As attendance continues to decline at many Vancouver churches, many of our significant spiritual heritage buildings are threatened. When these buildings close, Vancouver communities lose more than Sunday worship space; they lose space for the countless social and cultural activities that churches accommodate seven days a week.
This is the second year in a row that heritage churches are featured on our Top Ten List of Endangered Sites. Kerrisdale Baptist Church, which was on the 2014 List, appears doomed, to be replaced with a generic 4-storey residential / commercial building, resulting in a loss of valuable community cultural space in the centre of Kerrisdale.
With fewer places for groups to meet in our ever-denser city, more people will become isolated, diminishing our quality of life. Public gathering places are essential to a healthy community, and churches represent a very significant amount of our city’s assembly spaces.
What is the threat to Oakridge United Church?
This is the second year in a row that heritage churches are featured on our Top Ten List of Endangered Sites.
Kerrisdale Baptist Church, which was on the 2014 List, appears doomed to be replaced with a generic 4-storey residential / commercial building, resulting in a loss of valuable community cultural space in the centre of Kerrisdale.
A few kilometres east at 305 West 41st Avenue, the distinctive Oakridge United Church is threatened with demolition. There is declining attendance at the two congregations that share the church and only the St. Giles Community Preschool, which occupies the lower level, is thriving. There is a proposal to build a 6-storey residential building as allowed under the new Cambie Corridor Plan. This would accommodate a small church facility, but would displace the Preschool.
As attendance at many congregations continues to decline, many significant heritage churches are threatened. When the buildings close, Vancouver communities lose more than Sunday worship space; they lose space for the countless social and cultural activities that churches accommodate seven days a week.
As these churches are closed, we lose more of Vancouver’s dwindling community gathering space – the places where we can congregate, celebrate and communicate. With fewer places for groups to meet in our ever-denser city, more people will become isolated, diminishing our quality of life.
Public places are essential to a healthy community, and the loss of many of our churches will represent a very significant reduction in the number of our city’s public spaces.
Why is Oakrdige United Church significant?
The church originally opened as St. Giles United Church in 1949, to serve the growing postwar residential neighbourhood of Oakridge.
The origins of the congregation date back to 1892, when a Presbyterian Mission was founded in Mount Pleasant. A new church was built on Kingsway in 1910, and in 1925 the church name was changed to St. Giles United Church.
The congregation moved to its current site to build a larger new church in 1949 for the expanding United Church community.
At St. Giles, the prominent architectural firm Twizell & Twizell chose a Gothic Revival style of architecture. This firm was founded in 1908 by two British-born and educated brothers, who continued to practice in Vancouver for close to half a century.
Their early projects were modest, but they soon developed a reputation for designing high-quality residential and institutional buildings. They are best remembered for their churches, most often in the Gothic Revival style. Their first great church commission was for the Canadian Memorial United Church, at Burrard Street and West 16th Avenue. This led to other significant buildings for the United, Anglican and Catholic Churches in Vancouver and other cities across western Canada.
Oakridge United Church is a late representation of the Gothic Revival style, clad in stucco, as opposed to the more traditional but more costly stone. It displays design elements such as Gothic arched doors and windows with coloured glass panels, pointed pilasters and a steeply pitched roof.
The building addresses the prominent corner site on West 41st Avenue with a large bell tower, with an elaborate openwork spire, modeled on the much grander St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh.
Heritage Vancouver’s position
Heritage Vancouver strongly supports retaining our significant heritage churches. Our first preference is that these buildings continue to support social and cultural activities in their communities. Where this is not feasible, we would like to see churches repurposed for other community amenities, rather than being demolished.
We encourage the City of Vancouver to:
- Identify and add significant religious buildings to the Vancouver Heritage Register, which is being updated as a key part of the Heritage Action Plan that is now underway.
- Identify long-range community amenity needs required to support the hundreds of new families that will be moving into Oakridge Centre. Match those needs with existing heritage landmarks.
- Work with the BC Conference of the United Church of Canada (who are acting on behalf of the Oakridge United Church congregation) to postpone the demolition in order to determine how the existing heritage structure can be creatively integrated into a mixed-use development.
- Explore how new development can provide incentives for the retention of community heritage facilities. This could help fulfill a stated objective of the Cambie Corridor Plan to increase the space for non-profit and cultural services within the Corridor.
We encourage church organizations to:
- Work with the City to recognize the significance of their buildings, and include important structures on the Vancouver Heritage Register. Inclusion on the Register would give the community more time to work with each church organization to find compatible new uses for surplus buildings, and potentially unlock conservation incentives.
- Create a Churches Conservation Trust, similar to the one created by the Church of England in 1969. Over 340 churches have been saved through regeneration projects that repurpose buildings as community spaces.
- Find inspiration from successful national and local examples of repurposing churches, such as Holy Trinity Anglican Church at West 12th Avenue and Hemlock, where the original Chalmers Church was renovated and integrated with a seniors centre and community theatre. As well, St. James United Church on West 10th Avenue in Kitsilano has been transformed into a dynamic community centre known as St. James Community Square.
The Churches Conservation Trust is the national charity saving churches at risk in the United Kingdom: www.visitchurches.org.uk
In the Ottawa region, examples of repurposing church properties are outlined in a Globe & Mail article, Nov. 13, 2013, entitled “New Spirit for Redundant Religious Properties”
Quebec’s Religious Heritage Council continues to document the creative repurposing of surplus church buildings: www.patrimoine-religieux.qc.ca