Friday, September 25, 2015

What to do about churches? (part three)

Stained glass dome, Highgate United Church, now Mary Webb
Cultural and Community Centre, Highgate 

There’s something else about churches…  

Back to basics for a minute.  Built heritage conservation is not supposed to be about use (as long as there is a viable one of course!).  So whether an old factory is used for its original industrial purpose, adapted for commercial use or turned into chic condos is all the same — right? — provided its heritage features are identified and respected along the way.  Heritage is about the fabric or “bricks-and-mortar,” the physical features of the place; while what takes place within/on that fabric/property — the way it is used — is pretty much irrelevant.

This at any rate is the premise of our chief tools for legal protection — heritage designation and heritage easements under the OHA.  They do not in themselves restrict (or permit) the use that can be made of a property or place.  Zoning, our basic land use planning mechanism, does that.

And yet, we do accept that a heritage structure continuing in its original use is the best of all scenarios.  From the Appleton Charter:

Use — A property should be used for its original purpose. If this is not feasible, every reasonable effort shall be made to find a compatible use which requires minimal alteration. … [Note 1]

So continuing original use is almost always preferable to adaptive re-use.  Why?  Obviously it’s simpler, less complicated.  Adaptive re-use involves, well, adaptation and intervention — physical changes which may have an impact on heritage attributes.  But it’s more than that.  Something else inevitably melts away when an old building is repurposed (as we now like to say) and its traditional use ends.  Something intangible.  Hard therefore to nail down, but having to do with a heightened sense of place, nearness of the past, consciousness of continuity.  Sometimes we call this, rather inadequately I think, authenticity.

Nowhere is this more the case than with churches, places of worship, places where generations of people have come together as a community to celebrate their faith.  A church repurposed, even to the highest conservation standards, can’t help but be a shell of what it was… you could go so far as to say its “soul” has been lost. [Note 2]

Indulging the metaphor, this may help explain the reluctance of some faith organizations to save the “body” (the fabric) when the “soul” (the spiritual focus) of a building is no more.  Unfortunately they sometimes choose to overlook the possibility that their place of worship could continue to serve as another group’s place of worship.

St. George's Greek Orthodox Church, formerly a synagogue (Holy Blossom Temple), Toronto

For public policy, all this suggests that special measures should be considered to keep heritage places of worship as just that — places to worship — as well as to help overcome barriers to adaptive re-use when that’s not possible.  What might these be?

To start, tax-exempt status clearly benefits continuing use by faith organizations and should be maintained.  To facilitate ongoing use, heritage restrictions must be applied very gingerly, especially when it comes to alterations for liturgical reasons and for meeting a congregation's current needs.  But to really improve things there needs to be meaningful financial incentives to help with religious building conservation — to fix that roof! — incentives which Ontario, unlike Quebec, currently (and for way too long) doesn't have.  [Note 3]

But lately Ontario has been doing some things well.  Inventories of course are vital and, at the provincial level, the Ontario Heritage Trust has compiled a mammoth and ongoing on-line inventory of Ontario’s places of worship.  The Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport, for its part, recently added a guide to preserving and protecting religious properties to its popular Ontario Heritage Tool Kit.  [Note 4]

After many, many years of doing bubkas for churches, what was the spur for these provincial initiatives?  Therein lies quite a tale… for next time.

Note 1: The Appleton Charter for the Protection and Enhancement of the Built Environment, ICOMOS Canada (English-Speaking Committee), 1983.

Note 2: The Ontario Heritage Act defines “heritage attributes” (a term used in the Act only in the context of heritage designation) narrowly: “in relation to real property, and to the buildings and structures on the real property, the attributes of the property, buildings and structures that contribute to their cultural heritage value or interest.”  Use is not mentioned, nor does the word appear in the designation criteria in Reg. 9/06 and 10/06.

By contrast, the non-legislative Standards and Guidelines for the Conservation of Historic Places in Canada takes a broader, looser approach, defining “character-defining elements” as “the materials, forms, location, spatial configurations, uses and cultural associations or meanings that contribute to the heritage value of an historic place, which must be retained in order to preserve its heritage value” (underlining added).  

Note 3: In the last 20 years the Quebec government has funnelled close to $300 million to the Conseil du patrimoine religieux du Quebec for the safeguarding of that province's religious heritage (both immoveable and moveable).  The last time the Ontario government had a grant program targeted to built heritage conservation, including churches, was the Heritage Challenge Fund of 1999-2001, which provided just five million dollars on a matching basis for the whole province.  

Note 4:  Check out the Trust's inventory here: The site includes a few case studies — with hopefully more to come — and some good links.  The ministry's guide, "Heritage Places of Worship: A Guide to Conserving Heritage Places of Worship in Ontario Communities", can be found at:

In 2009 the Trust also organized, with Heritage Canada (now the National Trust for Canada), an important roundtable on the preservation of places of faith. The roundtable minutes are at: One of the most interesting presentations profiled Partners for Sacred Places, a U.S. organization that provides information and guidance to congregations and communities to sustain use of historic sacred places:

Saturday, September 12, 2015

What to do about churches? (part two)

Shaar Hashomayim synagogue, Windsor -- with Doors Open balloons 

We’ve been talking about churches — or more broadly, places of worship of all descriptions — and wondering how public policy should respond to the conservation dilemma they pose.  But first we need to better understand their special circumstances.

My first experience with the preservation of a church was in 1979 when I was a summer student with the Stratford Local Architectural Conservation Advisory Committee (or LACAC — remember them?).  There was a call from someone from Trinity Anglican Church in the village Sebringville, just west of Stratford.  The congregation wanted advice on something.  While Sebringville was “out of our jurisdiction”, Stratford’s was the only nearby LACAC and I was sent out to have a look.  What I saw was a beautiful little white board-and-batten, “carpenter gothic” building from 1887.

Trinity Anglican Church, Sebringville   Courtesy Fanshawe Pioneer Village

I don’t recall exactly what the parish was thinking to do… but it was something rather awful.  Could it have been — gasp — a dreadful plan to replace the board-and-batten with aluminum siding?  Whatever it was, we helped talk them out of it, arguing for retention of its historic appearance and repair of original features rather than removal or covering up.  By 1988 the building’s heritage value was formally recognized and it was designated under the Ontario Heritage Act.

But… by 1997 the dwindled congregation voted to close the church.  It looked like demolition was at hand.  In the end the building was moved from its site on Highway 8 (the old Huron Road) about 55 km south to Fanshawe Pioneer Village, on the north side of London, where it continues in use for weddings and other special events.

Trinity Church on the move, in three parts   Courtesy Fanshawe Pioneer Village

Like all buildings moved out of their original surroundings and relocated to a “pioneer village” — an artificial and sometimes haphazard arrangement of collected orphaned buildings — Trinity today evokes mixed feelings.  But though its context has been lost, the church itself was saved — unlike many! — and, now in public ownership, it continues to be cared for, used and interpreted. [Note 1]

It sure seems like our historic places of worship have more than their fair share of challenges.  The main thing of course is declining congregations and attendance and the desire for smaller, lower maintenance buildings and often different, less formal meeting spaces.  And then, when worship wanes, there are the typically formidable obstacles to adaptive re-use of the buildings.  These can be attitudinal —  certain faith organizations would rather have their churches deconsecrated and destroyed than sold and re-used for an unpredictable and, in their view, unsavoury secular purpose… remember the “porno movie house” cartoon from last time?  But mainly it’s the sheer physical challenge of re-purposing the large open interiors of many churches.  (The small, rural ones tend to be easier — who hasn't known someone who lived in an old church?)

Adding to the adaptive re-use complications is that these interiors are special!  Unlike most heritage homes, commercial blocks or factories, the historic church/synagogue/ mosque/temple is usually as significant inside as outside.  Which is why designations and heritage easements on these buildings almost always cover interior features as well.

Interior of the Church of Our Lady Immaculate, Guelph

Interior of Romanian Orthodox Church, Windsor

While we’re talking of church interiors — not to be forgotten is the point that religious buildings that continue as places of worship may require changes for liturgical reasons over time, and this can give rise to tension with heritage conservation.

Then there’s the fact that ownership and control of houses of worship varies considerably, with some faith organizations much more centralized (like the Roman Catholic Church) and some much less so (like the United Church).

So… lots of ways in which places of worship are special, if not unique.  And here’s yet a couple more to keep in mind — they’re exempt from property tax; and faith groups as non-profit organizations are generally exempt from income taxes as well.

Does all this add up to the need for distinct policy responses for the conservation of Ontario churches?  Of course.  Last time we saw an instance of this when the Ontario Heritage Foundation (now OHT) bent the rules on its conservation easements program to accommodate the particular concerns of church organizations.  But what else has been done — or not done?  For next time.

Note 1: The church may have been moved, but not the designation, which had to repealed when the building left Sebringville.  It has not been re-designated on its current site.