Design

Inside Ottawa’s converted churches: Bluesfest and Westboro United

More in this series: Heavenly heights reached with Altitude Gym’s church renovation. For the full series, pick up a copy of our autumn print issue—out now!

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.

Bluesfest’s Mark Monahan speaks about preserving the legacy of a Westboro church

The Westboro United congregation asked Monahan if he could guarantee that the windows (below) would survive the renovation. “That was easy to agree to because we wanted to keep them — they’re such a part of the building’s character”. Photo by Miv Fournier
The Westboro United congregation asked Monahan if he could guarantee that the windows (below) would survive the renovation. “That was easy to agree to because we wanted to keep them — they’re such a part of the building’s character”. Photo by Miv Fournier

Westboro United Church, Churchill Avenue
Built: 1913
Amalgamated: 2008 as Kitchissippi United Church
Reopened as Festival House: May 4, 2014

The legacy
“When Westboro United Church amalgamated to form Kitchissippi United Church, the congregation spent a couple of years trying to figure out what to do with the empty building. They wanted the former church to form some sort of legacy project — to be used for the good of the community.”

The callout
“The church started the handover process by calling on charities and non-profits to see whether they had a vision for the existing building and the land. Unfortunately, the conclusion of those consultations was that no one had the financial means to take over the church alone. That’s when they decided to talk to private developers and look at other types of proposals.”

Photo by Miv Fournier
The stained glass windows of former Westboro United Church were preserved when the building was deconsecrated. Photo by Miv Fournier

Answered prayers
“Ever since we started to run community programs around Bluesfest, we knew we wanted to eventually have a larger space that would be a base from which to offer year-round programming — music classes and clubs, music camps, art classes … The church was the perfect spot — if we could make it work. I came for a visit and met with the developer, David Spillenaar of Springcress. They eventually bought the property, including the church, on a deal that had them sever the church and donate it to Bluesfest. They built townhomes on the rest of the site.”

The original plan
“Our initial vision was to turn the church into a performance space — a big hall that could be used for multidisciplinary performances. But once we did a feasibility study, we realized the plan wasn’t financially sustainable without a substantial amount of ongoing public funding.

Back to the drawing board
“We had to go back to the congregation and tell them that we couldn’t finance a performance hall but that we had come up with a plan to establish our offices in the church as well as a music school of some sort in the basement. If Bluesfest moved into the building, we knew we could take the rent we were paying for office space and use it to pay the mortgage on the church.”

Paying the rent
“We did some fundraising and were able to get a mortgage. That’s when we gutted the church and redeveloped it with a basement level, a main level, and a second level. Money from the renters [Ottawa Festivals, along with some smaller festival operators] helps pay the mortgage. Because the church had soaring ceilings, architect Barry Hobin could put in that second floor. It is more of a mezzanine, with glass railings all around. It feels really open: Bluesfest staff [on the second floor] can look down, while everyone on the first floor can see upwards. You still feel the height of the church.”

While the entire organ could not be saved, the pipes act as a piece of sculptural art — and a reminder of the building’s provenance. Photo by Miv Fournier
While the entire organ could not be saved, the pipes act as a piece of sculptural art — and a reminder of the building’s provenance. Photo by Miv Fournier

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Heart of glass
“The one thing that the Westboro United congregation wanted was a commitment that we would make sure the windows were kept. That was easy to agree to because we wanted to keep them — they’re such a part of the building’s character.”

Thumbs up
“One of the most gratifying responses [to the renovations] was from Arnold Midgley, who’s in his 80s. He grew up in this congregation, got married here, and was involved in the planning. Getting his endorsement was special because he’s seen the church through all the years. He thought it was great that the building had been repurposed so well and would carry on.”

Jaded beauty
“It’s an incredible space, but I’m here almost every day, so I sometimes realize that I’ve forgotten to look up for a long time. But I often work late, and when you’re here by yourself, you can sometimes just sit quietly and get a sense of the building.”

Because the church had soaring ceilings, architect Barry Hobin could put in a second floor under the roof. This is where Bluefest staff work. It is more of a mezzanine, with glass railings all around and views down to the first floor. Photo by Miv Fournier
Because the church had soaring ceilings, architect Barry Hobin could put in a second floor under the roof. This is where Bluefest staff work. It is more of a mezzanine, with glass railings all around and views down to the first floor. Photo by Miv Fournier