PORTLAND – Thank you for this opportunity to weigh in concerning the rebuilding of the sanctuary half of the former St. Lawrence Church into a state-of-the-art performance hall with a modern design.  

Before Friends of the St. Lawrence Church formed in 1996, the St. Lawrence had stood derelict and empty since its congregation left in 1986. When Friends of the St. Lawrence Church took ownership of the building, it was in an advanced state of disrepair, and many predicted we wouldn’t be successful.

But after an eight-year effort, Friends of the St. Lawrence Church successfully restored the parish hall half of the building into a thriving 110-seat theater, which has been operating successfully since opening in 2001 and has been an anchor to all the blossoming businesses on Munjoy Hill.

If the original historic sanctuary structure could have been saved, Friends of the St. Lawrence Church would have done so. For the first 15 years of the organization’s existence, every effort was made to save the former sanctuary before the painful decision was made to take it down.

In 2006, when a roof beam collapsed and pushed a wall into our neighbor’s yard, it was determined by structural engineers and the city of Portland that the building was unsafe, beyond repair, and had to be dismantled.

The architectural drawings that resulted from those sad ashes were a near-replication of the former sanctuary, but with some modifications that incorporated the organization’s programming, including a spectacular room on the roof with a 360-degree view of Portland. After that plan was approved by Portland’s Planning Board and City Council in November 2010, St. Lawrence Arts went to the community to test the feasibility of raising $17 million to execute the plan.

We were consistently told that $17 million was not feasible and that the organization should focus on creating a dynamic performing arts space in a contemporary building with a more reasonable budget of $5 million to $7 million. Our concept of a midsized performance hall was very well received, but not our building design with its exceptionally high $17 million price tag.

Friends of the St. Lawrence Church hired Portland architect David Lloyd, whose firm, Archetype Architects LLC, has a stellar history in Portland for additions to historic properties. We asked him to design a building that would complement the existing 19th-century Parish Hall Theater as well as support it in perpetuity.

The first step was to present a “massing concept” to the city’s Historic Preservation Board that showed a degree of size and height that accommodated our programming. This concept rendering was designed to elicit input and direction from the Historic Preservation Board. The board was not presented with a finished design.

That meeting was the first step in the process of designing the new, contemporary performance hall. After receiving input from the Historic Preservation Board on Dec. 5, St. Lawrence Arts held a voluntary community meeting Dec. 10 to gain input from our Munjoy Hill neighbors.

Mr. Lloyd and his team of architects are in the process of modifying their conceptual designs to incorporate the Historic Preservation Board comments and neighborhood critiques.

A new sketch of the proposal does take into account some of the comments to date, including reducing the height of the building, increasing the setback distance of the building along Congress Street, and modifying the porch element with cornices that match the existing Parish Hall lines.

The sketch does not, however, portray siding details or type or a final design. These will be developed over the next couple of weeks and months, at which point we will go back to the Historic Preservation Board, the Planning Board and the neighborhood to continue the discussion.

More than 10 years ago, when the zoning ordinance was amended to allow the “community center” use in this type of neighborhood, the city specifically built in the requirement that it approve a parking and traffic management plan. The measure was seen as a way to save historic landmarks that have outlived their original use in neighborhoods like Munjoy Hill, while helping to protect neighborhoods from the potential impacts that new uses might have.

This was the subject of numerous Planning Board hearings and workshops and ultimately approved by the City Council. Public input and participation was invited and, in fact, sought out. St. Lawrence Arts has a parking management plan that was passed by the city of Portland in 2010 but will be revisited as we develop these plans for this a dynamic and exciting performance hall that will be an essential contribution to Maine’s creative economy.

Deirdre Nice is executive director of St. Lawrence Arts.