Wednesday, February 07, 2007

St. Lawrence Sanctuary To Be Dismantled and Rebuilt
The sanctuary auditorium in the former St. Lawrence Church on Munjoy Hill is currently in an advanced state of deterioration, but is structurally braced and ready for the next step in the rehabilitation process, according to Deirdre Nice, Executive Director of the Friends of St. Lawrence, the non-profit organization that owns and manages the St. Lawrence Arts & Community Center.

The Friends of the St. Lawrence has applied for HCD funds to help with this next step, which will be used towards the thoughtful and methodical dismantling of the sanctuary, while preserving all possible options in the design of a 400-500 seat auditorium.

The Friends have hired Mills Whitaker Architects, a recognized firm specializing in the restoration and phased alterations of historic properties, with an emphasis on educational and assembly spaces such as churches, schools and community centers. They are also working with Structures North Consulting Engineers, Inc which provides services to building owners and architects, developers, historic preservationists, and conservators. Approximately 50 percent of their work is in the evaluation and preservation of historic and archaic structures.

Nice outlaid the group's plan to members of the City Manager's Policy Advisory Committee on December 15th. That group is considering a request for $150,000 in federal funding to go toward the cost of the dismantling, as part of an overall budget of about $670,000 for measured drawings, planning and pre-design, and stabilization of the sanctuary. Nice spoke of the group’s mission of creating an accessible and affordable performing arts center, while preserving a neighborhood icon, and how this funding would help them achieve their goal. Nice told CMPAC that the plan to approach the rehabilitation of the structure by dismantling it in a controlled and historically thoughtful manner been discussed with the city and state's historic preservation directors.

The Friends of St. Lawrence Church was created in 1996 to rehabilitate the former church into an arts center. The sanctuary takes up about one-half of the entire St. Lawrence property, which runs from Munjoy Street to Beckett Street along Congress Street in the city's East End.

The group has a nine-member board of directors, a capital campaign steering committee, and a full and part-time staff. Starting at its creation in 1996, the organization has raised $1.5 million and renovated half of the building, opening the 110-seat Parish Hall Theater in May, 2001. The Parish Hall plays host to theater, music, film, and other artistic and culturally diverse programming. The St. Lawrence manages the theater house and rents the facility to artists and production companies. The yearly operating budget of approximately $160,000 is supported by revenues from the theater operation and unrestricted fundraising. The capital campaign steering committee has currently developed an estimate of $5.2 million to complete Phase III of the renovation project, the rebuilding of the sanctuary the into an auditorium seating approximately 400-500.

The St. Lawrence Church was built in 1897 in the Romanesque Queen Anne style, with fanciful architectural features such as turrets and a belfry. The granite and slate building has long been admired for its beauty, and was listed as a national landmark in the National Register of Historic Places in 1979, and as a local landmark by the City of Portland in 1990. Its original congregation dwindled and went extinct, closing the church's doors in 1986. Water damage and neglect were taking their toll when the Friends of the St. Lawrence Church purchased the deteriorating historic structure in 1997 with hopes of saving the building.

The interior of the St. Lawrence is decorated with wood wainscoting, two tiers of stained glass windows and high, wooden ceilings. The building splits into two halves - the Parish Hall and the Sanctuary. The Sanctuary is grander, with 40-foot vaulted ceilings, sloped floor and circular pews seating 400, radiating like an amphitheater from the altar. Even in its dilapidated state, the room never fails to impress, not only with its grandeur but with its obvious potential. The 110-seat Parish Hall Theater, while not as grand, has been serving the artistic community since May 2001 with its accessibility, affordability and intimacy lauded by performers and audiences alike. The HCD funding would help the group achieve it’s goal of returning the building to the community for use.


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