Shuttered, the last service having taken place at the end of 2011, Chalmers Presbyterian Church remains a Winterbourne landmark, one advocates say deserves preservation. They found a receptive audience in Woolwich councillors, who this week agreed to include the building on its Municipal Heritage Register.
The inclusion of the church as a “listed building of interest” affords it some protection, and perhaps paves the way for a full-on heritage designation.
Built in 1870, the structure has essentially remained unchanged over the last 142 years, serving as a Presbyterian church. In December, however, the church closed its doors due to a declining membership. In January, some 60 residents worried the building could be lost to demolition if the property is sold, petitioned the township to preserve the building.
“In smaller communities like Winterbourne, there are usually a few structures that define a community. It may be an inn, a mill, a post office or, sometimes, a bank. But more often than not it is an old church, and Chalmers Presbyterian is an example of this,” said John Arndt, past-president of the North Waterloo regional branch of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario, in addressing Woolwich council May 29.
“It represents community values, and the history and heritage of place. Physically, it is an excellent example of late-19th century rural church architecture: the windows, the steeple, the inviting front door. Chalmers church is a local landmark appreciated by former parishioners, residents, history buffs and people passing through Winterbourne.”
For Kim Hodgson, whose home abuts the church property, preserving the building amounts to keeping Winterbourne’s de facto community centre.
“The church is important for so many reasons,” she said, pointing to its charming architecture and long history. “We owe it to our township to preserve this little building.”
Although it may no longer serve as a church, converting it to residential or commercial use, while preserving its look and character, would be an ideal solution, she suggested.
The Presbyterian Church of Canada, which now owns the building, is interested in selling it, and has been lukewarm to the idea of a heritage designation, which would limit its options for the property.
Woolwich has pushed ahead, however, because of the building’s significance.
“The church does have a number of key elements which make it a potential candidate for designation,” director of engineering and planning Dan Kennaley noted in his report to council. “The church is an older structure built in the 1800s, is connected to the history of the community, has been maintained and used as a Presbyterian church since its construction, and character has not been significantly altered.”
Arndt noted there are some issues with the building that will require repair, but they’re all rather easily addressed.
In that vein, Coun. Mark Bauman pointed to a couple of recent cases in Elmira – the Steddick Hotel and a Victorian home at 10 Park. Ave. – where heritage buildings were allowed to deteriorate so badly that demolition was the only option, warning that historical designations can be onerous to property owners.
Forced to maintain characteristics of the buildings, often requiring expensive techniques for repairs and renovations, owners should have access to funds to help offset the costs, he argued, though voting in favour of the listing.