Homes

Inside Ottawa’s Converted Churches: Tongue-And-Groovy

More in this series: Heavenly heights reached with Altitude Gym’s church renovation and how Bluesfest preserved the legacy of a Westboro church. For the full series, pick up a copy of our autumn print issue.

They are beautiful works of architecture — public gathering places with soaring ceilings and stained-glass windows designed to inspire, tell a story or, at the very least, amuse an unenthusiastic churchgoer during a long sermon. But what happens when the congregations leave? How do you honour a church’s illustrious history even as you give it a new, secular life?

These conversions are endeavours of both will and imagination, with visionary owners prepared to take a chance at rescuing old buildings in need of some serious TLC. But the rewards are also legion.

So what does it take to get started?

Generally, once a church is no longer used as a sacred space and the sacred objects have been removed, it is no longer considered consecrated. The priest or minister will usually preside over a closing worship ceremony that allows the congregation to celebrate its history and mourn its closing. If a church is considered to be a heritage property, new owners must get approval before altering the building but, on the plus side, may find they’re eligible for a heritage grant to help defray the costs of restoration.

It takes a certain braveness and vision to take on a church conversion, but the key players behind these bold projects attest that their resurrected spaces continue to fill their original purpose as welcoming houses designed to encourage people to congregate and share ideas.

This series, which first appeared in the Autumn 2016 issue of Ottawa Magazine, Sarah Brown tours former churches that have been transformed in unexpected ways.

Valley musician and producer Colin Wylie speaks about creating sweet sounds at Old Church Recording

Morewood-Church-Exterior-Miv-Fournier
Photo by Miv Fournier

Admaston-Bromley Methodist Church
Douglas, Ontario
Built: 1892
Became a family residence: early 1970s

Photo by Miv Fournier
Photo by Miv Fournier

“We were so green”
“We [Wylie and his wife] bought the church nine years ago and have been working our butts off ever since to do the renovations we want and to do things right. When it came up for sale, we were living in Pembroke and our daughter was just a year old. Looking to move, I was scanning MLS and saw the converted church. I knew the sound would be amazing as soon as I walked in the door and saw the tongue-and-groove walls that curve into the ceiling, which is also tongue-and-groove. The curves minimize echo, and the wood absorbs sound. Plus the ceiling is 17½ feet high. Of course, we were so green — we had no idea about the upkeep of such an old building.”

Draft dodgers
“The drafts were incredible. The previous owner was heating with hydro, and I think the bills were about $800 a month in the winter — and that was with a wood stove! We had to upgrade all the windows.”

In the main room, tongue-and-groove walls curve into the 17.5-foot-high tongue-and-groove ceiling. The curves minimize echo, while the wood absorbs sound   — great for a recording studio. Photo by Miv Fournier
In the main room, tongue-and-groove walls curve into the 17.5-foot-high tongue-and-groove ceiling. The curves minimize echo, while the wood absorbs sound   — great for a recording studio. Photo by Miv Fournier

Slumber party
“The first owner of the church had put in a second floor, which is where all our bedrooms are, but we wanted someplace where musicians could stay over. The idea is that out-of-towners can come for a few days and it won’t be intrusive. The top floor, right in the roof, was just exposed beams and bricks. It will be a self-contained apartment with a couple of rooms and a bathroom.”

Goodnight John-Boy
“Even though the church has been closed since the 1970s, people still pop in all the time — it’s like The Waltons. There’s a very throwback feeling to life around here that really suits our lifestyle. They bring their granddad, who was a former parishioner, or their parents, who got married here. Some people remember going to Sunday school at the old church. It’s cool to learn the history and have them fill us in on what it was like back then.”

Photo by Miv Fournier
Photo by Miv Fournier

“Fool on the hill”
“When we officially opened the studio last fall, I was a little worried that people would think we were the ‘fool on the hill,’ but the response has been great. Many of the Valley musicians really get the vintage sound I can produce here. Recording in the church creates a whole different atmosphere. It’s light and fun — not like the dark boxes you picture when you think of artists recording at a studio. People don’t necessarily want to be in a sound booth with headphones on.”

Sound advice
“I come from an indie-rock background, but I’m producing a lot of bluegrass and folk. The sound in the church complements this type of music. I’m studying techniques used in the 1950s and in 1930s and 1940s jazz — music that was recorded with minimal micing. A good example is The Trinity Session album by the Cowboy Junkies, which was recorded around one mic in a church.”