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.