Destination: Montreal’s Saint-Jude Spa

Destination: Montreal’s Saint-Jude Spa
Such details as custom-made benches shaped like crosses play on the former church’s lingering religious atmosphere.

Architect Thomas Balaban brings a new kind of awakening to the century-old Saint-Jude church, turning it into a spa for wellness worshippers.

Le Saint-Jude occupies a former cathedral that stands among boutiques and bars, on a bustling stretch of Montreal’s St‑Denis Street. Built to serve Irish Catholics in 1905, the church was taken over by the Canadian Dominican Friars in 1953. They made it a shrine to St. Jude, the saint of hope, until declining use forced them to sell it in 2007. From the sidewalk, the handsome masonry walls and immense arched windows have not changed much. Inside is another story. The new owners commissioned an adventurous design to accommodate a members-only club that combines a Nordic spa, a fitness centre and a restaurant.

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Left: Translucent etched glass enhances the steam room environment while ensuring privacy. Right: Inside view of the hammam, which is accented by recessed light niches.

For the layout, architect Thomas Balaban followed the process he has developed renovating houses in a city where heritage guidelines dictate that window placements cannot change. “You locate the main rooms according to where the light is,” he says, “and after that you can do the fun stuff.” The gym, lit by a giant window that faces the street, occupies the front. At the back, a similar window affords spa guests a view of Mount Royal. Each zone gets its own sensual properties: tranquil, hot and moist in the spa; reverberant, cool and dry in the gym.

The spa also adjoins three pools – two hot and one for cold plunges – which will connect to a terrace when the restaurant opens. The fun included detailing the undersides of the stairs to look like Rachel Whiteread sculptures, painting steel cross-bracing a fluorescent orange, and using 3‑D printing to make a glowing green lamp at the reception desk.

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Left: The church’s exterior remains intact, with the exception of the hollowed-out glass entry. Right: Black glass separates the lounge area from the gym beyond. Furniture by Thien Ta Trung of Montreal.

Balaban organized the design around a central lounge suspended transversely across the middle of the church, lit at either end by windows set in pointed arches. Two separate steel structures meet here, signalled visually by a double-height ceiling over a multi-purpose room on the ground floor. The lounge acts as a mixing chamber, where gym users might grab a banana while spa guests check email and sip coffee, all of them gazing voyeuristically through mullion-free glazing into the other zones.

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A working model shows how the interior volumes stack and intersect with one another.

According to the architect, the owners insisted on preserving the cathedral’s character, but there was little interior decor to save. Around 1950, the walls and the barrel-vaulted ceiling were covered with white popcorn stucco, and the friars sold off most of the stained glass. Yet somehow the new design relies on a lingering religious atmosphere to create continuity between spiritual well-being and a more material concern for physical wellness. “You could lift weights at home watching a DVD on TV, but instead you come here because you want to be around people,” says Balaban. “The architecture helps connect you to the community and the city.”

 

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