Dominion Chalmers evolving into a multi-use facility

The Thirteen Strings chamber orchestra performs on the new stage at Dominion-Chalmers United Church. Photo: Chris Roussakis

The Dominion-Chalmers United Church building is evolving into an arm of Carleton University in Centretown and a community arts centre right before our eyes.

The first few concerts have taken place on a new and bigger stage and reviews of the changes have been positive. So far so good, says the Dean of Arts and Social Sciences at Carleton, who has overall responsibility for the transformation of the venerable space.

Going forward, Dominion-Chalmers will highlight the faculty of arts, Pauline Rankin said in a recent interview.

Work on the main stage is finished and a temporary stage will be in place for the first concert featuring the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra on Jan. 21. The stage was designed and prepared by the Ottawa design firm MCLD. The new stage, which also includes portable risers, was extended some two metres along its full arc. The increase in size meant that 45 ‘seats’ were permanently removed. The temporary stage will extend an addition 1.2 metres into the space. Another 26 seat spaces will be moved when the addition is deployed.

New lighting and a new sound system will be coming and the rest of the building outside the sanctuary is being prepared for classrooms and for broader use by the school and the community.

“The thinking about how the space will be used on the Carleton side has changed. We are seeing it as much more focussed on the arts, broadly defined, rather than just as a music space,” Rankin said.

“We have plans to involve the Carleton University Art Gallery, film studies, public history and English. Music will have the major footprint, but they are not the only people involved.” Rankin also expects that the university’s drama studies program will make use of the space.

“It is a building that keeps on giving. Every time I am in there I notice something new. We could hold creative writing workshops. We have a new program that is being developed called Performance in the Public Sphere.”

This new academic effort could use the space too, she said.

“It could be performance art, it could be oral history presentations.” The goal for the university is to allow the participation of a broad number of students.”

Rankin is also considering the possible use of the space for the university’s learning in retirement program.

“We are moving from the island (that is the Carleton campus) downtown. (Dominion-Chalmers) will give people a chance to learn a lot more about what Carleton has to offer.

“We see it also as an experiential learning space for all kinds of initiatives. I am interested in building the relationship with the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra to offer internships to students who want to learn about arts management. There are all kinds of ways we can animate the space,” Rankin said.

One of the first high-profile Carleton events in the new space will be the English department’s annual Munro-Beattie lecture on Jan. 31. This year’s lecturer is the novelist David Chariandy, who holds an Masters degree from Carleton.

The next major step forward will be the hiring of a director to run the centre, she said.

“We hope to have somebody in place by the end of January.”

The school is looking for someone with experience in running an arts facility and who can lead an engagement with the wider Ottawa community.

The university plans to begin a consultation with community stakeholders on the future of the centre.

“We’re much further along about what Carleton wants to do with the building, but we have yet to engage the community to ensure that what we are thinking aligns with community needs. We need to do that part.” The new director will lead that  process.

The acquisition of Dominion-Chalmers has caused a “huge” cultural shift for the university, Rankin said.

“I took over this job on July 1. And I have been learning how to be a dean and directing this project at same time. For me, it was important to figure out first what we would like to do downtown, what values we want to espouse and how we would like to contribute to the arts scene in Ottawa.

“We now have a clear idea now about what we’d like to do.”

The new centre will house Chamberfest and the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra and it will be available for use by other arts organizations.

“I have been assuring people there will continue to be world class concerts there. I know, for example, that the OSO is really excited by new stage. And reports back from the first concert were positive.”

Donors have stepped up to help with creating a space for the Carleton University Art Gallery. Another donor has come forward to help restore and care for the church organ, which has been moved off the stage and is going mobile.

Funders are getting involved in different ways, she said.

“One of the things I have realized is that many people have a Dominion-Chalmers story. People were married there; there was some concert that was memorable. So people are really engaged in wanting to see the building maintained and succeed.”

Another aspect of this complex project involves the congregation of Dominion-Chalmers.

Rankin says there are regular meetings about the building.

“This is a major transition for them. We want to support and respect the congregation.”

The university is thinking of specific smaller things it can do to strengthen the relationship with the congregation. Last year, architecture students were working on  projects in the building and, this summer, a history student will work with the church’s archivist.

“We say to them we are going to fill this building with young people.”

The bulk of the first wave of renovations should be finished by the summer of 2019, she said. But one project will wait a while.

The idea of a recording studio in the basement of the building remains “an aspirational goal,” Rankin said.

Carleton’s offer to buy Dominion-Chalmers began with a strategic plan
Restoring history: Ottawa design firm helps rejuvenate Massey Hall and Dominion-Chalmers

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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.