Thursday, February 10, 2011

Jim M. Hops on the Trolley and Heads to the Common

Watching the Bruins-Canadians goal and slug fest last night (it's been a long time since I have witnessed NHL goalies drop the gloves!) reminded me that Jim M. sent me a post a while back about his thoughts on what to do with the now empty Notre Dame des Canadiens Church in Salem Square.

Undated Image of Notre Dame des Canadiens Church at Salem Square

Jim told me he took the Trolley from North Main St. and had a great ride down Main and Front Sts. on car #193, a fully and authentically refurbished 1927 Osgood-Bradley trolley! What a great story - the trolley was built in Greendale in 1927 and started service on the old Airline between Worcester and Boston that same year. It subsequently spent some time on Staten Island before being shipped to Porto Alegre, Brazil in 1947 where it served its citizens for 23 years before finally being retired in 1970. It was rescued from the scrap yard in 2007 where it was restored and reused as a police station in a town in southern Brazil (see video about this project - caution: unless you are a fan of death metal, I suggest hitting the mute button).

Here's Jim M.'s post....

As workers continue to untangle the mess of services at City Square, separating the two towers from (what we hope is) the soon-to-be-demolished mall, I can’t help but be thankful for the more even-handed approach that Hanover has taken to the project. Though still conceived in phases, it would appear that Hanover prefers to view the site as separate but related parcels--as opposed to another mega-project--where each phase of development must stand on its own, both conceptually and financially. But it is also clear that with their recent acquisition of Notre Dame des Canadiens they are still settling their view on the forest. And so as Notre Dame has entered the ranks of other abandoned churches, many people are wondering what would be the best use for this building?

Churches pose many unique problems when considering adaptive reuse, especially large and richly decorated ones. The main problem is that their vaulted architecture and detailing do not lend themselves to partitioning and discontinuities, which can make the reconfiguring into office or residential spaces seem bizarre and incongruous at best and downright jarring at worst. Small neighborhood churches can usually be converted with little problem, but large churches that follow the traditional cathedral pattern of nave, choir, transept and apse don’t have it so easy; they were designed to be awe-inspiring mass-assembly halls, and they will resist any efforts to temper or otherwise redirect that emotional impact. This is why many churches are converted to artist and performance spaces (though the majority are still condos), which tend to maintain the integrity of the main halls.

One approach to this problem is to think of the main structure as a shell to a lesser but more functional one: a building inside a building. It’s worth noting here that this is by no means a new concept in church architecture, which often includes intense, almost jewel-like inner structures, especially for tombs and altars (see the Edicule at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem or the altar at Saint Peters Basilica in the Vatican—perhaps two of the most famous examples). In a contemporary context, however, the actual use of the space will define the inner structure and dictate a visual contrast that downplays the new use in relation to the original architecture. This is one area where modern architecture excels because of its plain geometry and functional styling.  The Chopo Museum in Mexico City (the original structure was actually a German pavilion for an industrial fair) and, my favorite, a bookstore in Maastricht, Holland built inside a thirteenth century Dominican church are both good examples of this strategy.

 Bookstore in Maastricht, Holland Built Inside a Thirteenth Century Dominican Church
I would advocate for something very much like the Maastricht church, only I would place it more firmly in a mixed–use context with the bookstore and/or other appropriate retail business at its core, as well as a cafĂ©, small performance area, and restaurant in the other main portions of the sanctuary and patios. In the chancellery, vestry and administrative spaces, however, I think you could have professional or organizational (with a literary bent) office space along with some writer’s space down the lines of several models already established elsewhere (e.g. Grub Street and the Writer’s Room, in Boston, and The Store in NYC) that could also provide classes and hold workshops. Salem Square could once again be the literary Mecca it was when Ephraim’s and the Annex were still kicking and the T&G reporters lined the bar at the Eden—okay, maybe “Mecca” is bit rich, but I am advocating for a writer’s haven, or sanctuary, which could also support lively commercial activity during business hours. Worcester has an extraordinary literary past and, I expect, present, and this could be a way to promote and celebrate that heritage. I would be curious to know what the Worcester County Poetry Association and PEN New England would have to say about such an idea.

It also seems to me that the open-floor designs possible under this model could utilize the space effectively while keeping construction costs down. Again, like the church in Maastricht, a stand-alone structure could work well and could be adapted to different uses or commodities. Though my bias and preference would be a used bookstore, with Ben Franklin preparing to close its doors forever it pains me to say that a one would probably not work in this model. Sellers of new books, like Barnes and Noble or Tatnuck booksellers, however, could certainly pull it off. The former has participated in at least one innovative mixed-use project that I know of--the Power Plant in Baltimore, and the latter, no stranger to adaptive reuse, would be welcomed back to Worcester with open arms. The obvious problem here is the already languishing retail environment around the commons, which would necessarily frame this idea in the context of City Square and other efforts to reverse this trend.

Though I’m doubtful that a restaurant as a stand-alone entity would work here, I think one could succeed in a mixed-use context. It would certainly be one of the coolest restaurants in town, and with the impressive patio space would make a great three-season dining spot with some of the best views of downtown. I would seriously consider some type of food retail component almost regardless of the main economic function of the building.

It should also be mentioned that Notre Dame, which was built in 1929 and was one of the area’s last major buildings to go up before the depression, was the mother church for the first French-Canadian parish in the U.S. and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It would certainly qualify for historic and new market tax credit financing under a number of different scenarios, not just the one considered above. I also suspect there are many national organizations that support the arts that might seriously consider helping this project along.


  1. Check out this restaurant in Portland, Maine:

    Harry T

  2. The Worcester Public Library is far and away the best big city library I have belonged to, and one thing I think that would make it even better would be to adaptively reuse the nave of the church as WPL's main reading room.

    I'm not advocating for 100% use of the building by WPL - I think the mixed-use idea as Jim outlines above is the way to go - I'm just advocating for more of a public use of what I imagine is quite a grand space.

    There has been much success recently in getting the area colleges to financially support the WPL and I believe there are even more good things to come out of this partnership. I imagine a grand WPL reading room as part of a mixed use project (mixed-use not only within the church itself, but also in the context of the larger City Square project) that becomes THE gathering place for college students from all of the area schools to meet and study not only during the day, but also late into the evening during the week (the current library maintains its regular hours, but Sunday through Thursday, the reading room stays open until midnight to serve the needs of the areas 30,000 plus college students).

    And now that the students are downtown, it's not too great a leap to imagine some of them walking (or perhaps catching the AIRLINE) to destinations downtown, on Shrewsbury St. or in the Canal District for a late night snack or drink before returning to campus.

  3. I love the image of it as a reading room.
    The only caution I'd offer (as a former parishioner) is that the roof leaks (and that's a structural defect). You'd want to consider that in what you put there.

  4. I also love the idea of a reading room, and a partnership with the library seems a very good fit, if possible. Eric also mentioned having artist space in the nave area as well, and would stress the idea of a stand-alone structure that would be removed or otherwise repurposed, if necessary, without compromising the integrity of the space. Along with maintaining public access to the building, I, too, think that is the most important thing to keep in mind about the idea.