Professor finds divine design inspiration

Wei Jing Loo doesn’t teach fine art, interior decorating or historical preservation even though she likely could. But the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry adjunct professor in dermatology used all three skills in creating her new clinic in the former Hyde Park United Church.

Derm Effects now occupies space that was, until last fall, used for Sunday school and general meetings. The church sanctuary, which dates to 1876, awaits its new use.

Loo had been an assistant professor at Schulich with dermatology clinical duties at St. Joseph’s Health Care before deciding to launch her own clinic, located literally a short jog from her house.

The Hyde Park congregation was faced with dwindling attendance – only about 30 attended Sunday services – and expensive maintenance when it was decided to close and sell the building and adjacent church manse.

Loo was raised in Malaysia, educated in Australia and completed her residency in the United Kingdom where she met her husband, Dr. Keng Yeow Tay, a neurologist at London Health Sciences Centre. She saw the potential in saving the solidly constructed building located on busy Hyde Park Road in a growing area of London.

“Living in the U.K., you learn to value architecture and the preservation of old buildings,” she said.

The fact Loo’s offer meant saving the church and renovating it for a new use appealed to the congregation, which had other offers that called for both the church and manse to be demolished and the property redeveloped.

The manse, which had for many years served only as the church office and not the home of the minister, was demolished to create more parking, but not before many of its most interesting parts were re-purposed. Beautifully crafted doors, including one with a hand-turn doorbell, were removed and installed in Loo’s clinic.

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The red bricks on the former church hall wing did not match bricks on the main building, so Loo had them removed and replaced with yellow bricks taken from the demolished manse. A steel roof, which didn’t match the architecture of the church, was removed in favour of asphalt shingles designed to mimic shakes. As a style point, buttresses were added to the exterior of the former hall to match the structurally necessary buttresses of the main building.

What wasn’t re-used from the manse in the church was donated to Habitat for Humanity, which took, among other things, the complete interior staircase. Much of the rest was recycled through Try Recycling, contractor Ted Melchers said.

The renovation includes a nod to green energy, with LED lighting, a new energy-efficient heating system and soon-to-be installed solar panels. Plans to preserve an on-site well to water grass and plants had to be abandoned when the new parking lot was created.

Inside, Loo used pews for seating in the waiting room and took charge of interior decorating choices, using a colour scheme of black, grey and red – and unique features that will leave visitors suitably impressed. A skilled, award -winning artist working in watercolour and silk painting, Loo has graced the walls of the clinic with her works.

Derm Effects, which has a staff of three in addition to Loo, opened in January.

At some point, attention will turn to finding a tenant for the former sanctuary, where except for the removal of six stained glass windows of historical importance to the congregation, much remains as it was when the final service was held last September.

Loo envisions a tenant willing to continue the sanctuary’s history as a place of thought and reflection such as an art gallery and tea room.

Meanwhile, former church members are pleased with the new life granted their old building.

A steady stream of former members peeked inside during renovations, among them Connie Zolotar and Maryanne MacDonald, former church leaders who were each members of the congregation for more than 20 years.

“It was an active church, small in size but with a big heart,” Zolotar said, noting the congregation received the London-Middlesex United Way Caring Award in 2000 for its impact on people’s lives.

They like what they see in the new home of Loo’s Derm Effects clinic and like the idea of the sanctuary possibly being used as a gallery and an atmosphere of quiet reflexion and appreciation of life.

“It uses the space in a very respectful way,” MacDonald said.

Adds Zolotar of the work so far, “It’s awesome. I’m really proud of the work they’ve done.”