Altering the Face of History

Jack Neal


Values change over time and so do the institutions that were created for specific purposes over various centuries. As cities expand, they are reorganized and refashioned in manners deemed suitable for the ever-evolving societies that inhabit them. Instead of knocking down and rebuilding infrastructure, many cities have repurposed oft-unused buildings for new uses.

While these projects may revitalize disused spaces, they do not always take into account the building’s pre-existing structural elements, thus overriding its historical and architectural significance in order. In fact, over the past two decades, Montreal underwent a transformation that is changing the interior of its historical value: The retrofitting and refurbishment of its churches into apartments and public spaces, such as gymnasiums and spas.

The Wall Street Journal

There is no shortage of churches within the city; Mark Twain said of Montreal, “This is the first time I was ever in a city where you couldn’t throw a brick without breaking a church window.” Of the 2700-plus churches in Montreal, over 400 have closed down for various reasons, and the process is accelerating.

“A church closes every week,” said Denis Boucher, project manager for Héritage Montreal, in an interview with the National Post. “It’s a huge phenomenon.”

According to Boucher, whereas the council’s grants used to be reserved for churches that were used as places of worship, today’s grants are generally used to repurpose Montreal’s closed and often forgotten churches. With the change in direction, the council can help non-profit organizations, municipalities, and even private owners looking to transform old churches.

The empty structures attract private investors, and a number of the historic buildings were subsequently renovated to provide alternative uses for unique places as there is an increasing demand for residential and commercial space. These projects are deemed worthy by Héritage Montreal to receive funding, as the organization’s mandate calls on the provincial and federal government to adopt tax incentive measures to increase investment in architectural heritage and its revitalization and enhancement.

Refurbishing existing buildings for new uses is encouraged in the sustainability world, since it allows for a greater integration of evolving needs into the existing urban fabric—something that would otherwise be hard to do with the urban density of Montreal. The concept of revitalization—also known as rehabilitation—allows changing a building’s original purpose for modern uses that redefine the structure’s existence and usefulness to society. Many Montreal churches have undergone such projects to incorporate them into the future layout of the city.

These projects tread a fine line between transforming a church for a new use however, and altering the intrinsic structural and visual aspects of the church.

For example, there are various projects throughout the city that are changing churches into renewed public areas or community hubs that retain the church’s architectural elements. Salon 1861—a project which McGill was in fact part of through the Desautels Faculty of Management—is one example. In that case, l’Eglise St. Joseph, located in Little Burgundy, underwent a substantial architectural rehabilitation to rejuvenate the neighbourhood. The project repurposed the church as a community hub, ultimately continuing the public-based existence, while retaining its interior and exterior architectural elements in order to preserve the qualities that make it distinctly a church.

On the other hand, the rehabilitation of churches into private places or areas that disregard any structural elements like apartments, threaten the building’s integrity. It turns what was once a public space into a privatized area that only allows access for a select number of individuals. Converting churches into apartments often goes against the nature of the church’s communal purpose.

It is important to realize that the legacy of religion is clearly dwindling—as shown with the aforementioned closures throughout the city; however, churches—especially the historic buildings which most often succumb to these rehabilitation projects—evoke a specific architectural form which is inherently and implicitly unique to its history. Such projects also require a large amount of interior and exterior rework, as the interior is subdivided up, ultimately compartmentalizing the once-soaring ceiling height entirely.

Many church rehabilitation projects take the shell of the church and completely reorganize the interior to make the prescribed apartment units fit. The church-to-condo conversion is tricky to pull off well, ultimately resulting in units with unwelcoming, windowless rooms towards the building’s interior. In addition, the once-soaring ceilings of church interiors are compartmentalized and divided up, and the sense of grandeur that made the church so special is lost. An example of this is the church-turned-apartment block located at 315 Rue Prince-Arthur Ouest, where the large, soaring interior is compartmentalized and divided into apartments, while the exterior of the building is also altered in order to increase light and ventilation.

Julia Gersovitz, a professor at McGill’s School of Architecture, also expressed concerns with such a concept.

“When you destroy an entire wall to put windows in, does that still make it a church?” she asked. “There is the problem of turning a public building and making it private, [and] there is the question of appropriateness [....] Should the churches be treated as absent real estate or as if they belong to the community? [When a church is built], it becomes a landmark; and when you change the nature of it, you change the way in which the community begins to view it.”

According to Clarence Epstein, a history professor at Concordia who published the book, Montreal: City of Spires, the best conversions of churches should emulate the original structural intent as a meeting or public space. An example is that of Le Saint Jude, a church on Rue Saint Denis that was converted into a luxury spa and fitness facility. The exterior of the building remained fully intact, while the interior also kept the church’s soaring ceilings and large windows in place.

The owner, Tony Attanasio, hopes his center will become an extension of home for its members, and an integral part of the neighbourhood. This is a prime example of a project that aims to rejuvenate the surrounding community by injecting a new sense of appreciation for the church which would have not had the same effect had it been turned into an apartment complex.

The problem of appropriation that Professor Gersovitz recalls extends beyond the rehabilitation of churches. There are other examples of buildings being altered—and ultimately, destroyed—to make room for new uses. For example, the row of grey townhouses opposite McGill’s Maass Chemistry Building on the corner of Rue Sherbrooke and Rue Victoria underwent a rehabilitation project in order to create a 30-storey office building. Now, it is nothing more than Victorian facades that mask the office building for which their existence was eradicated for. This form of rehabilitation was a widely popular method during the ’60s and ’80s in cities throughout North America, as many historic buildings were gutted, leaving only the street-facing facade remaining. The result is a faceless building, used purely as aesthetic frontage hiding the office block behind.

According to Gersovitz, even projects that do not bear with them as much historic and cultural significance as churches do give rise to various issues.

“You are only keeping the facade; [there is] no sense of the rooms behind it, and no sense of its historical relevance or authenticity,” Gersovitz said.

In contrast, John Ruskin—a leading art critic of the Victorian era, believed that there should be freedom in evolution for architecture.

“The 19th century buildings didn’t belong to a single generation,” he said. “Not one generation can decide what to do with it.”

In a way, this remains as relevant in the 1800s as it is now. And while it provokes questions of how an evolving society progresses in the urban sense, it brings up an interesting question: Is there a particular method in which it acceptable to change the purpose or existence of a building?

There are buildings that were classified by Héritage Montreal as spaces to conserve, and churches are an interesting sector in architectural and historic value.

A church’s exterior frame has historically set its apart from almost anything else built, and continues to evoke this standout image. It differs from the aforementioned Victorian houses on Sherbrooke in that their original residency status give leeway to other potential uses such as shops, or their conversion into apartments as opposed to full houses. This, of course, doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s just the exterior that remains, with the office block behind appropriating their frontage and aesthetic.

According to Gersovitz however, churches were built to a specific standard and with a particular architectural style in mind, and this traditionalistic value shouldn’t be overlooked.

“The building doesn’t belong to the church, but to the people, and the people who built it,” she said.

In an era of constant need and pressure for progression, it might not be so easy for that concept to survive. According to Gersovitz, there is a church near the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal that was revitalized into a community centre. This keeps its architectural elements intact, paying tribute to, and encouraging the communal purpose that churches were actually built for. But if a church is to be revitalized for another purpose, are there certain uses which lend themselves much more to the pre-existing structure of a church? For example, transforming a church into a restaurant or music venue allows for the church’s main structural elements—chiefly the soaring height of the interior and the large, stain glass windows to remain intact, and the new use respects these qualities. Rehabilitating a church into a more public-oriented space also maintains the sense of community that the institutions were built to foster.

Gersovitz reflected on a project which she oversaw a number of years ago—the transformation of a church into a bar—and acknowledged that there were certain elements of the project proposal that really went against the historic value of the church. For example, the transformation of a church into a gym has absolutely no relation to the building in which it is built. Often, this is done for cost-effective reasons; renovating the interior of a building can be much cheaper than tearing it down and rebuilding. However, rehabilitating churches into a public-oriented space that relates to the pre-existing structure without changing too many of its elements is a more adaptive option.

Churches represent specific values and purposes, and while the closing of 400-plus churches across Montreal is reflective of an increasingly secular society, it doesn’t diminish the architectural and historical value of churches—an important lesson to remember during the current height of rehabilitation. Restructuring interiors and exteriors is a permanent change to the essence of the building, and whilst it might be seen as crucial today for the sake of sustainability and urbanization, there are dangers to be aware of.

For instance, many of the Victorian buildings that were knocked down in the ’60s and ’80s were done so in the name of progress and modernity—that was, until people realized that progress did not mean knocking down the past and rebuilding it in the uniform aesthetic that was so popular at the time. Today, people look back at the transformed buildings such as the townhouses on Sherbrooke, and while their historical existence is somewhat still present, it is so only as a shell. The once-prominent architecturally-significant buildings are now nothing more than a skeleton of both an era and style that once was.

There is a large difference between rehabilitating a building into something that either respects, reflects, or continues its previous legacy, and appropriating its pre-existing structure in favour of knocking it down to rebuild. The transformation of churches should only be done with projects that aim to retain what the physical ‘church’ structure represents. Regardless of religion, churches reflect a specific cultural, historical, and architectural significance. Like the aforementioned Victorian townhouses, with the transformation of churches into apartments or other privatized spaces, churches’ significance are at risk of being erased.