COCHRANE STREET UNITED CHURCH
St. John’s, NL
The Present Building (dedicated 1916)
The present building is the second to serve the congregation. The original wooden Gothic structure (dedicated 1882) on the same site was destroyed in a fire on January 18, 1914. The Board of the church immediately invited bids from architectural firms to submit plans for another Gothic structure. The bid from Ross and Macdonald, Architects, of Montreal was $160,000, much more than the insurance of $40,000 and the $80,000 that the congregation was willing to commit, especially since $8852 was still owed on the first building.
Rev. George Paine had been the minister at Cochrane Street. His son, A. J. Carman Paine (1886-1965), was an architect in Montreal at the time of the fire. He knew Mr. H. R. Dowswell, the chief draftsman at Ross and MacDonald. It was felt that because the congregation was non-conformist, that is, Protestant but not Church of England, the building’s architecture should fit more with the form of worship where everyone was in easy reach of the minister in an auditorium style of setting.
The building’s cornerstone was laid on June 29, 1915. The offering at that event was $325. Work had begun on the building on May 15, 1915. It was predicted that the work would take 6 months. The intent was to use as much local material and labour as possible, recognizing that because of the war in Europe, transportation and materials, as well as labour, were in short supply.
The contractor for the building was the Downing Cook Company of Toronto. Mr. W. Dunn was the building superintendent. The final cost of the contract work with the Downing Cook Company was $82,413, within the terms of the contract of $80,000 plus 10%. The total cost, which included furnishings and light fixtures but not the stained glass windows, was $89,007.43. Work was completed by Feb 19, 1916 with all the floors laid, stained and oiled. All the woodwork was finished and the scaffolding had been removed.
The first service was held on Easter Sunday, April 23, 1916, in the Sunday School area of the building, a three story extension attached to the sanctuary. At a cost of $3039.19, the purchase of land belonging to the Stripling estate and houses located on Bannerman Street permitted the erection of this extension. The Sunday School seats were shipped on the SS Kyle and arrived in time for that first service. The piano and bench for the Sunday School were purchased from Mason & Risch Ltd. of Yonge Street, Toronto. They were shipped on the SS Florizel and arrived on November 28, 1916.
The church was dedicated on June 18, 1916, but without organ, stained glass windows and many light fixtures. The offering at the dedication amounted to $10,400.
The church was named Cochrane Street Methodist Centennial Church in recognition of the centenary of organized Methodism in St. John’s. The congregation became part of The United Church of Canada when that organization was created in 1925, and was then known as Cochrane Street Centennial United Church, with the Centennial being dropped sometime after 1944. The Newfoundland Conference of the Methodist Church held its annual meeting at Cochrane Street on Sunday, June 25, 1916.
The organ was ready to be installed in September of 1916; however, it was not ready for use until December 1. The church was closed for four Sundays to allow for its proper installation.
The architecture of Cochrane Street United Church is unique in this part of Canada. The building envelope was built using local labour and local materials - concrete reinforced with steel, and painted in white and terra cotta. The Mediterranean look of the exterior with the bell tower, low façade, and eave and cupola details is distinctive. The 70 foot high bell tower has arching capitals, which are echoed in the original light fixtures over the front doors. Romanesque Revival elements include Roman windows and arching, and the decorative brickwork around the doors and windows.
Also of note are Crosses and Stars of David on the bell tower and a Greek cross over the front doors. At the street level, even with the low facade, the front gables and tower completely hide the copper-clad dome. On entering the building, the porch contains several barrel vaults, which are an important element of the Byzantine style of architecture.
The large Byzantine dome is supported on four Corinthian pillars. Soaring to 55 feet, with a diameter of 50 feet, the dome supports the chandelier which has a Greek cross design, as does the footprint of the sanctuary. This dome accounts in part for the superb acoustics of the building. Unlike other Byzantine-style religious buildings, Cochrane Street is barren in comparison. There are no paintings or mosaics on the walls, floor, dome, or the barrel vaults over the balconies and in the choir loft. This is in keeping with the more austere style of Methodist worship. The centre aisle, ramped floor and curved pew layout contribute to the auditorium design of the sanctuary.
The Arts and Crafts influence of the architects is evident in the original oak woodwork. The pews, communion rail and platform, the pulpit and minister’s platform, the choir loft, screen, and trichairs in the pulpit and the organ case, were designed and constructed in Dundas, Ontario by the Valley City Seating Company at a contract cost of $4370.25. Apart from the pews, which are of elm, this woodwork is constructed of oak. The organ screen is carved in great detail and complements the decoration on the tops of the pillars.
The pews have double compound curved backs, with the backs being made of 20 pieces of wood approximately one inch thick to produce the curves. The seats were made in a similar fashion. These double compound curves result in very comfortable seating, with a note being made in the records that cushions would spoil the effect of the pews. The communion rail was designed to hold individual cups with a perforated wooden strip fastened just inside the rail.
The spacing of the pews was originally meant to be 2 feet 9 inches. The pews in the first building had spacing of 3 feet so it was decided to remove one row of pews and increase the spacing to 2 feet 11 inches. The pews were ready to ship by Dec 28, 1915. In January 1916, there was an embargo placed on shipping due to war time congestion on the rail line. It was feared that the pews would not arrive for the dedication of the church; however, they did arrive before May 23 and were installed in time for the dedication.
Because of financial constraints, stained glass windows were not part of the original design. However, the Marshall, Pitts and Macpherson families who were members of the congregation donated the windows. These were designed and built in Canada by the Luxfer Prism Company of Toronto by the company’s artists from England and using English glass. They are extremely detailed in their depictions of Biblical stories such as the Nativity and several of the parables as well as a rendition of Holman Hunt’s “Light of the World” in the east window.
At the time of construction, the entire interior of the building was painted the blue-green still seen in the tops of the Corinthian capitals. The lighter colour scheme was completed in the 1970s, at which time the floors were also carpeted (re-carpeted in March 2005).
The church was equipped with 220 volt electric service. It was reported that people were pleased with the electric light fixtures and quite taken with the large central chandelier. These fixtures, produced by the Murray Kay Company of Toronto, are original to the building and were supplied as the lowest bid of $1896.97. Tiffany Glass Co. of New York also bid on the tender for the fixtures but their bid of $2500 was considered too high. The large Greek cross chandelier and the “crown of thorns” fixture in the east balcony are very interesting and striking additions to the building. Mr. Winsborrow of St. John’s installed both the electrical service and the fixtures.
Some further items of interest include the hat racks still remaining under the pews in the balconies (for the use of the men of the congregation), the baptismal font of carved marble, and the original communion rail. The original Communion cushions were recovered in 2005 by one of the women’s groups of the congregation but contain the original padding. The visitor’s desk in the porch was donated anonymously in 1957 by two ‘commercial travelers’, now known to be two brothers named Maltby, from mainland Canada as appreciation for the time they spent worshiping at Cochrane Street.
The architects were the leading North American architects of the time. Ross and MacDonald Architects of Montreal, established in 1904 as Ross & MacFarlane, continues today as Duschenes & Fish, and are credited with being the longest continuing architectural firm in Canadian history. This firm was responsible for such buildings as the Royal York Hotel, Wesleyan Theological College, parts of McGill University and Eatons in Montreal; Union Station and Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto, amongst many others across the country. Cochrane Street Church is the only building on the island designed by this firm.
Ross and Macdonald were trained in the Beaux Arts style of architecture. Instead of the construction of a building from a previous design era (in this instance, Gothic, which the congregation originally wanted), Cochrane Street United Church is an example of a style of architecture in which function should not be overtaken by form, hence the auditorium design. The building was built in wartime using scarce financial and labour resources. It is a testament to the congregation’s forward thinking that they were willing to accept a design that was more contemporary for its time. The auditorium style of the building and the splendid acoustics contribute to a special worship space as well as making it very much in demand for concerts in the community.
Cochrane Street United Church is home to the largest single pipe organ in Newfoundland and one of the finest in Eastern Canada, with a present replacement value of over $1million. It is the fourth organ to serve the congregation and was built by Casavant Freres of Ste. Hyacinthe, Quebec and installed in 1957. It is comprised of 4 manuals, 55 stops and 3315 pipes.
The congregation is fortunate that documents, including correspondence, blueprints, and specifications for the construction of the building, are in the custody of the church’s archives. This wealth of material leads to a greater understanding of the history of a marvelous building which has been and continues to be a spiritual home to many.
Cochrane Street United Church was designated a Provincial Heritage Structure on November 26, 2004 by the Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador.
Linda Bowden, Cochrane Street United Church Archives 2010,
revised 2012, 2016