On Monday, Aug. 18, city council likely will vote on a proposed annex to the Anglican Cathedral in the nationally designated Ecclesiastical Heritage Precinct in downtown St. John’s.
Council should reject this proposal. The addition’s weak, inappropriate design is only one of several reasons to do so.
The city also should work promptly and closely with the Cathedral’s planning committee to develop an alternative structure on one of two pieces of nearby land owned by the Church. One is the existing parish hall on Queen’s Road which has been allowed to deteriorate. The other, north of the Cathedral, across Bond Street, is partly occupied by two clergy houses.
Archdeacon Roger Whalen said, in the July 10 Telegram that it was “much easier to move ahead with a new building” than to deal with structural issues with the current hall, now conditionally sold to a developer.
At a hastily-called Aug. 1 public meeting three days ahead of a then-planned council vote, planning committee chair Paul Antle dismissed the clergy house site as “unsuitable.”
But with a will to live up to its heritage commitments, surely the city can help clear away real or perceived impediments. It recently facilitated the JAG Hotel’s addition of rooms and a concert venue by selling air rights over Buchanan Street, closing a laneway, and permitting tear-down of the historic John Howard Society building.
Perhaps turning over a portion of Bond Street by the Cathedral would facilitate combining the annex with clergy houses. Or perhaps the city could encourage tear-down of the Queen’s Road hall and use of the site for a better-designed contemporary annex plus parking for staff and delivery vehicles servicing planned functions including commercial kitchen, offices, cafe, and event spaces
No one doubts the congregation’s desire to better address its social mission.
But these activities and new offices for Bishop and Diocese do not require a physical link to the Cathedral.
Not at a cost to the architectural integrity of a renowned heritage building or its cemetery.
Combining of historic and contemporary architecture is exciting when it is sensitively and successfully done (as I recently saw in Quebec City and Auckland, New Zealand).
But this annex falls sadly short.
Others have noted its banality, perfunctory use of bland modern materials, and failure to acknowledge in any way its juxtaposition with an extraordinary heritage structure. It also appears to infringe many legal and ethical requirements in national, provincial and civic regulations underlying heritage designations of Cathedral, burial grounds, and ecclesiastical precinct.
The “elephant in the room” entwined with this proposal is conditional sale of the Queen’s Road Hall related to a development revealed in the July 24 edition of The Telegram. Antle assured meeting-goers that annex construction is not contingent on funds from this sale. But the sale advances the proposed two-building 40-unit condo development.
A drawing shows it to be over-scale and of a design remarkably insensitive for the centre of the ecclesiastical precinct, destroying hillside trees and views from Harvey Road.
(Does anyone remember the BIS redevelopment that robbed all of us of the unique vista of town, harbour and hills from the Basilica area?)
If it secures zoning and city plan amendments, it will make a mockery of both heritage regulations and city planning.
The public meeting gave me another chance experience the magnificent space of Sir George Gilbert Scott’s renowned neo-Gothic cathedral. Its interior and exterior, with soaring arches, dramatic space and intricate stonework, communicate powerfully to people of all faiths or no faith. Its context, the tree-ringed churchyard sweeping up from Duckworth Street, is not only hallowed ground but the only open, peaceful green space in the city core.
Church officials have chided Annex opponents for being more concerned for a building than for the Church’s “real” mission to serve people. No. We are responding out of respect for another mission that of architect Gilbert Scot’s to create an enduring, transcendent physical space that nourishes people by offering hope, solace and spiritual renewal.
St. John’s has many important buildings ranging from the humble to the grand but it has few great buildings. This is one. Its integrity should be preserved.