The Glebe Community Centre – a landmark with a storied past

Glebe Community Centre from air
The Glebe Community Centre building, begun in 1914 but not completed until 1924 because of the war, started out as the home of St. Paul Methodist Church, which later became St. James United. The City bought the building in 1973 to become the Glebe Community Centre.
Photo:from the files of the glebe report

[ezcol_1half]By Tom Tanner

Images of the First World War in the Glebe usually show troops at Lansdowne. But a few blocks away, there was another stark reminder of the war, a rusting steel framework above a roofed-over basement that was to become the new St. Paul’s Methodist Church. The war stopped construction, and the eyesore was a constant reminder of the tragic conflict in Europe.

The Glebe Community Centre (GCC) was purchased by the City of Ottawa in 1973 for $300,000, the price of seven Glebe houses at the time, and is a signature building of our community today. The Ontario Heritage Trust features the GCC on its website as an inspiring example of creative repurposing of a religious building. It served a vibrant community well in those secular times, but it was born of faith and its story mirrors the upheavals of the twentieth century.

The decade before the First World War saw much growth and construction in the Glebe. A Methodist Sunday school was started in 1908 in Moorland’s Hall, which John Leaning reports was where Flipper’s restaurant is now located. Four lots were purchased in 1912 from the Glebe trustees for the new St. Paul’s Methodist Church. The congregation met in First Avenue School during its first two years. The cornerstone for the new building was laid on June 26, 1914 and is still clearly visible at the corner of Lyon and Second. The basement was roofed over about six months later and the first service was held there on January 10, 1915. The basement was the congregation’s home for nine years. The completed building was not dedicated until January 20, 1924.

From the beginning, St. Paul’s congregation had big plans. Architect Lt.-Colonel Clarence Burritt, one of the Burritt’s Rapids clan, designed a building that took its inspiration from Roman architecture, not from ecclesiastical models in the Gothic tradition. Newspaper accounts from 1924 headlined the completion of “one of Ottawa’s most beautiful churches” and reported it costing $130,000, financed by the sale of twenty-year bonds paying six per cent interest. The contractor was Glebe resident A. E. Shaver. He must have employed a lot of men as it took less than a year to go from rusty framework to the first service in the 1,200-seat sanctuary. The stained glass windows, still in place today, were manufactured and installed by Colonial Art Glass located at 586 Bank Street.

[/ezcol_1half] [ezcol_1half_end]

[ezcol_1half]The advent of the United Church of Canada brought together Methodist, Congregationalist and about 70 per cent of Presbyterian congregations in June 1925. St. Paul’s changed its name to St. James United because St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church, an older congregation in Sandy Hill, had voted to become part of the United Church, so the name was already taken. Glebe Presbyterian Church, at 650 Lyon Street South, also voted for union, thus creating two churches of the same denomination a block apart on Lyon Street.

The St. James and Glebe churches served a flourishing new area during the 1920s and 1930s. 214 members of St. James served in the Second World War (19 died) and 162 joined up from Glebe (6 died). After the war Ottawa grew and suburbs expanded. Many families moved to new housing developments and central areas were degraded by cut-through traffic. By 1970, Glebe and St. James decided to combine, and the amalgamation took place in 1971.

But the new Glebe-St. James congregation had two buildings and no firm plan about how to use them. Finances precluded retaining both buildings. An evaluation group decided that the Glebe building at 650 Lyon would offer more flexibility for the new congregation. This was difficult for many St. James people who felt affection for their long-term place of worship. In addition, the St. James Tennis Club, although owned by the church, was seen as a community resource. The congregation had maintained the clubhouse and courts as an outreach ministry and there was strong lobbying to keep this facility available.

Two religious groups made offers to purchase the building for much less than market value. Meanwhile, the Glebe Community Association was working to persuade the City to establish a community centre for Glebe residents. All this came to a very happy conclusion when the City offered $300,000 for the St. James site, including the tennis club. The congregation voted by mail-in ballot to accept the offer (544 in favour, 158 opposed) and the deal was done. The community got a new city facility in a prime location, the congregation got a fair price for the building, and the tennis club continued under City ownership.

The wartime “eyesore” at Lyon Street and Third Avenue had become the handsome home of Glebe Methodists and then an engaged United Church that contributed to the community in war and peace. The 1970s and 80s Glebe “renaissance” gained a physical focus when the City purchased St. James as the home for a community centre. In both a physical and a cultural sense, it is truly “the heart of the Glebe.”

[/ezcol_1half_end]Tom Tanner has been a Glebe resident since the 70s, and a contributor to the Glebe Report. He has been examining records of Glebe-St. James United Church. If anyone has a photograph of St. Paul’s during the First World War, please get in touch with the Glebe Report.

Share this