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Religious building transformed in Guelph for new life as museum

Tour civic museum which builds on the heritage of former Sisters of Loretto Convent

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The Guelph Civic Museum, left, has opened in the former Sisters of Loretto Convent. The building is on the hilltop grounds of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, a national historic site and Guelph’s most prominent landmark.

Peter Kelly

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After the Sisters of Loretto closed the convent in 1996, the building sat empty and neglected for more than a decade. The City of Guelph’s desire to convert it to a museum of culture and natural history helped to save it from demolition. The city is leasing the museum building from the Catholic Diocese of Hamilton for a nominal amount.

+VG Architects

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The original convent was designed by Brantford, Ont., architect John Turner and was completed in 1857 as a residence for the sisters and as a school. A chapel, right, was added in 1872 and a two-storey addition was made to the original convent building in 1896.

+VG Architects

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The $12.7-million repurposing project, designed by +VG Architects of Brantford, Ont., required two additions: a glass entrance on the north side and an elevator bank/loading area on the west side.

+VG Architects

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The glazed lobby features restored stained glass windows. Parging repair work done some 50 years ago was restored rather than removed to show the cumulative history of the building and to illustrate how attitudes toward restoration have evolved, says Paul Sapounzi of +VG Architects.

+VG Architects

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The reception area. The 30,000-square-foot museum is barrier-free. The building interior was completely gutted and new reception and exhibition spaces created. The upper floors were rebuilt to handle the weight of the archives room.

+VG Architects

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Exhibition room. The museum houses about 30,000 artifacts, photographs and archival materials that date back to when Guelph was founded in 1827.

+VG Architects

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Entry to the City Gallery. The building interior held little heritage value due to neglect and numerous renovations over its 150-year history. However, historic features such as doors, trim, partitions and stained glass were saved and are on display throughout the museum as artifacts.

+VG Architects

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The Royal City Families Gallery, located in the former chapel, is now a children’s play space and an interactive gallery for all ages.

+VG Architects

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The Loretto Gallery tells the story of the convent and the Sisters of Loretto. The building held dozens of tiny, sparsely furnished bedrooms where nuns slept, prayed and prepared school lessons.

+VG Architects

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The trickiest and most essential part of the project was building a new foundation, says architect Mr. Sapounzi. It was quite literally a money pit because of the significant work and cost required, yet most visitors to the museum will never see it.

+VG Architects

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The building’s crumbling foundation was replaced and the basement extended northward under the new entrance and outdoor parking lot. A new mechanical room, a workshop and a storage room were added.

+VG Architects

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The improved basement also features a climate-controlled collections room.

+VG Architects

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With the demolition of adjoining buildings, passersby can for the first time in decades get a clear view of the new jewel of Catholic Hill, which officially opened in 2012. ‘The city sees Catholic Hill as a cultural heritage landscape that’s an essential part of John Galt’s initial vision for the original Guelph,’ says Stephen Robinson, the city’s senior heritage planner.

+VG Architects

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