With its towering windows and soaring ceilings, the Osborne Village landmark at 511 River Ave. will keep its grandeur and elegance when it's transformed into eight luxury condominiums, says developer Ben Haber.
Preliminary plans call for features such as rich woodwork, plaster mouldings, gracefully curving staircases and leaded-glass doors and windows to be preserved when the 94-year-old temple goes condo, with units priced from about $150,000 to $300,000.
One suite owner will even get the marble fireplace that welcomed generations to the church reading room on Wednesday nights.
"It's quite spectacular," says Haber, a car dealer who bought the building last year with business partner Steve Freed, and is developing it into the Courts of Nassau. "We've managed (at the conceptual stage) to retain all the original architecture of the inside."
The church-to-condo conversion reflects a North America-wide trend.
Dwindling membership at inner-city churches has made the massive structures difficult for congregations to maintain. Transforming these historic structures into high-end condos, say developers, rescues them from demolition and offers urban buyers unique, airy living spaces, often with glorious natural light.
What's more, unlike loft-style condos created from industrial buildings, vintage churches often have the advantage of being in desirable residential neighbourhoods.
That's the case with the solid and spacious Church of Christ, Scientist, situated at the corner of River Avenue and Nassau Street, beside the parking lot of the under-construction Safeway. It's the location, rather than the building's history, that most excites Haber.
In fact, he and Freed and their wives plan to abandon Tuxedo to live in the Courts of Nassau themselves.
"It's true urban living in a luxury atmosphere, which is hard to get downtown," he says. "You've got a whole lot of flavours in the area."
According to Murray Peterson's book Winnipeg Landmarks Vol. II, a vibrant congregation erected the church in two phases, completed in 1911 and 1916. The building, dedicated with a plaque in 1924 when it became debt-free, has no official heritage designation.
Dianne Jackman, 71, is a lifelong member of the now-tiny congregation, which has relocated to Fort Garry. She remembers hearing stories in her childhood of the church in its early years, when crowds overflowed the 1,060-seat auditorium.
"People actually stood outside and listened to the lesson through loudspeakers," she says.
Jackman, an interior designer, had hoped to see the church preserved as a performing-arts venue. The dome-ceilinged auditorium, located on the upper level, has a gently sloping, theatre-style floor and a balcony. The arrangement of curving pews, with no centre aisle, afforded great sightlines, she says.
"It breaks my heart," she says about the planned conversion. "It would have made a lovely little theatre, but there's just no parking."
Like most Christian Scientist churches, Winnipeg's has the look of an unadorned public building, with no religious symbolism inside or out. It was meant to be topped by an exterior dome, similar to that on the Mother Church in Boston. But that crowning touch was never added, probably due to financial constraints during the First World War and concerns about our harsh climate.
The River Avenue façade boasts three doorways set in stone frames, which will be retained as the front entrance to the Courts of Nassau. The River, Nassau and Osborne-facing facades are highlighted by groupings of three arched, 16-foot windows separated by stone columns. They will become striking features of the upper-level suites.
A classical motif of overlapping "fish scales" recurs not only in leaded glass throughout the church, but in the gigantic, off-white wood-and-plaster screen behind the pulpit that hid the pipes of the church organ. Haber hopes the screen can be integrated into the plans, so that perhaps a resident will pass through it to enter a bathroom or closet. The majestic organ was sold to a church in Calgary.
Haber, who hopes to begin construction in the spring, has not signed an architect, but has preliminary drawings that envision four ground-level suites, each about 1,500 square feet, with 19-foot ceilings.
The four upper suites, each measuring about 3,000 square feet, will boast ceilings nearly 30 feet high.
Sales have not started, but Haber reports tremendous interest from Winnipeggers since the duo took possession of the church last May for an undisclosed purchase price.
Most would-be buyers of the condos, he says, are "your granola crowd with a high level of taste and style."
The building still holds reminders of a time when Winnipeggers packed shoulder-to-shoulder into the pews. Asked about the purpose of large metal grilles in the walls of the auditorium, Haber says they conveyed cool air from an early air-conditioning system.
"There's a huge drum, the size of a truck, in the basement," he says. "They would put ice in it, and it would spin."
PHOTO PHIL HOSSACK/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS