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The proposed Union Lofts project excites by integrating, rather than building over, a beautiful rustic church in a quickly gentrifying Toronto neighbourhood. (Windmill Development Group)
The proposed Union Lofts project excites by integrating, rather than building over, a beautiful rustic church in a quickly gentrifying Toronto neighbourhood. (Windmill Development Group)

A Toronto church conversion built with grace and courtesy Add to ...

Toronto’s great Edwardian sprawl gobbled up the little farms and pastures in my west-side neighbourhood (east of the Junction) just before the outbreak of the First World War. Along with the surge of housing and industry came numerous Christian church buildings, almost all sturdy and devoid of architectural fussiness. Nowadays, these plain, dignified structures still stand on streets throughout the district, though many are empty or nearly so.

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If advancing secularism is sometimes blamed for this state of affairs, that’s hardly the reason nobody attends services any longer at the old Perth Avenue Church. The 1913 building, in a rapidly gentrifying area south of Dupont Street and west of Lansdowne Avenue, was abandoned by its congregation a couple of years ago simply because they needed a more spacious church (and parking lot) to accommodate an ever-larger influx of worshippers.

But the believers’ happy situation could have turned out badly for those who cherish Toronto’s modest west-side streetscapes, if the only buyers who had stepped forward were people bent on demolishing the church and putting up something wholly out of character in its place.

Fortunately, this did not occur. What’s planned for the Perth Avenue site by its current owner, Windmill Development Group, is the sensitive, imaginative conversion of the church into a 24-unit loft structure and the erection of a new 14-unit, four-storey building (called the Vestry) atop the adjacent parking lot. For the record, the suites range in area from just over 550 square feet to just under 1,200 square feet, and in price from about $250,000 to $630,000.

If everything works out as the developer and Toronto architect Joseph Caricari intend, Union Lofts, as the project is called, will be an attractive mid-priced condominium complex featuring many a modern grace and courtesy. The Vestry is completely contemporary in design, for example, with a flat roof and metal and glass cladding. But the the dark brown brick that will frame the Vestry’s wide window openings will rhyme well with the fabric of the adjoining church and bell tower.

Though completely different in style, the church and the Vestry will balance each other with matching height, simplicity and heft. The church is buxom, unrefined architecture typical of its time and forthrightly Protestant type; and, quite correctly, Mr. Caricari will do nothing to prettify it. The church suits its neighbourhood, which was built out for workers in nearby plants and workshops, not the city’s cultural elite. A certain coarseness is welcome in this context, and we should be glad the architect has decided to leave the exterior much as it has been for the last hundred years.

That said, I wish the main entrance to the church, at the bottom of the bell tower rising beside the intersection of Perth and Wallace avenues, could be preserved. Shoe-horning a lot of dwellings into the church probably made its elimination inevitable – but the entry really is a nice feature of the original design, and losing it could make the Perth Avenue façade seem too hard and blank.

Whatever hesitations I have about this or that aspect of the complex’s exterior – too much nip here, too little tuck there – one thing is certain: Union Lofts promises to brim with environmental friendliness.

Windmill partner Alex Speigel told me that his company is going for platinum – the highest – rating for the project under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) regime of scoring the ecological virtues of new construction. To bring in Union Lofts at that top level, Mr. Speigel will have to prove that his two buildings, old and new, perform exceptionally well and display signs of having been thought out very well.

The published list of systems and tactics planned to bring about this end is long. Heating and cooling of the suites will be assisted by a geothermal set-up, and each apartment will be outfitted with an energy recovery ventilator, a gadget that (among other things) extracts heat from stale air and passes it on to fresh air coming in from the outside. There will be no carpets; natural hardwood floors and porcelain tiles minimize the incidence of dust and mould.

Windmill also hopes to win LEED points for adapting an old building to contemporary use, for being near public transit, and for limiting the volume of construction and demolition debris headed for landfills.

Whether Union Lofts bags the LEED platinum rank, of course, remains to be seen. But if they can be depended on at all, Windmill’s renderings, plans and fact sheets suggest that the company is taking its work here seriously indeed.

It’s certainly one of the most interesting overhauls of an old building I’ve seen in a long time.

 

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