New Brunswick

Victim of neglect and apathy, an iconic Saint John building comes to a sad end

It has graced the skyline of Saint John for almost 140 years. But now, what was one of this city's biggest churches is coming down in chunks, some as big as cars, at the mercy of the heavy steel bucket of an excavator.

The former Centenary Queen Square United Church, completed in 1882, is being demolished

The former Centenary Queen Square United Church in Saint John is being demolished after years of sitting empty and neglected. (Julia Wright/CBC)

It has graced the skyline of Saint John for almost 140 years.

But now, what was one of the city's biggest churches is coming down in chunks, some as big as cars, at the mercy of the heavy steel bucket of an excavator.

"It hasn't been a good year for New Brunswick heritage," said architect John Leroux, after a long sigh, when he heard it was coming down.

People had hoped for a better fate for the former Centenary Queen Square United Church, now known as the Gothic Arches. Instead, time, neglect and, some say, apathy, have brought the Gothic Revival style church to an unfortunate end.

It probably deserved better, given what the building has meant to Saint John.

Its roots run deep, all the way to the early years of the Methodist church in the city.

Its congregation grew out of the Germain Street Methodist Chapel, built in 1808, just the second church building ever constructed in the city.

By the early 1830s, there was a clear need for a second church. In 1839, the new Centenary Methodist Church was completed on Wentworth Street.

Both churches burned down in the Great Fire of 1877.

The congregation at the Germain Street Chapel rebuilt on Queen Square, finishing in 1879. The Centenary congregation rebuilt on the site of its former church, what would eventually become Centenary Queen Square when the congregations merged in 1939.

Constructed as a Methodist church, it became part of the United Church movement sometime after 1925. It was one of the largest churches in Saint John with seating for 1,400. This postcard photo is circa 1910. (X13703 New Brunswick Museum – www.nbm-mnb.ca.)

They spared no expense in building a spectacular building.

It was a huge church, designed to seat 1,400 people, and to hold as many as 2,000 if needed.  

The designer was John Welch, a Brooklyn architect behind many churches in the New York and New Jersey area. A number of them are on the U.S. National Historic Places Registry, including St. Luke's Protestant Episcopal Church in Brooklyn. 

Welch designed the building's interior roof with hammer-beam construction. It's a way of supporting the massive roof without the need for beams that cross from wall-to-wall.

The interior, in about 1940, just after the congregation merged with Queen Square parishioners to create Centenary Queen Square United. (Louis Merritt Harrison/1989.83.546 New Brunswick Museum – www.nbm-mnb.ca)

It gives someone on the floor an unobstructed view of the height of the steeply pitched roof.

The huge stained glass windows were by J.C. Spence & Sons of Montreal, known for creating impressive windows. John Spence made stained glass for churches across Quebec and the central and eastern United States in the late 1800s.

He was even awarded a medal for his work from the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

The large front window faced due south, bathing the church in light during daylight hours.

It would play an important role in the spiritual life of Saint Johners for years.

And a historic one as well.

Jim Crooks and Carl Trickey celebrated their same-sex union at Centenary Queen Square in 1996. (Submitted)

In 1996, Saint John businessmen Carl Trickey and Jim Crooks asked the church elders to allow them to be married in the church. The elders voted 8-1 in favour, and the ceremony was held in August of that year.  

It is believed to have been the first same-sex marriage held in a church anywhere in the Maritimes.

Despite the successes, the congregation began to shrink. By the mid-1990s, it was becoming harder and harder to heat the building, let alone maintain it.

In 1998, the tough decision was made to sell.

Congregation's burden

Finding a buyer for a building that took up almost a third of a city block proved more difficult.

Initially, they thought they had found that person in George Waugh, a Fredericton-area businessman who said he was representing an unnamed church.

But it turned out he had a history of some questionable business dealings and a series of lawsuits from deals gone bad.

It soon became clear the sale wouldn't be happening.

It left members of the congregation, now worshipping in another building, wondering if they'd be stuck with a church they couldn't afford.

Phillip Huggard purchased the church from the congregation but sold it after more than a decade of efforts to make it a profitable venture.

That's when Saint John landlord Phillip Huggard, who was a proponent of saving heritage buildings, stepped in to buy it.

Huggard changed its name to Gothic Arches, tried to make it into a performance space, unsuccessfully, and then started renting out parts of the space to small businesses — a catering company, a dance academy, an antiques dealer, even weekend flea markets.

Nothing worked, and by 2008, Huggard was trying to get out from under the weight of Centenary Queen Square.

In June 2011, he told CBC News if a buyer wasn't found soon, it would have to be torn down.

The interior of the Gothic Arches in 2012. (CBC)

Saddled with annual heating bills of $20,000, Huggard said he was worried about its long-term viability.

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

At that point, he said he needed the building sold in six months.

It took almost 18 to find a buyer, who paid just $100,000 for it.   

Big dreams 

"Gothic Arches sort of found me, in a sense," Toronto developer Jody McCairns told CBC in November 2012.

He said he discovered the property on a visit to the Maritimes.

"I was looking nationwide for institutional properties that might be better served as developments rather than in their present state and couldn't really get it out of my head," he said.

The original concept drawing for the Gothic Arches, as Jody McCairns saw it in 2013, included 75 units but was later scaled back to 26. (The Arch)

His plan was for a 75-unit condo project and said it would take a year to plan, a year to build, and the challenges would be "limitless."

McCairns was right about the last part.

By 2015, he had scaled back the project to just 26 units.

"Being an existing 130-year-old structure, it had inherent challenges from an engineering perspective," he said at the time.

In 2016, after sitting empty for four years, the building was up for sale again, listed for $500,000.

A massive piece of the church tumbles to the ground during demolition earlier this week. (Steven Webb/CBC)

It would be three more years of neglect before Saint John developer Percy Wilbur bought it this fall and announced it would have to come down.

He allowed architect Leroux access to take a few photos before demolition began.

Leroux said he was shocked by how badly the building had deteriorated, especially the stonework.

"Even inside, the stone tracery, which is kind of the curvilinear stone around the stained-glass windows … it was crumbling, on the inside, which you rarely see, so it was a challenge. It was stone with issues."

'Bigger question'

Leroux said it's a shame to see the building come down, but he doubts there was any other option.

"It would cost a lot of money to restore that and bring it back," he said, "It's one of those difficult, difficult situations.

"It had just been neglected for so long, which is a shame. But in some ways, that's the bigger question that people should be looking at.

"It's tragic what's happening to heritage in Saint John, so it's not just about the demolition, it's about how things are being let go. And people aren't seeming to do that much about it.".

At least one piece of the former Centenary Queen Square United Church remains intact.

The Letourneau organ as it appears now, at Our Saviour's Lutheran Church in Sun Prairie, Wisc. (Our Saviour's Lutheran Church)

The grand Letourneau organ, which was sold in 1998, sits in Our Saviour's Lutheran Church in Sun Prairie, Wisc. It is used regularly for services there.

In an email, the organist, John Krueger, expressed dismay at the demolition and compared Centenary Queen Square to the Capitol buildings in Wisconsin's state capital, Madison.

"As the Capitol is on a hill and visible from many directions as one approaches Madison, so the church in [Saint John] is a similar focal point. I am personally sorry to see the building go."

 Wilbur plans to build an apartment complex on the site. 

With files from Connell Smith

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