Site photos: tonimedia GmbH, Rights: Anke Nuxoll-Oster.
Photos Monschaubleibe / Brückenvilla: Studio B23, Yvonne Kirch, Rights: Anke Nuxoll-Oster.
Photos Sauerlandbleibe: Constantin Meyer