Deschâtelets Building: Heritage Ottawa Believes Demolition of Chapel Wing Premature

Chapel Wing, Deschâtelets Building | John Dance, The Mainstreeter

Wednesday, September 9, 2020


UPDATE: On September 10, 2020, Planning Committee approved the demolition of the Chapel Wing of the heritage-designated Deschâtelets Building in Old Ottawa East

Heritage Ottawa’s David Flemming made a presentation to the Built Heritage Sub-Committee (BHSC) on September 8 and to Planning Committee two days later urging that they not support the City staff’s recommendation that an application be approved to demolish the Chapel Wing of the historic Deschâtelets Building at 175 Main Street. Heritage Ottawa strongly supported the designation of this building under Part IV of the Ontario Heritage Act in 2013, and was pleased two years later when Regional Group purchased the entire Oblate property and made a commitment to preserve the heritage-designated building.  

The Deschâtelets Building was constructed in 1885 as a scholasticate for the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, a missionary teaching order of priests founded in France in 1826 by Archbishop Eugene de Mazenod. The Oblates first arrived in Quebec in 1841, moved to Bytown in 1848 and settled in the Deschâtelets Building and surrounding lands in 1885. As the order grew, the facility was altered and enlarged with new wings added to the north and south sides in 1925.

A five-storey wing was built in 1950, which includes the chapel. An early example of the work of Canadian Modernist architect Louis J. Lapierre, the design of the chapel is characterized as French modernist and features concrete construction with buttress-like columns and a vaulted ceiling. The angular planes of the arches are repeated in the glazing pattern of the windows and pattern of the floor tiles. The now deconsecrated chapel is identified as an important contributing attribute to the historic character and understanding of the Deschâtelets Building, and one of the reasons given for the building’s designation (the designation includes the interior of the chapel).

Over the past five years, Regional Group has benefited greatly from the opportunity to undertake an extensive residential development called Greystone Village on the site, while seeking to sell the heritage building to an owner that would undertake Regional’s commitment to preserve this significant example of Ottawa’s built heritage.

Heritage Ottawa was pleased when the Conseil des Écoles Catholiques du Centre-Est (CECCE) expressed an interest in adapting part of the building for use as a school. Such use would not only preserve its heritage attributes but would be in keeping with the property’s Statement of Cultural Heritage Value.

A Letter of Understanding is under consideration between the CECCE and the City about the potential inclusion of a community recreational component inside the Deschâtelets Building and a new gymnasium structure to the north of the property. The top two floors of the building are also being considered for affordable housing. No details, however, are available regarding how the building will combine these three uses; it all remains hypothetical, which has prevented the applicant from submitting a firm proposal of adaptive re-use, which would normally accompany an application to demolish.

Heritage Ottawa was therefore disappointed to learn that City staff is supporting Regional Group’s application to demolish the Chapel Wing in its entirety when so many important adaptive re-use plans for the building remain unknown.

The demolition permit recommended by the City would be conditional upon the CECCE obtaining a zoning amendment  by-law at Planning Committee on September 10, 2020 to allow the partial conversion of the building for school use, with a Holding Symbol applied to the by-law to delay development until an agreement with the City’s Recreation, Cultural and Facility Services has been reached. The demolition, however, is not conditional upon an approved adaptive re-use plan that would specify how the building will be used for educational, community and housing needs.

Heritage Ottawa believes that under these circumstances, the demolition of the Chapel Wing is premature. Elected officials are being asked to balance the loss of a significant heritage attribute of the building against the benefits a re-purposed building would bring to the community, without knowing exactly what those benefits will be. Demolition would essentially be the equivalent of putting the cart before the horse.

The fact that the CECCE has no requirement for the Chapel Wing at this time, is not in itself a reason to seek its demolition nor is the City of Ottawa Recreation, Cultural and Facility Services determination that ‘’the chapel wing was not adequate for a community centre that includes a gymnasium.’’ Instead, the wing should be stabilized while the City further considers its options or the current owner tries to find another partner to enable them to live-up to their commitment to preserve the building in its entirety made over five years ago.

Surely, as the City begins to reconsider its operational capabilities and demands in a post-COVID-19 world and its long-term effect on how the City provides services to its citizens, to demolish a structure that may potentially provide a much-needed civic use could be considered short-sighted.

Heritage Ottawa believes that the statement of the latest (August 2020) iteration of the Cultural Heritage Impact Statement, which notes that such a demolition is merely another example of how the property has been ‘’modified significantly since its construction’’ is more of an excuse for demolition than a valid statement about heritage. What is more significant to a former religious institution than its chapel? All previous modifications were in the service of the Oblates themselves, and is a physical record of their continuous use and evolution, while this demolition would be an erasure of that history solely to accommodate a new use elsewhere in the building.

Finally, the preservation of the chapel wing should not be considered a ‘’deal breaker’’ to the imaginative and appropriate adaptive re-use of the rest of the building. Instead it offers a challenge to the current owner, who has already benefitted greatly by the development of the former Oblates property, and the City to find a similar appropriate use for this important example of Ottawa’s build heritage.

Related Reading:

Committee split over chapel demolition at Oblates property | CBC Ottawa, Sept. 8, 2020

Heritage panel split on proposal to demolish chapel wing of Deschâtelets Building | Ottawa Citizen, Sept. 8, 2020