82 Sydenham Street has a long and noble history. Follow the story below.
Sydenham Street Methodist Church, 1852
In 1852, Kingston was a small town with big ambitions. Fewer than 12 000 people lived in the town, busy with their jobs in shipping, saw mills, a tannery, a large lake-front brewery and the typical shops and taverns of a provincial hub. Kingston’s short stint as the First Capital of Upper Canada was over, but the impressive buildings that had been put up to signal an important centre remained. Among them were an imposing City Hall, a host of churches, Kingston Penitentiary, and large gracious homes in the district now called Sydenham. Queen’s University was still young and small, but already developing into an important city institution. Not surprisingly, skilled carpenters and builders hired to construct Summerhill or Kingston Penitentiary or St James Anglican church were easily able to turn their hands and tools to work for any builder who needed their skills.
Churches dominated the town’s skyline: Anglicans, Roman Catholics and Presbyterians had built large and important houses of worship in the 1840s. Now it was time for the Methodists to add new heights to the cityscape. They hired noted architect and builder William Coverdale and his crews, and welcomed the opportunity to raise something notable on the lot they had obtained from John Counter, at the corner of Sydenham and William streets.
Skilled stone masons, carpenters, roofers, plasterers and painters brought their tools and their expertise, and under Coverdale’s direction, they erected an imposing building that looks only slightly like the current Sydenham Street United Church/The Spire.
Let’s go back to 1854, when Coverdale’s Sydenham Street Methodist Church was very new. From the street, the building is particularly impressive. Rising gracefully into the Kingston sky is the distinctive spire, an ornate and very slender needle with a notable tapering. Beneath the spire, the decorated steeple houses the grand bell they brought all the way from Troy, New York, to call worshippers together. During the 1850’s, Gothic Revival churches such as this were very popular with architects and congregations. Limestone was plentiful, and spoke of permanence. The tracery and slender elegant openings in the belfry remind us again of the Gothic influence on the builders. The nave is a large rectangle – and everywhere on the exterior walls we see elegant decorations. The large central double door with its Gothic arched transom invites us to enter. Inside the bell tower, the bell pull is within reach.
Inside the nave is a beautifully decorated ceiling, high above the floor. A centre aisle leads to the chancel. The pews are flat on the floor, straight rows facing the pulpit, raised high with a double set of stairs leading from either side to the centre of church life: the sermons. The choir sits nearby, their ministry of music an essential part of the worship services.
Sydenham Street Methodist Church, 1888
The place has changed: the slender, highly-decorated spire remains, but the large building is no longer a rectangle sitting on the ground. Architect John Power was hired to enlarge the building to accommodate up to 1000 worshippers, and he has made significant changes. Power and his workers have added two large wings to the exterior, and completely rebuilt the interior. Now people walk up the stairs to enter the bell tower and narthex. This curved anteroom with its sets of stairs to a balcony on each side is certainly not consistent with Coverdale’s exterior 1850s design. Someone standing in the doorway at the top of the centre aisle would sense a very low ceiling for a building with such a high exterior roof. A few steps in, and the ceiling soars high above the balcony, a double curved feature added in 1887, held in place by posts all around a curved nave – fluted posts made of wood and circular steel ones. The pews in this sanctuary are curved, another unusual feature. Each pew is made of two layers of oak, spaced so that they can be bent to make their unique curved shapes. This is a space with many curves.
Today, 855 people can sit in these pews – when it was brand-new in 1888, about 1000 people came to worship. Fire codes were different then!
Sydenham Street United Church, 1929
The congregation’s needs kept changing over the decades, and in the late 1920’s, Colin Drever and his builders made further significant alterations to the interior of the church, particularly the sanctuary. The Richardson family devoted significant funds to renovate the chancel. Builders installed the reredos, woodwork and Casavant organ, as well as a new movable pulpit much smaller than the large double-decker version from the 1880s. Behind the pulpit choir stalls face each other in a deep chancel with the communion table at the back. Ever since the first choir members raised their voices in the new church in 1852, music has been part of the heart of this building.
At the back of the chancel, a curved arch set off with blue paint draws our eyes to the ceiling high above. This ceiling is “new” in the 1920s, and beautifully decorated, with its elegant bosses and ribs set off with appealing colours of paint. Ribs, bosses, curves and capitals make the ceiling a work of art. During the ceiling and roof renovations of the 1990s, some of the bosses and capitals had to be rebuilt, keeping the beauty of the building intact. Above the visible ceiling is Coverdale’s original, its decorations unseen. Atop that ceiling, along a central spine, is a walkway now rarely used.
Sydenham Street United Church, 1962
Change and growth seem to be part of the story of this heritage building. In the early 1960s, the congregation needed more space, so another renovation changed the sanctuary and provided office, meeting and socializing space. Builders added offices, large upstairs and downstairs halls, a huge upstairs kitchen and a chapel. Space that had once been an apartment for the church custodian became offices and more public rooms.
The Spire Today
Sydenham Street United Church’s building has been an inspiring part of the Kingston skyline for more than 160 years. Today, as SSU becomes part of The Spire, the vision of the pioneers who built this impressive and beautiful piece of our city joins that of Friends of The Spire: to continue to build our community.
The Spire/SSU is a community hub in Kingston’s heritage district. Today, hundreds of people make music here every week: Cantabile choristers, members of Kingston Choral Society, musicians playing the grand piano or the Casavant pipe organ. Hundreds of others come for support as part of several self-help groups, a food sharing project, and a children’s outreach program. Many community groups use these spaces, finding a safe, affordable and welcome site for meetings, choir rehearsals and group self-help. Members of several not-for-profit arts organizations come to work in their offices. They are among the 1200 people who come through the building’s doors each week, to learn, to create, to find support, to receive aid, and to find a safe haven.
A person standing in the sanctuary/performance hall facing the nave has a view of some symbols of the church’s history: plaques from Queen’s University, the Royal Military College of Canada, and the Royal Canadian Horse Artillery as well as United Church and national flags. The Rainbow flag symbolizes the commitment of the Affirming congregation to inclusivity. Other plaques and plates identify the pew where Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip sat in 1959, as well as the work of Rev Samuel Dwight Chown, a founder of The United Church of Canada in 1925. Memorial plaques list the names of congregation members who died during the Great War, 1914-18, and World War II. Three stained glass windows light up in wonderful ways when caught by the sun.
Someone entering the performance hall/sanctuary from the Sydenham Street entrance would likely identify an attractive “church” chancel on most days. But concert dates will reveal a very different look. During some changes in the early 2000s, the chancel steps were extended out, and the decorative railings were converted into a removable form. When things are set up as a heritage church interior, they remain as they have been for decades. When things are set up for a concert, the look is very different: open, flexible and unobstructed.
Below, the basement reveals the original exterior walls erected by the hands of the stonemasons and carpenters working under Coverdale’s direction in the 1850s. Massive joists, wooden posts and stone walls bear the weight of the building and the hundreds of people who enter it each week.
Change has been a constant feature for the interior of the building, and for the people of the community to enjoy the amenities The Spire offers. Renovations from the spring and summer of 2017 to the fall of 2019 increased the number of washroom spaces from 6 to 16, added an elevator and made the William Street door accessible – the interior of the post-1929 building is quite “new”. Board members and people in the congregation as well as the wider community contributed to the installation of a new roof on the heritage portion of the building in 2021. In 2023, dedicated board members work to raise funds for significant improvements to the sound, lighting, projection and streaming capabilities of The Spire’s Performance Hall. These enhancements are underway. The exterior remains an enduring landmark on the Kingston skyline – an inspiring reminder of the community-building that has continued to grow over the decades.
Significance of the Building in Kingston Today
A Commentary by Dr. Carl Bray
How important are older buildings in a community?
Jane Jacobs, the famous critic of urban planning and supporter of diverse communities, perhaps said it best: “new ideas must use old buildings.” By that she meant that a healthy and robust city needs places that foster experiment, places that are flexible and inexpensive yet close to the centre. As in a natural ecosystem, there must be parts of a community that can accommodate and encourage change while supporting the health of the whole.
Churches are an integral part of this urban ecosystem, for many reasons. Historically, churches were many things besides places of worship. They functioned as public markets, community halls and, in times of danger, places of refuge. Church buildings were the expression of community pride, with the finest materials, best architecture and most prominent locations. But beyond this, churches expressed a community’s faith – in tradition and in the future – as manifest in activities that enhance humanity.
In modern times, as church attendance declines, church properties can come to resemble their forbearers in offering a wide range of potential uses. They can, as the quote implies, be seed beds for new enterprises, both entrepreneurial and social. In contrast to private homes or commercial operations, churches are public institutions that serve non-commercial needs within a city, and thus act as focal points for communal activities such as cultural events and social services.
Within this context, this building is many things within its downtown district. It is an architectural gem, a landmark and an important component of the early history of the city. It is a magnificent venue for musical performances and a location for many community groups to meet and to have office space. By being located in a transition zone between the downtown commercial core and the adjacent residential neighbourhoods, it offers “neutral territory” to those needing a fresh start or a safe haven. By offering affordable space for community use, The Spire supports many local organizations that otherwise would struggle. By supporting a wide constituency of groups within the community, The Spire is inclusive and welcoming. As an anchor building within the Old Sydenham Heritage Conservation District, and as a focal point for a range of uses from within the neighbourhood and from the wider city, this building is an essential part of downtown Kingston.