While any Toronto conversion is a hot commodity, a church conversion truly is a rarity. There weren’t that many church conversions in the city – less than half a dozen – and many consider them the holy grail of cool city living. Many more are being completed these days, so your choices will only ever expand.
In 1906, the Centennial Methodist Church established a brick building at 701 Dovercourt Road, nestled south of Bloor Street. Aptly named The Church, this loft conversion was carved from this neo-gothic church. The facade you see on Dovercourt Road today is an addition to the earlier Centennial Methodist Church built on this site in 1891. Notable design elements include decorative stone trim, three central Tudor-arch windows, and flanking square towers topped with pyramidal steeples. It was renamed Centennial United Church in 1925, after the creation of the United Church of Canada. In 1986, the Nisei congregation of the Toronto Japanese Church joined Centennial United to form Centennial Japanese Church.
A century-old church evokes a sense of beauty and serenity, and with it, the recognition of its profound historic value. When the opportunity arose to transform an awe-inspiring church space into lofts, Architect and Developer Bernard Watt jumped at the chance. The transformation of the church into 28 unique lofts had its challenges – slanted floors designed to accommodate the parishioners’ view from the pews and the U-shaped balcony. Most of it was removed and replaced, but for the exterior walls of the church and the roof. The lofts were rebuilt from within.
For Mr. Watt, calling it a labour of love may be an understatement. As the name behind The Church’s developer Dovenco and BWA Architect, Watt has spent the last 21 years recycling marginally used buildings in downtown Toronto. Notable is the legendary Creed Buildings loft conversion from the old Creed fur warehouse, and high-rise projects like Lawrence Park, Bloor Walk and 99 Hayden condominiums.
There were some issues dealing with the rather unusual original 1891 church building at the back of the lot – and the newer 1906 building has a square footprint that pushes right to the sidewalk and property line – making it quite a trick to tuck balconies and modern windows into the church’s nooks and crannies.
The original stained glass had a botanical, Art Nouveau design rather than a religious motif, so it was decided to keep them even though it was not easy. A Georgetown-based glass artist removed and numbered each pane and then cleaned, repaired and stored them during the two years of construction. Likewise, to preserve a giant octagonal skylight on the roof, Mr. Watt created a hotel-like, three-storey central atrium and wrapped the suites around it.
This attention to detail continues into the units. You need only view one of the light-filled, two-storey spaces to see the rough brick meeting smooth drywall; light pouring down from skylights onto century-old steel trusses and spatters bits of colour onto the floor from the wall of stained glass. Through the atrium and to the lofts, purchasers will find single and two-storey lofts ranging from 614 to 1,484 square feet. With 24 floor plans to choose from, and only 28 lofts, the designs are unique, incorporating contemporary details and elements from the original church buildings.
The ultra-modern, Italian-imported kitchens; bathrooms boasting clean lines; beautiful tile; new windows; balconies, terraces and rooftop decks – all contrast to the timeless beauty of the building’s original exposed brick walls, soaring steel trusses, and cornice and vaulted ceilings soaring from 9 feet up to to 20 feet.
The jewel in the crown are the stained-glass windows that appear in 20 of the 28 lofts, in some cases, two or three per unit in various sizes, stretching from floor to ceiling, filtering a flood of gently coloured natural light into the living space.
The twin towers, which set the tone of the building’s exterior and the streetscape, make their mark on interiors as well, employed differently in the plans that incorporate them. In one loft, for example, the tower is a bedroom. In another, the tower is the kitchen.
A non-practicing Roman Catholic born in Chile, Watt may have come to this project with less cultural baggage or sentiment than a Canadian-born citizen, something he believes served him well. He outlines three stages of the project, each built around a significant outlay of money. First was the purchase of the property, which represented 15% of Watt’s ultimate budget. Next came the soft costs: consultation and legal fees, city permits, architectural costs and advertising to attract potential buyers. Finally, he paid out the hard costs: materials and labour to make the transformation happen. In the case of the Church, these amounted to 60% of the final expenditure.
At every point along the way, Watt knew that surprises could happen and disaster could strike. The electrical, plumbing and ventilation systems, as well as the heating and cooling system that had sustained the building as a church, were no longer adequate for its new use. Even estimating the square footage of future condos was difficult; the floors were not level, the ceilings curved.
The response to this loft conversion project was phenomenal – during an open-house one Sunday afternoon in the spring of 2007, 350 people showed up and enough had put down deposits for Watt to secure his bank financing. Work quickly got under way, completing only 3 years later in 2010.
Like buying a piece of art or rare memorabilia, a great loft should be unique and authentic. From the moment you step inside, it is evident the developer made it a priority to not only retain the history of the church, but to celebrate it. Framed on the walls of the atrium are details on the construction and reclamation of the churches original features. A full length re-finished pew sits perfectly at home in the foyer and compliments the chapel, now a grand atrium, very well.
It is fair to say, all the marks of a successful church conversion are present. Although an odd addition is the frosted wire security glass beside many of the units doors. For the purpose of letting light from the atrium into the units, the effect is minimal and doesn’t justify the extra cost.
Walking on the east side of Dovercourt Road, the dark brown brick of the church’s facade meshes well with the residents on either side. In fact, you may miss it entirely as your gaze is drawn across the street to an imposing high-rise apartment building.
The Church Lofts conversion is a great example of a successful infill project in a neighbourhood that is becoming more desirable, close to the Bloor subway, College Street, Little Italy, the Dufferin Mall and Dufferin Grove Park.