Looking Back: Silton Chapel
TEXT Bernard Flaman
I received a call from Clifford Wiens in early September of 2011; Labour Day weekend, as I recall. He had received news that the Silton Chapel—which was constructed in 1969—had been vandalized. I decided to make the 45-minute drive from Regina to rural Saskatchewan to see for myself. I encountered an incredible scene, though not the one I expected: instead, there was the calm and serenity of a Saturday evening service in progress with the sound of hymns seemingly emanating from the hills of the lakeside community. Whatever the latest incident was, it was no longer apparent.
In the early fall twilight, I noticed that the north bank of the valley hillside had slumped, covering a glulam support beam. The beam was visibly sagging, with the wood layers delaminating from years of moisture. In the cold light of the following day, the situation proved even worse. The roof was tipping to the north, overloading two perpendicular beams and crushing the top layers of wood laminate. The perimeter gutter was overflowing to the southeast instead of flowing toward the drainage chains and the concrete baptismal font on the southwest side, causing rot at a corner connection. The chapel’s seemingly floating corners are suspended by tension rods embedded in the wood-frame structure of the roof, and require periodic
adjustment. The rods in turn are connected to a compression plate at the apex, transferring the load of the corners to the top, then down the wood-frame roof structure to four glulam support beams—the very ones that were failing.
It’s a story that is playing out again and again across Canada, where churches have lost their congregations and are struggling to deal with maintenance. Except this chapel is different: instead of Gothic or Romanesque revival architecture in stone and brick, it is a Modernist masterpiece that was recognized by a Massey Medal in 1970. The “most primeval piece of land architecture in Canada” is how Lisa Rochon described it in her 2008 book Up North: Where Canada’s Architecture Meets the Land.
Recently, I was asked a question that completely stumped me. It was to comment on the topic of modern heritage in Canada and the progress of its acceptance with the heritage community and the public. Despite a 2005 Trent University symposium entitled “Conserving the Modern in Canada” and the completion of a federal/provincial/territorial partnership known as the Historic Places Initiative in 2010, buildings from the 1950s to 1970s continue to be lost. Little positive has happened. (Notable exceptions are the work of Docomomo Quebec and the Winnipeg Architecture Foundation.)
These modern heritage buildings represent a truly lost art, from a time when relatively ordinary commissions could receive the design attention of an architect such as Wiens and be transformed into something extraordinary.
Four years have passed since that September night in 2011, and the Silton Chapel continues to quietly decline, saved from literal collapse by one single post that was hastily placed below the sagging north beam. Efforts by the community to raise funds and awareness have failed to generate the necessary amount to repair the building. For the lack of eight glulam beams, we may lose another critically important and poetic piece of Canadian architecture in a region of the country that has very few.
Bernard Flaman, FRAIC, is a heritage conservation architect. His 2013 book Architecture of Saskatchewan: A Visual Journey received the 2014 Distinguished Book Award from the Center for Great Plains Studies at the University of Nebraska.