Work underway to transform historic Kingston church into modern performance venue

Officials at The Spire are working to turn the 170-year-old building into a dedicated performance space. Photo by Dana Ruprecht.

For the dozens of churches and other places of worship throughout Kingston and the surrounding area, a common question being asked by leaders is how to keep these facilities relevant today. With religious demographics evolving considerably over the past several decades, churches and other facilities that once stood as pillars of the community, serving healthy-sized congregations on a weekly basis, are finding ways to breathe new life into centuries-old buildings — and The Spire is a prime example.

The Spire, located at 82 Sydenham Street, first opened its doors in 1852 as the Sydenham Street Methodist Church. In 1925, the house of worship became part of the United Church of Canada, and Sydenham Street United Church has occupied the building ever since. While to this day the church continues to offer Sunday services, as a building, The Spire has taken on a life of its own over the past decade. Just over 10 years ago, church officials began to recognize the venue’s potential as more than just a place of worship, and they have since turned the building into a community hub, housing various arts, social justice, and spiritual organizations.

According to General Manager Sam MacLeod, the decision to open up the space was made due to the church’s changing demographics: “The congregation that has kept up for the last 170 years isn’t necessarily going to be able to do that into the future. [So] it was decided to open the space up to community activities.” Today The Spire is home to such groups as the Kuluta Buddhist Centre, the Kingston Choral Society, Cantabile Choirs, and the Helen Tufts Child Outreach Program.

“It’s a hive of activity, and we have about 120 people that come through the building on a daily basis,” said the General Manager.

Aside from being a home for community organizations, in recent years The Spire has become a popular performing arts space, with various theatre companies, music groups, and other artists renting the 750-seat venue. “We have a large performance hall. This is a 750-seat hall that’s a beautiful sanctuary or church space. It’s [also] a historic space for concerts,” MacLeod remarked, noting that legendary artists such as Arlo Guthrie and Henry Rollins have performed at the venue throughout its storied past. 

The Spire’s main room is a 750-seat hall Photo by Dana Ruprecht.

While the building does have a long history of being used for live performances, MacLeod said it lacks many of the resources it needs to unlock its full potential as a viable performance space.

“It doesn’t have any of the technical production fixtures and resources that are needed by a lot of these groups that come use the space. It doesn’t have any lighting. It doesn’t have sound or a PA [public address] system. It doesn’t have any projection,” said MacLeod. 

For this reason, the General Manager noted, many of the organizations that rent the space have to bring in their own equipment, which can be expensive and complicated.

“It’s difficult for community organizations. We’ve had a number of theatrical performances here: we had Grapevine [Theatre] in March, and we had Inspired Productions put on a presentation of the musical Company here [in July]. They have to bring all of this stuff in, and that can be very expensive,” he said. 

On top of the expense of renting things like speakers and lighting grids, the complicated nature of the space means groups are often forced to spend time figuring out how and where to place the equipment, which takes away from their ability to rehearse and perform. To make it easier for artists using the space, work is now underway at The Spire to turn the building into more of a dedicated performance venue, which should allow the building to attract a wider range of artists and other groups in the future. 

“What we’re trying to do right now is outfit the space with lighting, sound, and projection so that when groups come in, things are ready to go,” said MacLeod.

So far this year, he and his team have equipped The Spire with a new streaming system, allowing artists to broadcast their performances from Kingston to anywhere in the world. “We’ve [also] taken significant steps into our audio system with a new soundboard,” added the General Manager. 

Thanks to a donation from the Community Foundation for Kingston and Area, the venue was able to secure a new lighting board, while the Anna and Edward C. Churchill Foundation provided funding for new lighting instruments.

“The nice thing is, there’s a lot of people who love the space and who love this facility, so there’s a lot of community support,” MacLeod said of the response to the performance hall project. 

When making significant technical changes to a building that has stood since the 19th century, a number of challenges are sure to arise, including getting the necessary Heritage permissions due to the building’s designations.

“Technically, it is a challenging space, but it’s not impossible to overcome. It is a heritage space, so we are working with the City of Kingston and their Heritage Department to make choices that are respectful to the space while allowing us to do what we need,” explained MacLeod, noting that such choices include placing new equipment in a manner that does not compromise the historic aesthetic of the room.

“We’ve got a lot of professionals, including architects [and other] heritage professionals, who are working with us on this to make the correct choices.” 

With the streaming system and new lighting board in place, the project is moving along nicely. According to MacLeod, the organization’s next goal is to secure a new PA and speaker system.

“This is a large, state-of-the-art, modern column array performance speaker system that we hope to have up by January or February of 2024,” he said. 

Once the project is complete, The Spire should help alleviate the lack of mid-sized performance venues in the city. While spaces like The Grand Theatre exist, that venue is booked nearly year-round, leaving artists and other groups desperate for an affordable space similar in size.

“There’s definitely a need for mid-size performance spaces in Kingston. This was identified by a cultural study that was put forward and adopted by the City in 2021. There’s also the Kingston Music Strategy that’s in draft form, which states the need for a mid-size performance venue. There aren’t really a lot of options for [concert] promoters, theatre groups, and things like that in the city,” the General Manager said, echoing the sentiments of Blue Canoe’s Managing Director Cam Watson, whose organization is currently undergoing a similar attempt to create new performance space in Kingston.

MacLeod added that while The Spire often receives inquiries from a number of interested groups and organizations, in its current form it is not always a suitable space for their needs: “It’s our goal right now to make it easy, so that groups who just want to put on a play can do that, or groups who want to put on a concert can. That’s our goal right now: taking the challenges away from promoters so that they can come in, set up, and do a great show.”

More information on The Spire’s performance hall project is available on the venue’s website. Anyone who would like to donate to the project or provide support through volunteer work is encouraged to email MacLeod at [email protected]

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