A religious conversion that’s heritage-friendly

April 29th, 2016

Former Baptist church maintains its characteristic features after being split into eight residences

When building developers Roberto Salmena and Sam Grasso, co-owners of Terra Firma Homes, took over the former Baptist church at 200 Annette Street in Toronto’s High Park area, there were raccoons living in the roof and pigeons’ nests everywhere.

“We started off by cleaning the place, because it was like a big farmhouse,” recalls Mr. Salmena, who hired wildlife professionals to move the squatters out. “The building had been neglected for probably 50 years and needed some care.”

After the critters were under control, Terra Firma set about converting the heritage-designated church into eight residential townhouses, which have just been completed.

Mr. Salmena pounced on the property back in May 2009 after spotting the For Sale sign when he drove past after returning from vacation.

Both he and his partner grew up in the neighbourhood, and have been building homes in the city’s High Park/Bloor West area for about 25 years.

While the location was superb – close to the park, shops and subway – the actual structure, built in 1888, was in very poor shape. The pair were able to buy it from the Baptist Convention of Ontario and Quebec for around $800,000 – a price Mr. Salmena considered fair.

The original church had a footprint of about 4,000 square feet and “a nice little lot” – 67 feet of frontage along High Park Avenue and 145 feet along Annette Street – which allowed Terra Firma to incorporate parking into the development. The biggest challenge was bringing the structure up to an acceptable standard.

“The methods of construction at the time it was built weren’t very good compared to other churches in the neighbourhood,” says Mr. Salmena. “It was a poor congregation. They couldn’t afford to hire good tradespeople, so there wasn’t much that was worth preserving in the interior. We had to redo the leaded glass. None of it was good enough to keep.”

From a heritage perspective, Mr. Salmena said the biggest challenge of the job was restoring the masonry by following specific guidelines.

They also reincorporated a lot of wood for the trim around the fascia, roof, soffits and windows, instead of using aluminum, to help preserve the original character of the building.

“When you’re restoring a historical masonry building, you can’t hire regular masonry contractors,” he explains. “You have to hire a qualified heritage masonry expert to do that, so it definitely added cost. The reconstruction cost worked out at about $200 per square foot, more than we originally expected. It was like renovating a big house.”

William Greer, the architectural heritage consultant who evaluated the building, thought that the owner, design and contractor team made the most of adapting the church into residential use while still keeping its architectural appearance much as it had been for more than 100 years.

“I understand that the community was afraid it could have been left vacant and gradually ‘demolished by neglect,’ or that it would be demolished and replaced by the usual standard row of town houses,” says Mr. Greer. “They actually did get the latter, but well-preserved and rehabilitated within the original architectural form of a historical 19th century church. I think they are satisfied that it was a good solution.”

The units proved to be popular with buyers.

All sold within a few weeks last year for between $500,000 and $575,000.

According to Christine Simpson, sales representative for Royal LePage Real Estate Services, purchasers appreciated the heritage aspect as well as the luxurious interior finishes and roomy three-bedroom layouts.

“Originally we thought to divide it horizontally, but it wasn’t working for us, so we decided to chop it up into eight vertical townhouses,” says Mr. Salmena. “Each unit has four stories, including the basement. By dividing it vertically, we were able to come up with a decent floor layout.

“The nice thing about it was that everyone got their own entrance. The church is divided into buttresses, so we did our best to keep each unit within two buttresses and used existing window openings as the entrances.”

Because of the existing structure, Mr. Salmena says they weren’t able to implement some of the newer green building standards, but went instead with a high-efficiency gas furnace and tankless hot-water systems.

“In the end, it’s energy efficient,” says Mr. Salmena. “We used conventional methods to insulate properly and make it as efficient as possible for heating.”

So, after all the work of renovating and restoring the building, would he do it again?

“I’d absolutely do it again,” says Mr. Salmena. “Next time, we’d know what we were looking for a little better.”



Church conversion into eight residential town lofts

Original construction date: 1888

Original building size: 9,700 sq. ft

Heritage status: Yes

Builder/Developer: Terra Firma Homes

Total renovation cost: About $2-million

Average size of the units is about 1,100 sq. feet; 1,200 to 1,400 sq. feet including the basement.

Diane Jermyn
Special to The Globe and Mail
00:00 EST Tuesday, November 22, 2011