By Rosa Saba
Carleton University will be going ahead with negotiations to purchase Dominion-Chalmers United Church.
If acquired, the historic Centretown church would be used as “a multi-purpose performance space for Carleton students and faculty, and as a new hub for artists and community groups,” the university said after its board of governors approved the plan following a closed door session Tuesday evening.
Talks will take place over the next few weeks along with discussions about renovations needed to make the building meet institutional standards, the university’s interim president Alastair Summerlee said during the open part of the governors’ board meeting.
Summerlee said the building would be used by the Carleton music department as a venue and hub for students. The building would also continue to be used as a performance space for cultural mainstays such as Chamberfest, Music and Beyond and the TD Ottawa International Jazz Festival.
The congregation would continue to use the space for worship, maintaining a generations-old religious tradition.
Summerlee also confirmed Carleton has received offers of support from several sources to help with the acquisition which would be the first-ever off-campus property purchase by the university.
These would help cover the cost of acquiring the church and the expected renovations, and would allow Carleton to begin receiving revenue immediately after the purchase, Summerlee said.
Potential zoning challenges have already been addressed by the City of Ottawa, he said, and the church is expected to be compliant with municipal rules by the end of February 2018.
The university has been looking for a performance space for about 10 years, Summerlee said, and Carleton began a preliminary conversation with Dominion-Chalmers in June after a review by former university president Roseann Runte.
The board of governors signed a 90-day expression of interest in August to explore the purchase of the century-old church. And Carleton then hired consulting firm KPMG to review issues surrounding a possible purchase.
The recently renovated building will need to be improved as a performance complex, including space for rehearsals and other uses such as, Summerlee said, a commercial recording studio or research facilities.
He added that as a community-focused organization, the university’s acquisition of an off-campus building reflects Carleton’s interest in promoting culture and community. He said there has been in the past “an astonishing lack of commitment” by Carleton to reach out from its Old Ottawa South campus to embrace the broader Ottawa community.
Other potential uses of a redeveloped Dominion-Chalmers include gallery space to expand opportunities for the Carleton University Art Gallery, currently located in the St. Patrick’s Building on campus.
The gallery, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, would also relish being closer to the heart of the capital’s cultural scene.
At the governors’ meeting, Carleton business professor Ian Lee called the decision a “strategic disaster.” He expressed concern about a secular, public institution acquiring a consecrated space and the possible repercussions he saw from non-Christian students.
Carleton’s vice-president Michel Piché said that upon purchase, Dominion-Chalmers should be thought of as Carleton property that would be rented out by a religious congregation, just as various religious groups use space on campus.
“This is going to be an academic and an artistic hub for the community,” he said.
Summerlee said that considerations, consultations and planning have already begun to address any issues that might arise.
“Clearly we don’t want to put anyone in a difficult position,” he said, adding that multiple faith groups have already been consulted and will continue to be involved in the process going forward.
“I think it’s something we can do with grace,” he said.
There have been expressions of community support for the purchase. Heritage Ottawa, the city’s main advocacy organization for the preservation and promotion of historic properties, has written a letter of support for the purchase, stating that Dominion-Chalmers is a heritage building and “an active and vibrant participant in the spiritual and cultural life of the city.
“Carleton’s acquisition of this wonderful building would increase the University’s community engagement with organizations such as ours, which has frequently used Dominion Chalmers for our events,” wrote Heritage Ottawa president David Jeanes. “It would be a beacon of Carleton’s acknowledged interdisciplinary expertise and leadership in the fields of history, heritage and sustainability.”
Robert Peck, chair of the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra, was also at Tuesday’s meeting. He told ARTSFILE that he believed the purchase will be a “game-changer” for the OSO and other arts organizations in the city.
“I think it’s a great opportunity,” said Peck. “It’s key to the viability of the orchestra.”
Rev. James Murray told ARTSFILE in September that the church’s congregation has been shrinking for years, making the cost of maintaining such a large building increasingly difficult to bear.
Julian Armour, artistic and executive director of Music and Beyond, also told ARTSFILE in September that Dominion-Chalmers is the perfect space for events such as Music and Beyond and Chamberfest, which often require seating for between 800 and 1,000 people in a space with exceptional acoustic qualities for chamber music and other smaller-scale performances.
This story was produced in collaboration with Centretown News and Carleton University.