Commercial Churches

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Christ Church Cathedral

Before it evolved into Montreal’s main downtown shopping strip, Ste. Catherine Street was the backbone of an affluent residential neighbourhood stretching west of Bleury Street for nearly two miles. This period is reflected in the small handful of nineteenth-century churches that still dot the street, two of which, Christ Church Cathedral and St. James United Church, now find themselves in the heart of the main retail district.

St. James opened in 1889 as the largest Methodist church in Canada, with room enough for 2,000 worshippers, but by the time that Canadian Methodists merged into the United Church, in 1925, the cost of maintaining such a grand structure was too much for its congregation to bear. Two years later, the church built a two-storey commercial block in front of its façade, obscuring most of its beautiful Neo-Gothic features but providing an important source of revenue. A gabled entrance in the middle of the block, marked by a red-and-blue neon sign, led into the church.

Just down the street, Christ Church, Montreal’s Anglican cathedral, was faced with similar financial difficulties at the end of the 1980s. It came up with an even more inventive solution: lease the space behind and underneath the church to a private developer who would build a shopping mall and office tower. The church, which was completed in 1859, was suspended by a series of concrete pillars and beams as the ground underneath it was excavated for the underground mall.

Enabled by technology that would have been unavailable in earlier decades, Christ Church was able to incorporate commercial use into its grounds in a more sensitive way than St. James. But, despite its obvious shortcoming, I actually enjoyed the layers of use, texture and appearance created by the commercial block that was built in front of the church. Every time I walked past it, the sight of its two towers rising above the grimy Ste. Catherine Street shops was a revelation; the neon sign hanging above the sidewalk, meanwhile, added a bit of idiosyncratic Gothamesque sleaze that fit perfectly with the Gothic aesthetic of the rest of the church.

Not everyone saw things like me, though, and in 2005, work began to dismantle the centre portion of the commercial block, exposing St. James’ façade after nearly 80 years. The resulting arrangement is certainly pleasant, and the church is now fronted by an attractive square bracketed by the corner remnants of the 1927 commercial building. Still, it seems a bit conventional, and I can’t help but miss what was there before.

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St. James United Church

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Sunday August 17 2008at 08:08 am , filed under Architecture, Canada, Heritage and Preservation and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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