Special Report: Heritage

Still Not Clear Whether James Baptist Structural Problems are Solvable

All old buildings have problems, so the only real question before the Heritage Permits Sub-Committee is whether the James Street Baptist Church is beyond salvation.

By Chris Erskine
Published October 21, 2013

To selectively demolish or not? This is the question facing the James Street Baptist Church as its fate hangs in the balance of the Heritage Permit Sub-Committee.

James Street Baptist Church
James Street Baptist Church

The Committee has tabled the motion to recommend or reject the property owner's request for a partial demolition permit and may reconsider the request on Wednesday, October 23.

It is my understanding that the owner's team of experts believe the former Church is structural unsound and poses a safety hazard to the public. Their solution is to demolish everything but front portion of the building, i.e. the East Towers.

But, as committee member Danielle Bowden stated in her questioning (at the 1.24 hour mark), all old buildings have problems, the question is can you solve them?

After reading the report and watching the video, the answer to this seems to be lacking.

This is a very important question because if you can't solve these problems then their proposal makes a lot of sense and the permit should be granted.

While the property owner's team has not provided a clear vision for the site, what has been discussed so far appears to resemble the $20 million project at 88-90 Carlton Street in Toronto (albeit with lower density). The property owner even has some of the same people from that project.

So, if I was on the sub-committee, I would want answers to the following questions:

1) The inner walls of the Church are bowing inwards and appear to be unstable, but do these walls actually provide any significant structural support to the building? Are they not simply the equivalent to today's dry walls? Wouldn't these walls be removed in any adaptive re-use project? So, why are we worrying about them?

2) Between the inner and outer walls of the Church there is a rocky material that is breaking down and falling out in places, but does this material really provide any structural support or is it just a form of 19th century insulation? Again, would not this material be removed in any efforts to adaptively re-use the building?

3) It is my understanding that buttresses and columns are what really provide the structural support to the building. Is it not true that except for one buttress on the north side, these structural supports are in good shape?

4) There is discussion about the outer stone wall having problems with cracks and in some areas, separating from the buttresses, but isn't the stone wall that encloses the Church just like a glass wall that encloses a modern building? Where there are problems, can't you simply remove or re-build the problem sections? For example, replace the problem sections with glass or other modern materials?

5) The roof is a significant historic feature of the building but it is also the source of several problems: falling slate tiles, water build up, and increased stress on the structural supports. If the slate roof is removed, would this not resolve many problems as Ms Bowden suggested at the Oct 9 meeting?

Would it not also open up new possibilities for adaptive re-use like inserting a condo tower within the confines of the existing outer walls, buttresses and towers? Would this not allow for increased density and therefore make the project more affordable?

6) At the Oct 9 meeting, it was suggested that the soft-sandy soil might not provide much lateral support for the plies that were driven into the ground to support to the whole building; but isn't the purpose of these plies to addresses poor soil conditions by reaching down to the bedrock and establishing a firm very support? Even if there is lateral movement, would this not be addressed by a new structure that could anchor the building; just like what was being suggested for the East Tower?

One final non-structural question: if you build condos - where will the parking be located?

If I was on the committee, the decision would be rather simple: has the owner's team of experts proven that the Church cannot be saved?

They are free to make this case or not, but then the Committee is free to accept or reject their application.

At least from my perspective, it's not rock science.

Chris Erskine is a labour and community activist. He is also a print artist, exploring historic landscapes and building themes using lino-cut and woodblock printing methods. You can visit his website.


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By Rimshot (anonymous) | Posted October 21, 2013 at 07:40:26

Or soluble, for that matter.

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By Ed Sernie (anonymous) | Posted October 22, 2013 at 19:25:10

By comparison, the Angel of Independence in Mexico City was constructed in 1902 on top of wooden pilings sunk into the soft ground. The streets around the monument have sunk so much that there are now an additional 14 steps leading from ground level up to the base of the monument. Meanwhile the monument has remained secure, and upright. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/El_Ángel

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