December 5, 2012

Proposed music venue stirs debate on Munjoy Hill

A modern 400-seat performance hall is on the drawing board to replace a church structure at the corner of Congress and Munjoy streets.

By Randy Billings
Staff Writer

PORTLAND — A modern design for a new 400-plus-seat performance hall on Munjoy Hill is drawing concern from residents and city staff.

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This architect’s rendering shows a 54-foot tall structure with metal siding proposed by the Friends of the St. Lawrence Church.

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The Friends of the St. Lawrence Church are proposing the building of a modern 400-seat performance hall where the building's sanctuary once stood at 76 Congress Street in Portland.

John Ewing / Staff Photographer

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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.

(Continued on page 2)

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