For sale: Mural-filled, historic church built in 1871. Price: $1
By 2015, the church congregation had dwindled to a few dozen members
A historic brick church with hand-painted 80-year-old murals surrounding its nave is up for sale in Brantford, Ont.
On June 12, the best bidder will take the sale, said Roy Rodrigues, a broker with ReMax Escarpment, who is selling the church near downtown.
"We've had some interest in it but we couldn't come up with a fair price for it," he said.
So the sellers decided to use an uncommon, but not unheard-of, gimmick: List the place for a buck, and see what comes in.
The church is a few years shy of its 150th birthday and is designated as a national heritage site, 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 is currently zoned for institutional use, Rodrigues said, so under current city zoning, a buyer could use it for a school, a daycare or a nursery. Someone bought the property, which included an adjacent rectory, last year from the Diocese of Huron for $400,000. That owner has since renovated, and flipped the rectory house to another buyer in January for $374,000, public property records show.
The church is what's up for sale now.
The church is Anglican, named for St. Jude. It was built in 1871 and its murals were painted in 1936. Its organ has been restored, says Rodrigues' partner broker George Burtniak, and can pump out some significant power.
"When you crank that up you would think you're at St. Paul's on Bloor Street East in Toronto," Burtniak said. "It's magnificent."
'Hundreds of thousands of dollars'
By 2015, the church congregation had dwindled to a few dozen members, and they couldn't keep up with maintenance and restoration that was needed to the roof, the foundation – and yes, the murals. The diocese reorganized and sold the church building and rectory.
"Whether there's beautiful murals there or not, to try to preserve something for heritage purposes is not something that we could work around," said Paul Rathbone, the diocese's secretary-treasurer.
He said the restoration could be pricey.
"Any heritage people trying to preserve (the art) would be spending hundreds of thousands of dollars," he said.
'The murals and painted decorations enhance and are in turn enhanced'
Down the street, there's another church that's been turned into residential units, Rodrigues said. It's up to bidders to research what's possible for rezoning and reuse before making an offer.
The church was named a national historic site in 1993, 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 murals featuring events from the life of Jesus were painted by the Browne family, a three-generation dynasty that decorated hundreds of churches in Ontario.
"The murals feature landscape elements, soft painterly effects, and gentle and romantic lighting," reads a citation on Canada's Historic Places website. "The murals and painted decorations enhance and are in turn enhanced by the medieval-inspired architectural features of the church's interior."
No restriction on redeveloping, destroying the artwork
But being named a historic site doesn't mean that a developer must preserve the murals or the other decorative motif elements that made the church noteworthy.
Before the diocese sold the church, the city's heritage committee recommended designating it under Ontario preservation law, implementing an extra layer of preservation control. But the diocese wasn't in favour of that, because it worried it would complicate the sale. And city council ultimately declined to impose the additional protection.
"Because it's not designated anything could happen to it," said Nathan Etherington, chairman of Brantford's heritage committee.
In a good scenario, a buyer could "recognize the value, that it could add to their business and work with the actual heritage attributes," he said.
"The other side of the coin is they see it as a worthless property and demolish it."
Still, the realtor, Rodrigues, thinks a developer might capitalize on the built-in ornamentation.
"Most likely the value of the property is its artwork and its structure," he said.
'When you pass the basket around on Sunday'
Burtniak said it's becoming more common for dwindling congregations to make the decision to sell their meeting place.
"It's a sign of the times," said Burtniak, who sings second tenor in the choir at his church. "When you pass the basket around on Sunday you still have to make enough to pay the utilities."
Rathbone said Anglican dioceses, like other mainline Protestant denominations, have to grapple with possessing large, resource-intensive and often very beautiful structures that many, many fewer people attend than when they were built.
He didn't know the church was being put up for sale again until a reporter contacted him Wednesday. Rathbone hopes to see the building become something like a studio or museum that could keep the artwork and decoration from being demolished.
"In a perfect world we'd love to see the murals to still remain on the wall, even though they are deteriorating," he said.
Etherington, from the heritage committee, said he hopes the church doesn't become another example of demolition by neglect.
"We don't have anything really that comprehensive in terms of murals in Brantford, that size and that ornate," he said.
In Brantford, there's been an "attitude towards heritage and business in the sense that business kind of trumps heritage," he said. "I don't think that's the purpose of heritage. The purpose is to protect it."