Thursday, August 27, 2015

What to do about churches? (part one)

St. Patrick's Church, Kinkora

The beautiful country churches we saw on the tour last time are not listed or designated under the Ontario Heritage Act.  Interestingly, however, St. Patrick’s, Kinkora, is designated as one of seven “cultural heritage locations” under the County of Perth’s Official Plan. (Note 1)

Is it just me or does the inclusion of a definitive list of cultural heritage sites in an Official Plan seem like a bad idea?  At the same time it’s a bit shocking that there are only seven — three of them churches — in the whole county.  (Reminds me of the Woody Allen joke at the beginning of Annie Hall where a hotel guest says, “The food here is terrible!”, and her friend replies, “Yes, and such small portions.”)

Something else jumps out.  The Official Plan says:

All alterations to, or demolitions of, buildings, structures and sites designated "Cultural Heritage", or designated under the Ontario Heritage Act, must receive approval of the local municipal Council.

Mmmn… this means that alteration or demolition of St. Patrick’s, which is on the list but not designated under the OHA, would nonetheless require the approval of the local council.  Almost certainly not kosher!  The courts have frowned on municipalities using Official Plans to regulate property when they have specific legislative tools to do so, something we’ll look at in a future post for its implications for heritage protection.

But back to churches.  And the question of how public policy in Ontario has responded to the challenges to their preservation.

Maybe we start here…  it’s 1980 and the board of the Ontario Heritage Foundation (now the Ontario Heritage Trust) is meeting in Toronto.  I’m in the room as a new staff member.  The board is wrestling, again, with a particularly thorny question — what to do about the adamant refusal of churches, or rather their owners, to accept OHF grant money for restoration and repair.  While eager for the funding, the church owners won't agree to a major condition that comes with it: that they enter into a heritage conservation easement agreement with the OHF for a very long term, the longest in fact — perpetuity.

Some context.  The Foundation’s innovative easements program had been steaming along pretty happily since it was set up following the passage of the Ontario Heritage Act in 1975, when the OHF and municipalities got the ability to acquire heritage easements.  The program went hand-in-hand with the Foundation’s then-healthy capital grants program.  Beyond undertaking to do funded work according to conservation principles, recipients of grants also had to agree to certain conditions designed to protect the property (and the public investment in it) into the future.  These were typically municipal designation and an OHF easement.  Remember that not until 2005 did municipal designation permanently protect against demolition.  By contrast, the heritage easement mechanism was air-tight in that respect, and the Foundation’s standard agreement provided that it would run “in perpetuity.”

But, though it may seem a little ironic, church organizations did not at all like the idea of “forever” when it came to agreements limiting what they could do with their buildings.  They wanted something much, much shorter — say 25 years.  (Had this idea been accepted, many of the Ontario Heritage Trust easements on churches would now have expired!)

After much debate the Foundation’s board voted in the end to make an exception for churches, and require easements for 99 years rather than in perpetuity.  Whether it was otherwise defensible to treat places of worship differently from other types of heritage property, the decision produced a good result.  Most if not all church applicants accepted the compromise and signed agreements for 99 year terms.  The money flowed and churches were saved, and protected, which might not have been. 

One of the first churches to benefit was Assumption Church in Windsor (its easement, which includes protection of the magnificent interior, would still have about 65 years left to run).

Assumption Church, Windsor

Assumption Church interior

That board meeting stands out in my memory as the first time I made a “policy” pitch to the members of the Ontario Heritage Foundation (I argued for the 99 year option).  One of those members was Anthony (Tony) Adamson, a restoration architect and co-author of Hallowed Walls.  While having his say in the churches discussion, Tony amused himself doing what architects often do — doodling.  On the back of an agenda paper, retrieved by me later as a souvenir of the day, here is what he drew.

Anthony Adamson's sketch of a church, created during a 1980 OHF board meeting

Tony Adamson’s comical sketch, whimsically captioned “A perpetual church recycled as a porno movie [house] for 55 years”, suggests not just the provincial debate about the term of church easements but also the issue of the adaptive re-use of redundant churches.  More on this and the particular predicament of our heritage places of worship next time.

Note 1: The Official Plan covers all of the county with the exception of Stratford and St. Marys, which have their own OPs.  The list of cultural heritage sites dates from the last update in 2007.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Churches -- a country tour

Rose window, St. Patrick's, Kinkora

Another Ontario heritage anniversary.  Forty years ago, in 1975, Marion MacRae and Anthony Adamson published their groundbreaking Hallowed Walls: Church Architecture of Upper Canada.  In the Prelude they wrote:

They had … faith and they built for it, places of worship which were temples of the spirit, social centres of the growing communities and, all too frequently, the only buildings in which they could afford the luxury of beautiful space.  It would be an irreparable mistake to let buildings which played so vital a role in the social history of the province disappear without record or comment.

Churches, places of worship — for the preservationist another weighty topic, right?  So let’s ease into it.  I’ll start by taking you on a little pictorial tour of three country churches in this part of the world (Perth County).  Unlike many, these churches — or at least the buildings — seem to be doing just fine.

Avonbank Presbyterian Church

One of my favourites, this little church is in a tiny place called Avonbank (not to be confused with nearby Avonton, and certainly not Avonlea!).  Constructed in 1890 as a Presbyterian church, it has a quiet simplicity and grace.  Its congregation long ago combined with that of Motherwell Presbyterian, a few miles away, and the building today is used rarely — for one annual service, a candlelight carol celebration at Christmas and for the odd wedding or special event.  But, as you see, it is well-maintained and someone has planted the flower pots beside the door.

The adjacent cemetery has four very handsome fieldstone gateposts.  These are from 1929, which seems to have been a time, in these parts at least, when the second and third generations began to publicly commemorate the achievements of their settler forbears.  The sentiments this evoked are beautifully captured on plaques on two of the gateposts.

Several miles to the north, on Highway 8 — the old Huron Road — is Seebach’s Hill and First St. John’s Lutheran Church.

First St. John's Lutheran Church, Seebach's Hill, with cemetery entrance and corner of buggy barn to right

The church, built in 1927, replaced earlier ones on the site.  It too has a cemetery (special to me because my Schneider great-grandparents are buried there).  Note that the cemetery entrance, visible to the right, has very similar fieldstone gateposts to Avonbank’s — the same craftsman? — this time with the date 1931.

But the really remarkable thing about Seebach’s Hill is the church’s old buggy barn.  I have never seen one like it.

Old buggy barn, St. John's Lutheran Church, Seebach's Hill

The huge barn — 260 by 54 feet! — clearly belonged to the old church but has somehow survived and become… a car barn.  How many other rural churches do you know that have covered parking?  And, by the way, is this still religious heritage or something else?  Is this a case of adaptive re-use or just continued use accommodating changing technology?

Buggy barn interior

Just up the road, on the way to our last stop in Kinkora, we’ll stop to admire the striking circular cairn to Andrew and Eva Seebach.  Seebach — like Sebastian Fryfogel, who built the iconic Fryfogel Tavern to the east of Stratford — had one of the early settler inns on the Huron Road.  Mmmn… more fieldstone work, dated 1928, the centenary of the opening of the Huron Road and the Seebachs’ arrival here.

Seebach cairn

A couple miles north, almost lost in the cornfields, is the quiet hamlet of Kinkora — in Gaelic Kinkora means “place of beauty.”  While the Roman Catholic church here is, not surprisingly, St. Patrick’s, what is surprising is the grandeur of the church.  It’s a stunner!

St. Patrick's Roman Catholic Church, Kinkora

The church, from 1882, is in fact the work of noted Ontario ecclesiastical architect Joseph Connolly.  Connolly is perhaps best known for the majestic Basilica of Our Lady Immaculate that dominates downtown Guelph.  How the local Irish farming community managed to lure Connolly to this unlikely spot — and pay for this sumptuous building — is a story I have yet to discover.  Unlike the limestone Guelph church, Kinkora is of brick, in polychromatic High Victorian Gothic.  The interior is sublime and and the building has a very pretty separate side chapel.  Alas, the spire on the tower, visible for miles across these flatlands, had to be taken down a decade or so ago, although there are hopes it may be reconstructed.

Several years back, after the church was part of a local Doors Open, attracting a wider audience and more attention, St. Patrick’s received an award from Architectural Conservancy Ontario for the efforts of the parish in restoring and maintaining this marvellous structure.  Talk about the “luxury of beautiful space.”

St. Patrick's, Kinkora interior

These three churches — and their associated cemeteries, gates and buggy barns — are lucky to survive and continue to be lovingly preserved by their communities.  None is listed or designated under the Ontario Heritage Act.  Should they be?  Of course — we’ll get into this and more thoughts on the protection and preservation of religious heritage next time.

Quatrefoil stained glass window, St. Patrick's, Kinkora

By the way… thanks for reading!