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the architourist

Salem Chapel, St. Catharines, Ont.Dave LeBlanc

Violinist Joshua Bell and his famous subway experiment – the one where he posed as a busker and played for 45 minutes to earn $32 while three days before had sold out a theatre in Boston – has become the stuff of internet legend.

The spirit of the experiment, that context is everything, can happen in the architectural world as well.

To wit: say one were transported, Star Trek style, into the interior of 92 Geneva St. in St. Catharines, Ont. Because of the orderly rows of pews and tall Gothic windows, one would understand immediately that he or she is inside a house of worship. Some would even be able to guess at a date of construction because of the wide crown moulding; the hand-painted stencil underneath; or the chunky, winding staircase up to the loft. An even more savvy architecture buff might also note that the presence of plywood panelling behind the altar or where it boxes in posts, and even the VCT flooring, and guess that this mid-19th-century church had been renovated in the mid-20th.

Harriet Tubman brought many refugees to this church from 1851 to 1861.Dave LeBlanc

And, based on the simplicity of the overall design, one would certainly know that this was a place built by, and for, working-class folk.

But walk that person outside. Show them the National Historic Site plaque, the City of St. Catharines plaque up high on the wall and, most importantly, the bust of Harriet Tubman (1820–1913). If they are unaware, tell them about her role as a “conductor” in the Underground Railroad, and that, when she lived in St. Catharines from 1851 to 1861, she brought dozens and dozens of refugees to this church – the last stop on their way to freedom – the British Methodist Episcopal Church, Salem Chapel.

When that person walks back inside, they won’t just see plywood panelling or tall windows. They’ll see, in their mind’s eye, the strategy meetings, the formation of aid societies, the personal sacrifice, the tears, the cheers and the prayers.

And, if Ray Adamyk, president of Pomona, Calif.-based heritage restoration company Spectra Co. gets his wish, it will be even easier to envision the years “Moses” – one of Tubman’s nicknames – worked and prayed here.

“There’ll be a sense of awe when they walk in, to look around and [say] ‘this really is like the 1850s right now,’” he says during a Zoom chat. “Right now, you’ve got the 1850s, a little piece, over here, we’ve got 1940s, we’ve got 1970s, we’ve got the 1990s, and it’s just a mishmash … I would never consider the Washington Monument or the Lincoln Memorial would ever go into a state of disrepair like this, and this is just as important in my mind.”

Mr. Adamyk's company restored LA’s Biltmore Hotel, Hollywood’s El Capitan Theatre and the Hollywood Bowl, and Hurst Castle in San Simeon (among others).Dave LeBlanc

Disrepair is perhaps too strong a word. After a recent GoFundMe campaign raised more than $100,000 and another $100,000 was injected into the chapel by the federal government, things are looking pretty good (this writer toured it a little over a week ago). However, the “mishmash” of eras is indeed evident, and the exterior stucco does need to be addressed. The grounds, too, could also use a refresh.

Born in England and raised in St. Catharines, Mr. Adamyk had no idea of Salem Chapel’s history despite taking boxing lessons across the street. Whether that’s due to not being taught in school or because the Canadian portion of the Underground Railroad hadn’t been fully researched back then, when Mr. Adamyk decided to invest into a “racial reconciliation” project about five years ago, he was surprised to find one in his old backyard. He certainly had the chops; his company restored Los Angeles’ Biltmore Hotel, Hollywood’s El Capitan Theatre and the Hollywood Bowl, and Hearst Castle in San Simeon (among others).

So, he telephoned Rochelle Bush. Born and raised in St. Catharines, Ms. Bush, a Salem Chapel trustee and its official historian, can trace her family tree back to the minister-in-charge of Salem Chapel when Tubman was a member. And, of course, since the church’s present-day congregation numbers is in the single digits and it depends on tourism for survival, she welcomed the offer of help.

“The only thing where we disagree is the stucco,” Ms. Bush says. “If you go to the back entrance, it looks very tattered, but when you look at it you’ll see the original [stucco] … right now there’s at least five other layers.” The early layers of stucco, she says, have larger pieces of aggregate, and she’d be willing “to go back that far, but he wants to go back to the plank boards.”

A group on the front steps of the Salem Chapel in 1925.Wikipedia

Interestingly, a 1925 photo of a well-dressed group on the front stairs shows the chapel stuccoed at that time.

Regardless of what the two agree upon, Spectra will donate $200,000 in services, plus has created a GoFundMe page (www.gofundme.com/f/Salem-Chapel) with a stated goal of raising an additional US$3-million (as of this writing, there is less than US$20,000 pledged), so that, in about three or four years, Salem Chapel will shine as brightly as it did when Tubman attended the first service in 1855.

“Over the last few years, we’ve had so many protests [in the United States], and there’s a time to protest and a time to unite,” Mr. Adamyk finishes. “I’m an American, I want to come and help; but I’m hoping there are some Canadians out there that read this and [say], ‘Hey, why are we not [helping] in our own country?’”

Dave LeBlanc

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