New Brunswick

Historic former Saint John church faces demolition once again

A former church in the heart of Saint John is facing demolition after being sold to a local developer. Percy Wilbur says it's unlikely the 137-year-old church can be saved after years of neglect.

New owner says 137-year-old Centenary Queen Square United Church building likely too expensive to fix

The former Centenary Queen Square United Church in Saint John, now known as the Gothic Arches, is likely facing demolition after being purchased by a local developer. (Steven Webb/CBC)

A historic and long-vacant stone church in the heart of Saint John may be facing its final days.

The former Centenary Queen Square United Church, now known as the Gothic Arches, has been sold to a local developer.

Percy Wilbur says it is likely impossible to save the church.

"Unfortunately, there's no profitable business case for investing all the money it would take to make the structure stable, plus all the money to renovate and convert the building," he said in a news release.  

"You can't get the rents to justify the costs."

Neglected for years and now on the city's dangerous and vacant buildings list, the churchyard is strewn with shingles from the huge roof. (Steven Webb/CBC)

Wilbur said in a followup interview he plans to build a high-end apartment building on the site, between six and eight storeys tall with anywhere from 65 to 90 apartments. 

The huge stone building, which was built in 1882 and runs the length of a city block, has been vacant and unheated for the last 10 years.  

The roof is missing hundreds of shingles, which are strewn around the property.

The church is on the city's dangerous and vacant buildings list.

"We canvassed the immediate neighbourhood over the last few weeks and spoke to neighbours before I actually purchased it just to confirm that, you know, what I'm doing is the right thing," Wilbur said in the interview. "And we were met with overwhelming support, like 100 per cent support."

"I'm sure there's going to be people that are going to be sad and disappointed that it's been torn down, but hopefully we'll cheer them up with what we plan to replace it with."

Not the first time

This isn't the first time the church has faced demolition. In the late 1990s, members of the congregation realized they could no longer afford to keep the building, which could seat 1,400 people.

They struggled to find a buyer, until Saint John landlord Phillip Huggard purchased it.

He changed the name to Gothic Arches and tried to turn it into a performance space and home to non-profit businesses. But he had to put it up for sale in 2009.

When the congregation sold the church in the late 1990s, there was an effort to turn the building into a performance venue and home to non-profit businesses. (Steven Webb/CBC)

In 2011, he told CBC News that if the building wasn't sold soon, it would have to be demolished.

"If we're looking another five, six years well, will there be maintenance issues? You know, probably," he said at the time. "We don't want that. We don't want to have big, big expenses that we can't handle."

He also said heating costs were running about $20,000 a year.

The building was finally sold to a Toronto businessman, Jody McCairns, in 2012. He said he would convert it into condos and a community centre. But that never happened.

Wilbur said he plans to dismantle the former church, trying to salvage as many of the heritage items as possible and incorporate them into the new build as special features. If the pieces — such as pews, stained glass, stone — don't fit, he would like to find them a good home elsewhere.

A view of the back roof of the building, showing numerous missing shingles. The building has not been heated or maintained for a decade, and the new owner says he plans to dismantle it. (Steven Webb/CBC)

He said he hopes to tear down the structure before the new year and complete the residential project in two years.

Wilbur's most recent project was the renovation of a rundown 150-year-old building at Charlotte and Union streets that now houses an upscale art gallery and apartments.

The church property is assessed at $75,000 for tax purposes. Service New Brunswick's website lists the purchase price for Wednesday's sale at $100,000.  

Centenary Queen Square United Church holds the honour of hosting the first ever church-sanctioned same-sex marriage in the Maritime provinces in 1996.

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