Built in 1933, smack in the middle of the Great Depression, Ottawa’s Metropolitan Bible Church looks the part of a pious movie palace. It’s no coincidence. The financiers demanded that the church be built as a venue for moving picture spectacles, complete with marquee and ticket window (now filled in). If the congregation ever defaulted on their mortgage, the bank could quickly repurpose the building as a cinema. But the Met’s congregation kept up on their payments, and rows of wooden pews lined the orchestra and balcony seating until the last service on July 27, 2008.
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Preserving the three-story, 40-foot-wide, 136,000-kg facade of the Met was a purchase condition for our acquiring our Central Phase 1 site. The church was indeed the last building standing on the block, red-brick or otherwise, from that era. “This was a Category Two building, and our general approach is that we don’t support their demolition,” explains Sally Coutts, Heritage Planner with the City of Ottawa. Nevertheless, our development team reached a compromise with the city to preserve only the façade of the church, which we did, and that facade now encloses Central’s two-story interior amenity area.
Saving the façade of a heritage building is not particularly unique in the case of a property development today. What is unique in Central’s case is how we did it. During the first part of construction, we sandwiched the façade in a huge hot-dipped, galvanized steel frame, and then detached the frame (with the façade in it) from the church and lowered it– using Ottawa’s two largest cranes– into a part of the two level basement that we had already excavated on the site. There, according to our plan, it would safely sit until it was ready to be resurrected and reattached to the new building was once it was up.
Starting at 5 am, on a snowy Saturday in February 2010, we didn’t perform the first lift, detaching the façade from the remaining structure, until three hours later. Each subsequent lift lasted about an hour, each time moving the façade about 10 m. This process was repeated 12 to 15 times, including navigating a 90 degree turn at the corner of Bank and McLeod Streets, until we were finally able to lower the facade into the bottom of our excavation. About 14 hours after they began, crews stabilized the façade by bolting the frame into pile caps and welding it to the excavation’s steel shoring system.
A high risk (and, at close to $1 million, a very costly) operation, but for project manager Geoff Boole, a “once in a lifetime opportunity”.
Almost one year later to the day, in similarly snowy conditions, we performed the same steps but in reverse, lifting the façade out of its safe hiding place and reattaching it to exactly where it had stood before, but now supported by Central’s concrete skeleton of the freshly-poured first four floors. It may not be the most attractive looking structure, but preserving the Met’s façade was probably the most beautiful engineering move we’ve ever undertaken.
Urban Capital Annual, 2011