Carleton University studies possible purchase of Dominion-Chalmers United Church as performance space

Carleton University is examining the feasibility of purchasing Dominion-Chalmers United Church, one of the most important buildings and popular performing halls in downtown Ottawa.

Known fondly as ‘Dom-Chalm’ in the music community, the Centretown building has been a house of worship for more than 100 years but it has emerged in recent decades as a home for musical performance of all stripes. It is a go-to-hall for the Ottawa Chamberfest, Music and Beyond and the Ottawa Jazz Festival. But the revenue from performances rentals has not met the needs of the church. Both the building and the congregation are aging. About 18 months ago, the church began to think about the future and started a search for partners. It appears that Carleton University just might be that partner.

The former president and vice chancellor of the university, Dr. Roseann O’Reilly Runte, who has a well-known and an abiding interest in the arts and culture, began research into the potential of Dominion-Chalmers as a place the university’s music department might use as a performance and rehearsal space, something the school needs.

Inside Dominion-Chalmers.

She went so far as to make a proposal to the university’s board of governors, then she left her post and took up a position as the head of the Canada Foundation for Innovation in July.

But, according to the minutes of a board of governors meeting this past June, the university committed to a serious examination of “the concept of purchasing the Dominion-Chalmers United Church.”

The study is to take 90 days and is being led by interim president and vice-chancellor, Alastair Summerlee. The university is expected to be examine a report by the end of September or early in October.

Summerlee said in an interview that the university “is intrigued by the possibilities.” The administration has made an expression of interest to the church that also lasts 90 days and could be extended, and has hired the consulting firm KPMG to provide an independent review of the issues surrounding a possible purchase. For example, the review will examine whether such a purchase would be a good use of the public funds that support Carleton. Several options are being considered including a purchase by Carleton alone and with partners and the future management of such a facility. The options all include the continued use of the space by community groups have and opportunities to expand that use, Summerlee said.

He says the building has much more to offer than the glorious main hall which he compared to the Palau de la Musica in Barcelona, a world heritage site. There are rooms on several floors that are available for use and there is, he believes, an ideal space for a recording studio that would support the academic program at Carleton and the community.

But, Summerlee said, the review needs to consider: “How do you manage such a facility. You will need a professional organization to manage such a facility. So obviously the board wants to look at this carefully. We are not in business, we are in the business of creating academic programs that make sense.

“That said, it would be a perfect way for us to be involved in community and the idea has real resonance here.”

Summerlee, who admits to being an unabashed music lover, believes that if everything falls into place Dominion Chalmers could become the long-dreamed of concert hall for Ottawa.

“It is an absolute jewel in the city. It is certainly one of those iconic buildings. If it could be established as a concert hall for the city it could become a real destination point like St. Martin in the Fields in London.”

For Roman Borys, the future of Dominion-Chalmers is a matter of some pressing concern. His festival puts up to 50 events into the church each year and, as he says, it is a de facto concert hall for the city. Chamberfest is, Borys says, the primary renter of the hall and has been consulted for this study, along with other stakeholders. He also added that the Ottawa Chamber Music Society is willing to consider a longer term relationship with Dom-Chalm on the model of the relationship between Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Choir and Trinity-St. Paul’s United Church in Toronto.

The current church was built in 1912.

This is not a simple purchase and transaction. The historic property, which boasts of prime ministers and United Church moderators in its congregation, is at the corner of O’Connor and Cooper streets and takes up most of a city block. The cost of a purchase would be significant. The building has been recently renovated but there is a need for more upgrades of such things as the heating system. The facility would likely need on-going operating support from funding bodies.

Borys believes the university understands and respects the importance of Dominion-Chalmers to the community including organizations such as Chamberfest.

He sees the potential of the building and even the parking lot as a way to develop a larger centre of the arts for the wider community.

“I’m very confident it’s all going to happen,” he says optimistically. It very much matters to him because Chamberfest’s future depends on having access to a first-class performance space that seats about 1,000 people, something Dominion-Chalmers does now. “I feel strongly about the fact that this would be an excellent solution, presuming that the university can figure out how this will fit with their world. It’s also a nice way for the university to make a connection” to the community in a “fulfilling and financially sustainable way.”

Church officials declined comment.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.