Once upon a more religious time, College Street Baptist Church echoed with the sounds of hymns and prayers. These days, the grand interior is graced not by Bible-clutching congregants but cocktail-sipping guests.
God’s house is now four luxury townhomes, one of which is owned by Kerry and Mandy Shapansky, who joined the ranks of rare church-conversion purchasers three years ago. Only a handful of such transformations exists in Toronto but as the number of occupied pews dwindles, it’s expected more century-old architectural fixtures will be repurposed.
For the Shapanskys, the renovated rectory where the pastor once resided and they now live, has been a godsend. As retired executives and empty nesters moving from a big family home in north Toronto, they found the condos they looked at to be “kind of soulless,” according to Kerry.
“The neighbourhood was a real surprise to us. We were absolutely smitten,” he recalls. “We feel like we’re living in the real city because everything that’s important to our lifestyle is close by. We walk everywhere.”
“The conversion was so tastefully and wonderfully done,” Shapansky says of the design work by developer Joe Brennan, who resurrected the derelict building several years ago.
Opened in 1889, the property is protected under the Ontario Heritage Act.
The Shapanskys’ 6,735-square-foot unit at 314 Palmerston Blvd. is at the north end of the large building that fronts on College St. The couple has had to put it on the market — asking price: $ 6.25 million — because their philanthropic work frequently keeps them out of the country.
The townhome is represented by Christian Vermast, Fran Bennett and Paul Maranger, senior vice-presidents of sales at Sotheby’s International Realty Canada.
It’s a reflection of its surroundings in a vibrant neighbourhood southwest of Bloor and Bathurst Sts. that’s “rich with culture and charm,” he notes, adding three of the best restaurants in town are just 50 metres away.
Crediting the “brilliant combination of an architecturally significant exterior with an ultra-modern interior,” Sotheby’s calls the townhouse one of the most rare and exceptional in the city.
With a 13-foot ceiling and massive windows that are sympathetic to what had been in the original rectory, “there’s an authenticity to the space,” Maranger says.
The landmark church, designed by highly regarded Toronto architects Langley and Burke, displays large, round-arched windows and doorways, a defining feature of the Romanesque Revival style popular in the mid- to late-19th century.
One of the most striking features of its modern incarnation, Maranger notes, is the commercial-grade gallery staircase — there’s also a private elevator — that connects the townhome’s three levels.
“You look up and it’s a glass ceiling like you would see in an industrial building.”
For the current owners, who are well-known business leaders, great outdoor space had been a priority. And they got it in spades.
The rooftop boasts 1,500 square feet of terrace, gardens and places to party, complemented by a fireplace, gas barbeque system, outdoor shower and two-piece bath, and two pergolas with retractable awnings.
Visitors can find more space to mingle in the main-floor stone courtyard, which is enclosed by red-brick walls.
The main floor with its “unbelievable kitchen” (as Maranger describes it) that opens into the dining and great rooms invites everyone to be part of the action.
Decorating had been a challenge for the couple, who wanted to give the “grand space” a warm, homey feel, says Shapansky. They are thrilled with the contemporary look, designed and executed by Studio Pyramid Inc., which showcases their art collection to full effect.
The transformed church is an “urban oasis with privacy and security,” Shapansky says. At the same time, it has unexpected wow factors, such as the car lift in the futuristic two-car underground garage.
And thanks to serendipity, they have a picture of the original church on a postcard their daughter found in an antique store. Dated July 20, 1910, it was sent to someone by a visitor from Baltimore.
Living in a once-sacred space doesn’t faze the homeowners who are “not really religious people,” Shapansky says. In fact, he jokes that the converted house of God “is as close to getting upstairs as I’ll come.”
An artist’s sanctuary: Hillsdale home has church origin
Artist Pat Gangnon’s lifelong dream had been to live in a church. So when the congregation of Hillsdale United Church had shrunk to a handful of worshippers, she jumped at the chance to buy the beautiful old building.
She spent 28 heavenly years there and in the lush gardens she created around it, according to her daughter Lia Grimanis.
“Strangely, Mom is an atheist, but these were her happiest years,” she says. “She loved the church, the space and how it brought people together.”
Gangnon, who has Alzheimer’s, is now in an assisted living facility in Montreal. So her 127-year-old home, with its soaring ceilings, stained-glass windows and slightly sloping spruce floor — built to boost congregants’ line of sight — is up for sale.
Located a 75-minute drive north of Toronto in Hillsdale, between Georgian Bay and Lake Simcoe, the property is listed for $ 325,000, which Grimanis says will pay for her mother’s care.
Before putting the property on the market, she and her sister Alexandra immortalized it in a video and digital booklet, and created a website, oursanctuary.ca, to showcase the property.
“We wanted people to see the dream Mom had and to pay tribute to her,” explains Grimanis, a Toronto businesswoman.
The main living space of 2,000 square feet, which served as a gathering place for other artists and gardeners, boasts a 27-foot ceiling with intricate woodwork, original beams and Gothic-style windows. Some of Gangnon’s artwork is still on display.
“The detail (in the space) is unbelievable,” says Grimanis. “The ceiling and windows are quite stunning.”
The 1,500-square-foot lower level, where Gangnon lived, features a spacious two-bedroom suite including a kitchen with colourful accents.
Outside, a third of a hectare is filled with Gangnon’s beloved sustainable garden, meandering stone walkways and brick patio overlooking two large koi ponds with waterfalls.
Her mother completely transformed the entire property over the years, Grimanis says, recalling the lack of plumbing, church ceiling covered in ugly tile and woodwork painted “barf pink, yellow and blue.”
The church, built in 1889, had been surrounded by grass, nothing else. “Every single tree and flower was planted by her.”