Back in Place

There is probably no city in North America more deserving of the moniker “city of steeples” than Montreal. Between the conquest of 1759 and the crystallization of the so-called “quiet revolution” in 1960 with the election of Jean Lesage’s provincial government, the alliance of a powerful Catholic church with an increasingly English-dominated business elite produced a quasi-theocratic state. The result was a remarkable number of churches, seminaries and convents, often of remarkable scale for the parishes they served. Frequent use of stone with copper roofs contributed in a major way to the city’s defining texture and colour.

Despite the ultramontane conservatism of the church during this period, however, the free-wheeling eclecticism of church architecture left Montreal dotted with a remarkable and unparalleled collection of neighbourhood-defining monuments. The emerging crisis in what is now Canada’s most secular province is what to do with these increasingly costly-to-maintain and uni-functional structures. In June 2006, a National Assembly committee released a report that recommended — unsuccessfully to-date — an immediate two-year moratorium on the sale of all churches, the establishment of a Council on Religious Heritage, and a $15-million annual fund to assist preservation.

The recently completed restoration of the St. James United Church faade by Groupe Cardinal Hardy on Montreal’s celebrated Rue St. Catherine stands somewhat as an anomaly. In particular, this magnificent English protestant Gothic revival pile has not been preserved through adaptive reuse but revealed again for the first time in 80 years.

St. James, finished in 1889 to the designs of Alexander Dunlop, was the city’s fourth and Canada’s largest Methodist Church. Constructed by descendents of United Empire Loyalists, its interior employs a single nave configuration set up in an “Akron”-style amphitheatre that includes a horseshoe-shaped gallery supported on slim iron columns. Not incidentally, the excellent acoustics of this configuration, backed by a four-manual, 64-stop, 6,000 pipe organ constructed in 1881 has given St. James a key roll as a concert venue. With its location just west of the Place des Arts and other performing arts facilities, as well as amongst artists’ lofts and galleries, St. James is considered part of the city’s designated Quartier des spectacles.

Despite the democratic leanings of its interior configuration, the church’s street-facing faade was designed as a French Gothic cathedral. Two asymmetrical towers of varying height flank an elaborately carved three-door portal under a large south facing rose window. Of particular note is the use of seductively warm undressed red sandstone from the Credit Valley near Toronto offset by corners, window frames, and carved decoration in red and green sandstone from Baie-des-Chaleurs on the Gasp Peninsula. “The modulation in colour and the alternating textures,” writes architectural historian Denyse Lgan, “are typical of a general eclectic tendency seen in the architecture of the end of the 19th century.”

Out from hiding

But the story of the current project is not about restoring the historically designated church, although the faade and towers were renovated a few years earlier. Instead, it is about returning the faade to its original pride-of-place on the busy retail street. When faced with financial problems in 1926, the church signed a 30-year lease for construction of a three-storey U-shaped commercial building wrapped around the church’s St. Catherine street faade. Architect Frank Peden did his best by including three neo-gothic windows above a new arcade entrance to the church. Otherwise, state the architects, “the modern architectural vocabulary of the commercial wing evoked the sobriety and functionalism characteristic of the fur industry-based commercial buildings in the neighbourhood.”

After twice the length of the original lease, it became time to re-engage the church’s faade with Rue St. Catherine. The first move was to dismantle the three central spans of the commercial building. This left two parallel flanking wings of three storeys (a fourth, setback storey to be clad in black aluminium and used for residential units was subsequently dropped) that frame a modest forecourt and create two narrow pedestrian passages between the wings and the church proper. These intimate laneways facilitate access to St. James’ garden in the rear which surrounds the church’s impressive apse-shaped church hall. The original site plan had provided an “island of greenness” in the densely built quarter that existed in the area at the end of the 19th century, and that function is now being resurrected.

The street-facing faades of the wings have been restored and conserved to their original sombre style, thus maintaining, according to the architects, the integrity of the site’s historic evolution. At their corners (as is the case in the interiors of the new commercial shops), parts of the original raw concrete frame have been left exposed. On the sides facing the courtyard, however, are new, entirely contemporary facades that respond to both functional needs and aesthetic concerns. Their new inner skin is a plane of solid, anthracite-toned composite panels, punctured only by doors to the second and third floor offices. Steel access stairs ascend this wall sandwiched by a wall of glass supported on a robust galvanized steel frame. Composed of vertical panels of different textures and varying transparency, this screen of monochromatic but fractured glass panels produces a vibrant prismatic reflection of the church. Their translucency also ensures “a certain luminosity” within the first-floor commercial interiors.

Luc Noppen, Chair of Canadian Research on Urban Heritage at the University of Quebec in Montreal has written that Cardinal Hardy has helped recreate the role of the architect in the city such that each of its projects “constitutes a piece of the city that restores links between that which has been and that which will be the city.” St. James is a relatively small-scale project but neatly represents what Noppen means.

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