PORTLAND –  Imposing. Fascist. Elegant. A gift to the city.

Those were the words used Wednesday night to describe a proposal for a 450-plus-seat performance hall on Munjoy Hill that was reviewed by the city’s Historic Preservation Board.

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 and bell tower that were demolished in 2008 after being deemed a safety hazard by the city.

The project is in its initial stages. It needs approval from the Historic Preservation Board and the Planning Board, and an amendment of a contract zone that the City Council approved in 2010 based on a more historical design.

In 2010, the Friends of the St. Lawrence Church won preliminary approval for a hall with the same amount of seating that would replicate the 19th-century Gothic-style exterior of the church and bell tower.

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 told the group to design a $7 million project.

“We were encouraged to build a new landmark,” said Julia Kirby, the St. Lawrence development director.

Munjoy Hill is not a historic district in the city, but the St. Lawrence property, at 76 Congress St., is designated a local historic site, which gives the preservation board a say in the building design.

The board held a preliminary workshop on the proposal Wednesday night to give feedback to the Friends of the St. Lawrence Church regarding the project’s size and compatibility with the parish hall on the property and the surrounding neighborhood of modest homes.

Board member Scott Benson said he can’t support the project as it’s designed because “it’s not compatible with the existing building or the neighborhood.”

Nice said the project’s size is driven by the programming needs. Her group now hosts performances in a 110-seat theater in the parish hall, but its $160,000 annual budget isn’t enough to maintain the structure.

A 400- to 500-seat venue would generate enough revenue to support itself and the historic parish hall, she said.

Architect David Lloyd said the boxy design is driven by the small lot. The perforated-metal siding, which could be back-lit, would act as “an architectural lingerie” for the hall, Lloyd said.

That, along with a glass-walled promenade room, would create a “Japanese lantern” effect, he said.

The promenade room, with ocean views, would be used as a lobby during shows, and could be used for community functions at other times.

“It could be a wonderful attraction for the city and it could be a money-maker,” Lloyd said.

Lloyd showed a slideshow of various buildings on Congress Street, saying the performance hall would enhance the eclectic architectural mix. He ended with a photo of a similarly designed addition to a stone church-like building in Montreal.

Several residents spoke out against the project’s boxy metallic design.

Ralph Carmona of nearby North Street said it looks like a big-box store that would be found in Scarborough. His wife, Vana, said the modern design is nice but inappropriate for the neighborhood.

Munjoy Hill resident Cliff Gallant was more critical, calling it “a fascist modern design” and “an abomination.”

But Jenny Scheu, an architect who lives on the hill, said she was excited by the design and would work to build neighborhood support.

“To me, it’s one of the nicer projects on the hill I’ve seen in a long time,” Scheu said. “I think this project is a gift to the neighborhood.”

Board member Ted Oldham suggested a more visual variation on the sides of the building, possibly by molding the exterior of the building to the seating elevations inside.

Benson said Lloyd should add stone accents to the base of the building so it blends in more with the parish hall.

Lloyd said he would go back to the drawing board to come up with a design to meet the center’s programming needs and the city’s design needs.

The architect and the Friends will discuss their project with neighborhood residents at 5:30 p.m. Monday at East End Community School.

Staff Writer Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at: [email protected]

Twitter: @randybillings

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