PORTLAND — A modern design for a new 400-plus-seat performance hall on Munjoy Hill is drawing concern from residents and city staff.
The Friends of the St. Lawrence Church wants to build a 54-foot-tall building with metal siding at the corner of Congress and Munjoy streets to replace an old stone church sanctuary that was demolished in 2008.
The friends originally proposed a hall that would replicate the 19th-century Gothic-style exterior of the church and a parish hall that still stands. The church roof collapsed in 2006 and was deemed a public safety hazard by the city.
However, donors balked at the project’s $12 million to $17 million cost, so the group pursued a more affordable option, said Deirdre Nice, the group’s executive and artistic director. Donors and fundraisers directed the group to design a $7 million project.
The new plan calls for a cube-shaped building with a perforated metal skin, a raised plaza overlooking the sidewalk and an upper-story promenade room, architect David Lloyd said in a Nov. 12 letter to the city.
“I love the modern aspect to it,” Nice said.
“We’re planning on building a building that will be an artistic beacon for Munjoy Hill that will add to the viability of the arts and the neighborhood in general.”
The friends group currently holds theater and music shows in the 110-seat parish hall, which was renovated in 2001 and would remain a part of the new hall. But Nice said the venue is too small to make necessary investments in the building while also meeting the group’s $160,000 annual budget.
Residents on Tuesday were heartened to hear that a more robust performance space is in the works for the hill, but offered conflicting views of the boxy modern design.
“Knowing the neighborhood like I do, I think a lot of people are going to want the historic preservation,” said David Sedrone, 48, who lives in the West End but works on the hill.
The nonprofit group will present the new plan on Wednesday at 7:15 p.m. to the Historic Preservation Board, which will evaluate whether the design is compatible with the neighborhood. It’s the first step in a lengthy process that will require Planning Board approval and fundraising before it can move forward.
Elizabeth Fraser runs Fraser Art Studios across Congress Street from the St. Lawrence. She has painted more than 50 paintings of the iconic bell tower.
Fraser was elated when told of the plans to rebuild the hall were moving forward, but was disappointed the new plans would not replicate the old structure.
Nevertheless, she is confident the friends group will do right by the neighborhood.
“I trust that community to do something that fits the neighborhood parameters,” the 41-year-old artist said, after taking time to rein in her thoughts and emotions.
“I’ve seen designs of old and modern mixed. When done right, it can be beautiful.”
Vesper Street resident Erin Quigley said she didn’t know much about the project and was eager to learn more. A neighborhood meeting will take place on Dec. 10 at 5:30 p.m., at the East End Community School.
But Quigley’s initial reaction to preliminary drawings going before the historic board was that the building looked “huge” compared to its surroundings.
“I think it would be awesome to have a better arts venue on the hill, but that looks a little bit excessive,” said Quigley, a 31-year-old environmental consultant.
Bryan Bruchman, a 32-year-old former hill resident who was in the neighborhood Tuesday visiting friends and working, agreed.
“It looks like it would be visually out of place with the neighborhood,” said Bruchman, who runs the Hillytown blog about the Portland music scene.
Having the building stand out from its surroundings is by design, according to city staff.
Deb Andrews, the city’s historic preservation program manager, said in a memo to the board that Lloyd designed the building to be a visual draw and clearly express the “dynamism” of the center.
“He has been very clear that these goals have driven the proposed architectural solution and that the conventional notion of compatibility was not the key objective in the design process,” Andrews wrote. “In staff’s view, the proposed addition is architecturally interesting in its own right and would likely be viewed as an exciting new design solution in another location, particularly within Portland’s central business district.”
Nice said she doesn’t know how the board will react to the proposal during the informal workshop session Wednesday, but she believes the project would be a great addition to the neighborhood. She said Lloyd intends to use some of the stones and stained glass from the original sanctuary in the new building, but detailed drawings have not been prepared. The remaining material could be sold to raise money for the venue, she said.
“Whatever it ends up looking like — it will be great,” she said.
Nice said the venue will fill a much-needed niche in the theatre and music scene, which is already brimming with small and large music venues. She said 400- to 500-seat venues are scarce here and could attract mid-level regional acts at affordable ticket prices.
But Michael Leonard, the business development manager for the State Theatre, said the city may be at a breaking point in terms of venues.
While the new hall wouldn’t compete with the 1,700-seat State Theatre, Leonard said, it could compete with shows the State books at other venues, such as the Empire, Space Gallery and Port City Music Hall.
“There are a lot of music venues,” Leonard said.
“If all of those venues were selling out seven days a week then maybe we do need new venue. But we both know that’s not the case.”
Kippy Rudy, executive director of One Longfellow Square, said she doesn’t think the hall would compete with the 200-seat venue at the corner of Congress and State streets. However, she did caution that profit margins in the music business are “razor thin.”
“I wish them luck,” Rudy said. “They’re part of a vibrant neighborhood, which we have benefited from being close to the West End. If they’re able to galvanize that support like they have done in the past, that bodes well for them.”
Staff Writer Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at: