In search of architectural salvation in Edmonton

Is Edmonton’s crumbling McDougall Church really worth saving?

Wikipedia Commons, McDougall United Church, Edmonton

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Edmonton is likely to be alarmed too late about the state of its downtown McDougall United Church. To understand the story, you need to realize that this is a name that can be conjured up in a town of ancient fur trade. The McDougall family of Methodist missionaries pioneered the English language, English civilization, and the nonconforming English religion in northern Alberta in the 19th century. The church was built in their honor in 1910 on the shoulder of McDougall Hill, off what was then McDougall Avenue.

The actual parish of the church has shrunk to about 140 – probably a generous number. As a group, these parishioners have come under heavy criticism for refusing to help the city officially mark the building as a listed building. This is practically impossible without the permission of the Church, who prefers either to sell the land and drop the bricks where they can, or to sell the Church back to town for $ 1 and do it one day a week to rent back.

That leaves the impression of a rather unchristian hostage-taking. But it’s rational. The city’s heritage conservation fund would not match the $ 18 million to $ 25 million of work engineers say the church will need over the next seven years. Private fundraising is hopeless and the city politically helpless if the church remains a church.

Everyone agrees that it would be terrible if the McDougall Church were crushed. But in a western city, those arguments are strangely contextless, the way a baseball fan pleads for choosing a favorite player for the Hall of Fame. The McDougall has the virtues of any Protestant church built in 1910, but probably no more – no more than a sturdy Victorian brewery or one of the 50 churches of equal or older age in Toronto. Its square footprint made it a good place for choral and chamber music, but mostly because the cost of its upkeep was not billed to these users.

The very frequent editorials in which Edmonton berated itself for failing to preserve its architectural heritage have an insane prophetic quality. Our broad trust in the market for the preservation of old buildings of a supposedly special character is rated by columnists as a persistent failure, a variant of original sin. It borders at times, frankly, on blaming Edmonton for not being older. I have a hard time finding evidence that Edmonton fared poorly by the standards of a city that barely existed around 1900. Still, we consider ourselves not to be Prague or Lyon.

There are literally dozen of Edmonton buildings dating from the same period as the church. The best are still in unsubsidized use. And I suspect an objective outside architectural critic would not see these buildings as an automatic priority for salvation. The raging shadow of Ian Nairn or Nikolaus Pevsner would certainly highlight buildings of a type that do not exist in great numbers elsewhere, such as the eccentric Ukrainian Catholic churches of St. Josaphat and St. Basil. Or he raves about the annex of the legislature – a bright green glass box that visitors and users almost always think was a mistake from the 1970s. It was actually built in 1951, around the same time as the Lever House in New York City: it’s probably the oldest curtain wall building in the country.

This shows that preserving the architecture is more complicated than an impulsive, indignant stance to save the whales would allow. Age and familiarity, but also attractiveness, are not the only decisive factors. If City X invests in the salvage of buildings that matter only to City X or that only have value in their immediate visual environment, there may be nothing left for buildings of greater importance.

On the other hand, I live in the neighborhood of McDougall Church. (To hell with greater significance!) And I know that something less beautiful will surely rise in its place.

The church was planned and built by people with no fame or great gifts. There were hundreds of them – a class that had existed in every civilized community since time immemorial – who knew how to construct a reasonably attractive building on a human scale for a common purpose. Anyone who has driven the tongue-in-cheek suburbs of Edmonton knows that this skill has been lost, as has the secret of the Greek fire. That is the real problem behind the controversy, and it is not a particular problem for us. We’re just a little bad at expecting it.

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