Lawrence House bounces back from the brink

Lawrence House Centre for the Arts board members Lynne Brogden, left, and Susan Chamberlain stand at the historic former home’s staircase. Glenn Ogilvie

After teetering on the brink of closure, the Lawrence House Centre for the Arts is solidly back in the black.

“I couldn’t have imagined it would be this good,” says chairman Leonard Segall.

A year ago, he and new board secretary Lynne Brogden were credited with rounding up a dynamic group of 12 new board members determined to make the centre a success.

At the time, the house was saddled with a $40,000 debt and the long-suffering former board appealed to city hall for help. As one member put it, the “old days at the Lawrence House were like rushing from fire to fire.”

It was at a city council meeting that local philanthropist Norm Alix made a surprise offer of $50,000 to keep the centre’s doors open.

Since the 1980s, the Lawrence House at the corner of Christina and Wellington streets was key to the community’s cultural identity, a historic mansion and local landmark.

“Someone had to keep it going,” Alix said simply.

About $40,000 of Alix’s donation was spent to balance the books. The other $10,000 remains in the bank, a cushion for a rainy day, said Segall.

Visitor traffic, local artisans’ shows, community literary and music activities have increased measurably in the last year, said co-chair Susan Chamberlain.

“This is such a spectacular house. It’s an attraction in itself,” she said. “We get people here who have lived in Sarnia all their lives and never came inside, and we get people from out of town who want a tour.”

One of the new board’s first moves last April was to extend the centre’s hours and keep it open on weekends. In line with the Judith and Norman Alix Art Gallery up the street, the Lawrence House is now open 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday to Friday; and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

The one remaining staff person last year continues to run children’s art programs but is now a city employee.

That leaves all programing and operations to the volunteer board and its 80-plus members.

“It’s been an amazing year,” said Chamberlain. “We’ve been working so well together.”

It costs about $1,000 a month to keep the centre going, a fraction of what it cost under the old structure.

But can the new board generate $1,000 a month in revenue without government assistance?

“We sure can,” said treasurer Pam Wong. Concerts, room rentals, memberships, art rentals and sales are doing the trick.

In many ways, the best month to date was last October when the Lawrence House featured the work of the late potter Bill Arnold.  More than $14,000 in sales resulted, with 30% of revenue going directly to the centre.

It’s critical the entire community feels welcome to drop in, see the new gift shop and have a coffee, said Brogden.  “It’s also important that artists have a place to meet each other and share ideas.”

For details on upcoming shows and concerts, visit www.lawrencehouse.ca.

– Cathy Dobson