Toronto's churches have seen the best of times and the worst of times.
During the age of foolishness, when congregations moved on, the last visitor to these sacred spaces was usually a wrecker's ball. Now, it seems as though a spring of hope is upon us, as more and more churches become homes.
But the path to architectural enlightenment is strewn with obstacles, says architect Paul Oberst. The Junction's 1890 Victoria Royce Presbyterian was "a very tough nut to crack" and turn into "Victoria Lofts."
Ironically, it was the Annette Street building's magnificence, he says, that drove him nuts. Specifically, on the inside, it was the massive, beautiful – and very necessary – wooden roof trusses: "As you go higher up the building, those diagonals get in your way," he explains. "The lower level, the suites are all rectangular … but as soon as you get to level two the trusswork is starting to happen and you just have to follow the line, because if you don't, you can't walk from one-half of the suite to the other, there's just too much crap in the way."
Quite the opposite, it was the lack of detail on the massive brick façade that created headaches. Unlike Gothic churches with their rhythmic buttresses that provide hidey-holes to place windows or balconies, Victoria's is dead flat, with big triplet windows taking up half of the area – "And are you gonna go punching holes in that?" asks Mr. Oberst rhetorically – and curves appearing only at the tower's corners; interestingly, similar curved corners appear on another building Wilm Knox and John Elliot designed around the same time, the Confederation Life masterpiece at Yonge and Richmond streets.
Mr. Oberst's solution was to create inset balconies by placing large, three-sided glass boxes behind the large window openings (which had the dramatic and figural stained glass removed and donated to St. Paschal Baylon in Thornhill). Now, light could be brought into multiple rooms without destroying exterior cleanliness.
Where new windows have been added, they are so cleverly disguised they look original. For instance, photos of the church before the conversion show a trio of ultra-slim arched windows about two-thirds up the tall, stocky tower. Today, there is another unarched trio below – these allow light into the penthouse's master bedroom – and a duo below that; proper bricks were imported from England to complete the voussoirs above.
A tour through the 2540-square-foot penthouse – currently on the market for $1.56-million – reveals the juxtaposition of wooden structural spider's web and old brick, with new drywall and luxury finishes. It's hard to believe this is the first time the 60-something architect and Rivet Development's Fred Dyer have ever tackled a religious building (they've done four non-religious projects together).
Although the city's Heritage Preservation department was on board when they saw Mr. Oberst's enlightened scheme, Mr. Dyer laments that the process can be "a bit lengthy.
"It's too bad they can't shorten it up for the smaller projects; it's becoming harder and harder for the smaller guys to compete with the same process of a 20- or 30-storey tower."
Perhaps, he conjectures, that's why only a handful of churches have been saved. "Bernard Watt did the one on Dovercourt," he finishes, laughing, "and talking to him I don't think he'll do another one, either."
"Well, we did do another church, but only as architects," corrects Mr. Watt on the telephone from his office in the Annex, "and, in fact, having done that church has brought us quite a few jobs."
Completed a few years ago and fully occupied, the conversion of Centennial Methodist into "The Church Lofts" at 701 Dovercourt Rd. saw Mr. Watt wear both developer's and architect's hat.
While he, too, dealt with a "somewhat unusual" building – an 1891 church existed at the back of the lot, so the newer 1906 building has a square footprint that pushes right to the sidewalk and property line – he was able to tuck balconies and modern windows into the Neo-Gothic nooks and crannies.
And speaking of windows, original stained glass had a botanical, Art Nouveau design rather than a religious motif, so it was decided to keep them even though "it required a real will." A Georgetown, Ont.-based glass artist removed and numbered each pane and then cleaned, repaired and stored them during the two years of construction. Likewise, to preserve a giant octagonal skylight on the roof, Mr. Watt created a hotel-like, three-storey central atrium and wrapped the suites around it.
"He did a great job," say third-floor residents David and Lezlee Fleishman, who were the first to purchase a suite. A tour of their light-filled, two-storey space confirms that interior details were as important as exteriors to the transplanted South American architect. Rough brick meets smooth drywall; light pours down from skylights onto century-old steel trusses and spatters bits of colour onto the floor from the wall of stained glass.
"I'm not a fan of big places," offers Mr. Fleishman. "Small places are usually designed better because every inch is architecture." It helps, too, that many of those inches are filled with Mr. Fleishman's clever furniture designs, such as the "Tectonic Sphere" magazine stand (if this piece is familiar, it may be because a similar design was penned for powerhouse Umbra).
"Light is an important thing for me."
In addition to slow city approvals, Mr. Dyer says other things can bedevil church conversions, from the usual surprises behind ancient walls (which then require immediate, on-site revisions), to the sad fact that established trades often won't touch religious buildings, says Mr. Watt.
Despite this, Reserve Properties is hard at work transforming the former Bellefair United in the Beaches, while Dog Day Developers take on St. Mary the Virgin and St. Cyprian on Westmoreland near Bloor Street West.
Certainly a far, far better thing than the wrecker's ball. "Churches have the additional karma that comes along, and that brings a lot of things with it," finishes Mr. Watt. "It's not only a physical building."