Ritzy redevelopment planned at Belgian WWI memorial church funded by US veterans draws criticism
Stars and Stripes April 14, 2023
LIEGE, Belgium — The American veterans and widows whose donations helped build the towering Church of the Sacred Heart intended it to be an enduring reminder of the sacrifices of allied troops in World War I.
Less than 100 years later, however, the run-down memorial in this eastern Belgian city is about to be converted into a high-end restaurant and climbing facility.
The redevelopment has gained national attention since plans were announced earlier this year. Hundreds of Belgians have lodged complaints, with some saying the change would be disrespectful to veterans.
“This isn’t just Belgian heritage; it’s international heritage, something allies of the First World War paid for and dedicated to the memory of all those who died in action,” said Bernard Wilkin, a historian at Belgium’s State Archives, who’s been one of the most vocal critics of the plans.
In the mid-1920s, the American Legion called on members to make voluntary donations to help build the memorial in Liege, the first city on the Western Front to resist German invasion forces. In addition to the art deco church, the monument features a roughly 250-foot tower.
The site was inaugurated in 1937 and cost at least 6 million Belgian francs to build, according to original reporting by local newspaper Le Soir.
Principal donors — including the U.S., the U.K., France and Italy — were asked for 1 million francs each, the French newspaper Le Petit Oranais reported in 1928.
At the time, the American Legion said the Liege memorial and a second memorial in the French city of Verdun for which it also raised funds would “hold forever to the sight of men visible reminders of all that (the two cities) mean to men living now.”
But in recent decades, the Church of the Sacred Heart, known locally as the Basilica of Cointe in reference to the hill on which it was built, has sat empty and decrepit.
Besides a small underground crypt that continues to be used for religious worship, the rest of the building has been closed to the public for some 20 years.
A fence prevents people from getting too close and risking injury caused by the crumbling facade. In 2014, to mark the centenary of the outbreak of World War I, white birds were painted on the exterior walls, but the intended enhancement accentuated the site’s deterioration.
Groupe Gehlen says its project, dubbed the Basilique Experience, will help ensure the building’s survival and allow people to enjoy the historic space once again.
The project aims to transform the cavernous church, which has roughly 130-foot-high ceilings, into the highest climbing hall in Europe. The three Olympic disciplines of climbing, bouldering and speed climbing will be on offer, in addition to a separate climbing area for children.
An extension to the building is also in the pipeline that will house a restaurant with a panoramic view of the city.
Meanwhile, the church’s choir will be preserved as a memorial area open to the public, and the crypt and sacristy will continue to be used for worship, according to a Groupe Gehlen statement released in January, when the project won a call for bids.
The company is in the process of obtaining permits and expects renovations to take about two years once they begin.
“The duty of remembrance is at the heart of the project,” company spokeswoman Marie Boutet said, adding that developers have been working with the city of Liege and the regional heritage agency to ensure that the developer’s plans respect the building’s unique architectural style.
But opponents of the redevelopment believe that more should be done, and they hope growing pressure will force more concessions. Some want the renovation plans to be scrapped altogether.
Luc Evrard, 44, who has lived in the Cointe neighborhood his entire life and was baptized at the church, said that although he would like to see improvements, transforming the site from “a place of peace into something very busy” that seeks to generate profit would likely change the area for the worse.
“I’d like to see something a bit more related to the core principle of the place, maybe an art gallery or a studio for painters to reflect on what the building is supposed to be about,” Evrard said.
John Raughter, a spokesman for the American Legion, said the organization’s headquarters is not tracking developments at the memorial.
However, members of the Royal British Legion who consider a restaurant and climbing facility an inappropriate use of the space recently met with developers at the site to voice their concerns.
“It’s unlikely we can halt the project entirely,” Dennis Abbott, a historian for the Brussels branch of the Legion, said by email. “(But) we are urging the developers not to lose sight of the memorial’s original purpose to commemorate the many millions of allied troops who gave their lives in WWI.”
Suggestions from the group include installation of marble plaques to honor each nation that contributed to the memorial and construction of a remembrance garden.
Such features would encourage future generations to think about why wars happen and not take peace for granted, said Abbott, a former British army captain who served in Iraq.
“The symbolism and relevance of memorials such as Liege could not be more pertinent today as we witness the appalling loss of life and destruction wreaked by the Russian invasion of Ukraine,” Abbott said. “If we show no respect for the sacrifices of the past, we risk failing to learn the lessons of history.”