$1 church-for-sale gimmick got attention — from preservationists, too

Brantford city councillors voted to add a layer of heritage designation under the Ontario Heritage Act to St. Jude's church. That would restrict what owners could do to the murals and components that got the church recognized as a national heritage site in 1993.

The church was designated a national heritage site in 1993

The church was built nearly 150 years ago and is designated as a national heritage site, a prime example of the 1930s-era Arts-and-Crafts decor style. The city of Brantford wants to add protections for the architecture and the artwork. (Michael-John Idzerda)

The gimmick of listing their mural-filled church for $1 in hopes of attracting attention may have worked a little too well for the owners. 

Brantford heritage lovers also paid attention.

This week, a wrinkle. Owners Andrea Murik and Nick Dushko tried to sell the nearly 150-year-old St. Jude's church in Brantford. Though they were originally asking $1, they've since relisted the property for $399,999.

The city's heritage committee is recommending adding a layer of heritage designation under the Ontario Heritage Act to the property. That would restrict owners from demolishing murals and components that got the church recognized as a national heritage site in 1993.

City councillors voted 7-to-2 in favour of the recommendation on Tuesday; it goes for final approval on June 27.

'We're the ones who are going to pay the price'

From Murik's perspective, the city is blindsiding them with onerous regulation that it did not apply to the Anglican diocese when it sold the property last year.

"It got publicity that 'Brantford doesn't care about heritage', and we're the ones who are going to pay the price for it," Murik said.

But city leaders say they're acting to protect city heritage.

"This property is unique, and incredible," said Brantford Mayor Chris Friel. "And it should not be lost."

St. Jude's Anglican Church in Brantford, built in 1871, is up for sale with an asking price of $399,999. (Michael-John Idzerda)

Friel asked Murik on Tuesday whether she knew the murals had national heritage designation when she bought it last year. She said she did.

But she opposes the additional designation and argues it's a violation of her property rights.

"The Brantford heritage committee caught wind of what we were doing and decided to fast-track a heritage designation on the property," Murik told CBC News. "We can't afford to fix the murals and don't feel like we should be forced to save the murals."

'Do you really want to be on the front page?'

The meeting, tense at times, was a window into heritage designation in a city that doesn't have the most preservation-friendly record.

Coun. Dan McCreary reminded councillors on Tuesday that provincial law doesn't require them to ask permission from owners. And he brought up a 2010 episode when Brantford made national news for demolishing 41 buildings, some of which predated Confederation.

"Do you really want to be on the front page of the Toronto Star again, as 'Brantford, the city that doesn't care about its own heritage'?" he said.

"Quite rightly, vilification happens to communities that do these things because it's just wrong. We've got an opportunity here to protect something of value in the community."

But other councillors, like Richard Carpenter, expressed concern about the city imposing standards on private owners' property without putting funding up to help them maintain the heritage elements.

Designated a national heritage site in 1993

The church is a few years shy of its 150th birthday and was designated as a national historic site in 1993as a prime example of the 1930s-era Arts-and-Crafts decor style. But that doesn't come with any protections for the architecture or the artwork. 

The church was Anglican, named for St. Jude. It was built in 1871 and its murals were painted in 1936.

The church was named a historic site, honoured for the way it exemplifies the Arts-and-Crafts era: integrating art and architecture to create a "harmonious and humanistic whole," elevating hand-crafted work above machine work, and including elements of nature.

The church features ornate decoration and large murals depicting stories from the life of Jesus that were painted in 1936 by a prestigious church painting family, the Brownes. (Michael-John Idzerda)

'I figured let's try it out'

Murik and Dushko bought the property, which included the church and a rectory, for $400,000 last summer. They severed the rectory and sold it off for $374,000.

She and Dushko, who were living in Ancaster, bought the church and adjacent rectory last summer with the intent of living in the church.

"It's like a beautiful castle, I figured let's try it out," he said.

But they felt unsafe about living there with Dushko's four kids after they found needles outside and heard about robberies at nearby convenience store, Dushko said.

Plus, they realized the cost of renovating the church was more than they could afford.

St. Jude's Anglican Church in Brantford is up for sale, with an asking price of $399,000. (Google)

They got several offers this week, but "none quite reached what the seller's minimum requirements were," said their realtor, Roy Rodrigues.

Murik said the highest offer was only $60,000, which she suggested was a reflection of the fact that with city designation, "anybody that wants to redevelop this has to jump through several hoops."

They say they've sunk much more money into both pieces of the property than that.

'Live with their walls crumbling around them'

Murik said that the property needs more investment than they can afford. "I can see it had the potential. At one time it was beautiful," she said.

But now?

"The plaster is cracking. The murals are falling off the wall."

A staff member at the meeting Tuesday acknowledged there is cracking plaster but said the murals are in OK shape.

Murik is frustrated that the city is moving now to designate it for heritage conservation.

"It has only now resurfaced when the selling of St. Jude became a national real estate headline," she said on Tuesday.

"To expect a property owner to either live with their walls crumbling around them, or force them to pay to have them repaired is unjust, unlawful and an infringement of their rights."

Nathan Etherington, chair of the city's heritage committee, said he was encouraged to see a different outcome this year than when the city sided with the Anglican diocese's opposition to designation last year.

"It is a very different outcome. It seems that council is more understanding of the issues," he said. "And now that it has come to a head again in such a short time it seems they want to act.

"There's a lot more positive attitude around the table towards this."