Burlington to Consider Demolition Permit for Historic Church | News | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

News + Opinion » News

Burlington to Consider Demolition Permit for Historic Church


Published December 16, 2022 at 11:33 a.m.

Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception - JOHN PHELAN / CREATIVE COMMONS
  • John Phelan / Creative Commons
  • Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception
City officials will consider issuing a permit next week that would allow for the demolition of the historic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Burlington.

In a permit application, parish leaders wrote that demolition is the best way to "desanctify" the property. The church closed four years ago and is currently under contract for sale to an undisclosed buyer.

The city's Development Review Board will hear the request on Tuesday, December 20. The deliberations will be closely watched: Preservation groups are fighting to save the structure, which is architecturally significant and eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

"The church understands that this is a very passionate topic," said John Caulo, a consultant helping the parish with its permit application. "All of this other discussion about whether it's historical or not is just speculation, and, really, it's beside the point."
The cathedral was built in 1977 after a fire destroyed the original Civil War-era Gothic church five years prior. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Vermont commissioned well-known modernist architect Edward Larrabee Barnes to rebuild on the site. Barnes partnered with Daniel Kiley, who is considered the foremost landscape architect of the 20th century, to design the grounds.

The result was an angular, modern building with earth-tone bricks that echoed the coloring of the locust trees planted in an evenly spaced grid on the grounds. Historians say the cathedral is one of the few sites in Vermont that combines modernist design and landscaping. It's also a rare green space downtown.

The cathedral closed in 2018 after the dwindling congregation could no longer afford to maintain it. Parishioners now attend the Cathedral of St. Joseph in the Old North End. Selling the downtown cathedral would allow the parish to "focus its resources on the upkeep" of St. Joseph, James Langan, an attorney for the parish, wrote in a memo to city officials in October.

The property was listed for sale in summer 2019 for $8.5 million. It went under contract several months ago, and the parish is working out conditions of the purchase, listing agent Steven Donahue of Donahue & Associates told Seven Days this fall.

This is the parish's second attempt to tear down the cathedral. It applied for a demolition permit a year ago but withdrew the request after the city said the building was historically significant and therefore couldn't be razed without a redevelopment plan in place. The cathedral isn't listed on either the state or national historic registers, but it is eligible for inclusion on the national list. Buildings deemed eligible for listing are considered "historic" under city ordinance.
City officials maintain the property is significant but have since concluded that the DRB can't consider its historical significance due to a state law that limits zoning review on houses of worship.

Members of Preservation Burlington, a nonprofit that aims to protect historic architecture in the Queen City, disagree with that analysis. The group argues that because the former cathedral is no longer used as a church — and has been deconsecrated — its historic significance should be factored into the board's review.

"Demolishing it in order to sell a vacant lot — possibly to a developer for a non-religious use — that is not acceptable," said Karyn Norwood, secretary of the Preservation Burlington board. "We should really, really spend some time considering all the possibilities for the property and how we might be able to use it for adaptive reuse."

Other groups — including the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Cultural Landscape Foundation — have written letters to the city in support of saving the building.

It's unclear what would become of the property if the parish prevails. City zoning allows for buildings up to 10 stories high on the lot, which is adjacent to the downtown transit center and the CityPlace Burlington project. Planning documents call for creating a "vibrant urban center with a variety of high-density building types" and "very active and engaging street frontages" in the area.

The buyer will likely submit a redevelopment plan "within a reasonable time period" once the site is cleared, according to the parish.