Sunday, May 22, 2016

Milling Around

London's latest plaque interpretive sign* was unveiled Thursday, May 19, 2016 in Carfrae Park on the northwest corner of Richmond and Carfrae streets. Entitled "City Mills: The Legacy of Charles Hunt," the sign is just across the Thames from the site of Charles Hunt's first business, the pioneer mill that became one of the most sucessful, and longest-running, in London.

Hunt immigrated to Canada from Britain at the age of 22 and worked his way up to become one of London's most important businessmen. In 1856 he established City Mills, having bought the land from John Kinder Labatt in 1853. Hunt built a dam on the Thames River and channeled water along a millrace from the river to a waterwheel at the mill. With four pairs of stones for grinding wheat, the sign tells us, the mill produced about 215 bushels of flour a day. That was enough to sell at Hunt's store on Richmond Street, The Golden Sheaf, as well as enough to sell abroad. Hunt's property eventually included a cooperage, granary, and cottages for his mill workers.

Following Charles' death in 1871, his sons Charles and John took over the mill and renamed it Hunt Bros. Ltd. In 1917, the Hunts abandoned this location and moved their operations to a six-storey flour mill powered by electricity on Nightingale Street. The new concrete structure, probably the tallest in the city at that time, was close to rail lines and could produce 1200 bushels of flour a day. A tragic fire there in1934 took the lives of two London firefighters. The business closed in 1957, after being owned by four generations of the Hunt family.

The structure seen in the river at the original site today is not Charles Hunt's dam but a concrete weir built in the 1930s. It's a Depression-era sewer infrastructure project led by Charles' youngest son, Albert Ontario Hunt, then assistant manager of London's PUC. It's an attractive scene, though perhaps not so idyllic as the views pictured on the new sign showing the original mill and its 19th-century environs.

The sign was made possible by Albert's grandson, Jay Hunt of Ottawa, who for some time has been lobbying the city to recognize the contributions made by his grandfather. His dream finally came true at the interpretive sign unveiling Thursday morning. The night before, Jay entertained the London & Middlesex Historical Society with the story of his successful great-grandfather and the family business.

The Hunt mill may be no more but those wishing to view a working example of an old-style mill can still see vintage machinery in the London area. The Arva Flour Mill, Canada's oldest water-powered flour mill, began operations on Medway Creek in 1819. Unfortunately, federal inspectors recently decided its explosed antique rollers and leather belt-driven motors don't meet today's safety codes. The machinery came to a halt for a while but now owner Mike Matthews has been allowed to resume  operations - without any staff. It's questionable how long Mr. Matthews will be able to run the mill by himself, even while the federal decision is under appeal.

Wouldn't it make sense for there to be a safety code exemption for historic facilities? Shouldn't the government regulations have a grandfather clause for a living, working museum? Many of us would say yes. Unafordable upgrades take away the uniqueness of the mill. If you've never been to the Arva mill, get there fast.

* The City of London's preferred term.

London Landmarks

There are many interesting buildings in London but these are my favourites:

The Old Courthouse

At the top of my list is the Old Courthouse (officially the Middlesex County Building), the oldest, most historic building in Middlesex County. The building has of course changed a great deal since being completed about 1831. The jail was added in 1844 and major additions were added to the main building in 1878 and 1911. Despite the various additions and renovations, no other building in London - or the county, for that matter - has so much history. Prisoners were kept in the basement "dungeon" before the jail was built, there were numerous hangings, and the famous Donnelly trial took place in what's now the council chamber. London's "castle," based on Malahide Castle near Dublin, is the historic heart of London-Middlesex.

Aeolian Hall

Built in 1883-84, the building at Dundas and Rectory began life as London East Town Hall. The following year, 1885, London East was annexed by the City of London, making the building redundant. An excellent example of adaptive reuse, it has served many purposes over the years including a grocery store, cigar factory, pool room, the City Welfare Department, and London's first branch library. It is now refurbished as a concert hall, providing excellent acoustics - and a great deal more atmosphere for concert goers than Centennial Hall.

Eldon House

London's oldest surviving house was built in 1834 by John Harris, treasurer of the London District. For many years Eldon House was the centre of London Society with young officers from the garrison courting the five Harris daughters and Col. Thomas Talbot dropping in from time to time. Three descendants of Harris - George, Robin and Lucy - donated the house, its contents and grounds to the City of London in 1960 to be used as a museum. It's still a great place to tour or attend a lecture about local history. Be sure to go one of their occasional Behind the Ropes Tours in which visitors get to see parts of the house not usually open to the public, including the rather creepy basement which may have belonged to an even earlier house.

Fugitive Slave Chapel

Unlike some other buildings on my list, this one's not (yet)beautiful.  The African Methodist Episcopal Church, or "Fugitive Slave Chapel," was built by London's fugitive slave community about 1848. Besides being a church, it was a centre of abolitionist activities, and John Brown may have addressed a meeting here to solicit support for the movement that led to the raid on Harper's Ferry in 1859. Eventually, the congregation built a new church at 430 Grey Street and the old building became a home. After being threatened by demolition, the folks in the Fugitive Slave Chapel Preservation Project moved the building to its present site beside its daughter church on Grey Street where restoration will hopefully be under way.

St. Paul’s Cathedral

The first frame St. Paul's opened in 1834 but was destroyed in a fire ten years later. The new building, now London’s oldest church, opened for worship in 1846. Toronto architect William Thomas, who also designed Brock's Monument at Queenston, created the new structure in the Gothic Revival style with a large tower at the west end and lots of pinnacles. A great many of us enjoy the gargoyles and other faces. Inside,  visitors can find beautiful stained glass windows, including two signed by Tiffany. And when there's no service or concert taking place, the atmosphere is that of an old English country church - peaceful and timeless.

Dominion Public Building

A completely different world right across from St. Paul's. London's tallest building when it was erected in 1936, the Dominion Public Building was built during the Depression to help provide employment for London workers. It's still one of the finest examples of Art Deco architecture found in Canada.  (In case you're wondering, One London Place, finished 1992, is now London's tallest tower.)

Normal School

The imposing High Victorian building on Elmwood Avenue in Wortley Village was completed in 1900 as a normal school or teacher's college, the third such institution in Ontario. Dominating the structure is a fabulous open bell tower with arches. Currently being renovated to become the YMCA Youth Centre of Excellence, the building promises to be an educational centre for many years to come.

Wright Lithographing
The company called Wright Lithographing was established in 1905 by John and George wright, originally on the east side of Wellington north of York. In 1909 they moved to the larger building that stands today north of Dundas. John, an engraver, and George, a lithographer, printed such diverse items as milk tickets, cigar bands, and limited edition lithograph prints. Interesting details on the building include this classical porch, unfortunately beginning to crumble. 

Ridout Street Restoration

I'm cheating here, because this is more than one building. At far left there's the two-storey white brick constructed to house a branch of the Bank of Upper Canada in 1836. It's said to be London's second brick building, the first being the Old Courthouse. Then there's the three-storey white brick terrace built in 1847, which, in its early years, also housed banks such as the Gore Bank. The carriageway is now enclosed by a door. The buildings look firm and solid, as banks should be. Next is Dr. Alexander Anderson's "Walmington House" which he used as an office and residence. Altogether, this row gives us an idea of what an Upper Canadian streetscape would have looked like. Except, of course, for the Farhi signs.
Covent Garden

I add this in case people think I never like new buildings. Not so. I like stylish modern buildings that fit nicely into their location and are an improvement over whatever was demolished to build them. Since the earlier Covent Garden was looking rather tired, the new one, which opened in 1999, was sorely needed. Not only is it reminiscent of the building Paul Peel painted in 1883, but the space out front is suggestive of the open-air market founded in 1835. This is still one of downtown London's most appealing attractions.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Free Land

Clipping photo courtesy of Stephen Harding
This ad appeared in the London Free Press on January 13, 2016. London Health Sciences is looking for a nonprofit group to take 2.3 hectares and four heritage buildings off their hands.

The land, known as the Western Counties property, is just north of Westminster Ponds. The nonprofit group that acquires the land should be willing to renovate and maintain the buildings and preserve the land "while respecting the cultural heritage, environmental and veteran-care related past uses."

The reference to veterans is because the site opened in 1948 as Western Counties Health and Occupational Centre. Veteran Affairs ran it as a rehabilitation centre for years and the site eventually evolved into a retirement home for veterans. Patients were moved to Parkwood Hospital in 1989.

The four buildings are called the Wellington, Bruce, Huron, and Perth Pavilions. Bruce is currently rented to ReForest London and other environmental groups. Huron houses the Secrets of Radar Museum. The Wellington is currently vacant and, at 8000 sq. ft., may be just what a non-profit group is looking for to house its offices or activities. The cottages are located in a beautiful natural setting by the ponds, a real hidden gem within the sprawl of south London.

Perhaps too well hidden. Any group that takes over the building will need detailed driving instructions on its website. But if you're that group, here's your opportunity. Expressions of Interest will be received until March 18, 2016.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Another Sign of the Times

The plaque dedicated to William Saunders has been stolen from Campbell Park on Dundas Street.  Saunders (1836-1914) was a local botanist and agriculturalist. He bought a farm east of London in 1869, planted fruit trees and began experiments in hybridization. He also found time to help establish the Canadian Pharmaceutical Society, be a director of Huron and Erie Savings and Loan, and teach in Western's medical school. Saunders Secondary School is named after him. If you want to see what his plaque looked like, see here.
This isn't the only sign stolen recently. Missing from Gibbons Park are the Historic Sites & Monuments Board plaque to the IJC (International Joint Commission), the dedication plaque on the foot bridge, and numerous family memorials on benches or near trees. Meanwhile, at Eldon House, a cast iron garden cherub has apparently flown away.
The thieves are hoping to sell these items as scrap metal but it's apparent not every metal recycler will take them without evidence of ownership. Once the thefts make the news, its even more difficult to sell "hot" metal. Notice that the thieves who stole the bell from Brick Street School found it too difficult to dispose of and eventually returned it. But it's too much to hope that many of these bits and pieces will be brought back.
Let's all keep our eyes open for these items. And if you see anyone trying to steal some of our remaining plaques and monuments - from parks, museum grounds, or cemeteres - call the police. London's memories are not scrap.
Update, July 21 - Well, at least the Eldon House cherub has returned, as mysteriously as it disappeared.
Update, September - Now a baseball-themed birdhouse designed by Gordon Harrison has been stolen from Labatt Park. The birdhouse wasn't historic but it's been a nifty addition to the ball park since it was donated in 2013. Why can't some people see something attractive without feeling they have to have it for themselves?
Update, October - The birdhouse has just been found nearby on Wilson Avenue, undamaged and complete. It will soon be back at Labatt Park.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Opportunity on King

Southside Group wants to demolish 183 King Street, built 1892. Not for any particular reason, mind you. According to Paul Hubert, Chair of London's Planning Committee, Southside has no stated plans for a replacement structure. And although empty, the Second Empire style building isn't falling down, isn't an eyesore, and just happens to be in the Downtown London Heritage Conservation District.

So here's an opportunity. An opportunity to create attractive offices, charming condos or apartments. An opportunity for a restaurant or night club to open on the ground floor. An opportunity for new residents, employees or visitors to drive through the old carriageway to park behind. An opportunity to inject some more life into this section of King Street. An opportunity for adaptive reuse, which is what a creative city does with its historic buildings.

I'd like to suggest a new heritage organization for London. One that attempts to connect buyers or tennants with appropriate heritage buildings so that the structures are used, not empty and deteriorating. An opportunity like this just shouldn't be missed.

Update, June 16: Southside, through their lawyer, is now suggesting a compromise in which the developer preserves "some heritage aspects" of the building while making room for a highrise. In other words, preserving the façade. Perhaps the carriageway could be the entrance to the underground parking garage? Or maybe they could paste some bricks on the outside of the new tower, making it reminiscent of the Talbot Block/Budweiser Centre?

Update, January 15, 2016: Developer Vito Frijia states 179-181 and 183 King constitute a "fire trap" that's "beyond repair." Sounds like he's been practicing demolition by neglect already. Since the city has told Frijia at least the façade should be preserved, he intends to take his case to the Ontario Municipal Board. The city wants additional heritage protection for the buildings, but that means a) saving the front 30% only, and b) if they're destroyed, they have to be "rebuilt." Rebuilt? Like Adam Beck's home? A "rebuilt" structure is no longer a heritage building. Why can't the developer just build in the parking lot next door?

Update, May 16, 2016: A city-requested engineering report states that the blue building, 179-181 King, is too run down to save. The report does not extend to 183 King next door.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

South Street Heritage

At a City Hall Planning and Environment Committee meeting on Monday, March 8th, City Planner John Fleming recommended saving two of the former Victoria Hospital buildings on South Street, the Colborne building and the original part of the War Memorial Children’s Hospital, built 1922. There are other older buildings on the site, namely the Medical Services Building, Gartshore Nurses’ Residence, and a row of 1950s buildings on Hill Street.
War Memorial Children's Hospital
Time constraints usually prevent me from attending city planning meetings but I made it to this one. There was an awesome moment when Ward 4 Councillor Jesse Helmer made a motion to save all four buildings on South Street – awesome because it isn’t often we hear a city politician make an impassioned plea to save a heritage streetscape. Unfortunately, his motion didn’t get a seconder. In the end, the committee voted to keep the Medical Services Building, the original 1922 section of the War Memorial building, and the Colborne building across the street. Imagine, London councillors actually voting to save more than what was recommended.

For the most part I’m pleased. Tearing down the War Memorial Children’s Hospital would have been a poor way to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the First World War. The oldest section was built in 1922 with funds raised by the IODE. The top is graced with four urns, symbols of mourning, with three carved wreaths below. The boarded-up Colborne building across the street, built 1899, is now the oldest remaining hospital building on the site.
Colborne Building
There are large costs involved in saving these buildings, including security, abatement (the removal of hazardous materials), and carrying costs of about $1 million a year until the buildings are sold. Abatement shouldn’t be an important issue, though, because hazardous materials have to be removed whether the buildings are saved or demolished. But then, if the city is going to spend the money to save three buildings, why not spend a bit more and save all four?
The problem is that the nurses’ residence was built as a dormitory and therefore had very small rooms. It simply didn’t lend itself to much in the way of adaptive reuse. It would have been nice to have at least saved its façade, though. I’m not generally in favour of what’s been called facadism, but saving the façade might look less peculiar than plunking an entire modern building onto an early twentieth-century street.
Gartshore Nurses' Residence
As for the mid-century modern buildings on Hill Street, I’ll stick with my unpopular opinion  that mid-twentieth century is when architecture ended and unsightliness began. No doubt Growing Concern Day Care centre, currently housed in the former Crippled Children’s Treatment Centre, would like to stay where it is, but the building is about to become a victim of progress. One hopes the replacement buildings will look better, not worse.

Speaking of those new buildings, we have no idea what they’ll be. Imagine a city tearing down almost an entire complex of buildings without having the faintest idea what they’re going to replace them with. Will the space be filled with condos? Offices? A commercial centre for a newly-revitalized SoHo? Perhaps the site of the old Victoria Hospital is where we’ll build our performing arts centre?

Update, September 2015: Next month the City of London intends to send out a request to developers for proposals. I hope whatever is built on this site will fit in with the neighbourhood's heritage and history. But developers, of course, will build whatever they think will earn them the most money and that's rarely sympathetic infill.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

What do we want for our riverfront?

The County of Middlesex has applied to redevelop the site of the Middlesex County Health Unit, possibly into a 30-storey highrise with 200 residential units and 4,500 sq. ft. of commercial space. The location at 50 King Street overlooks the Forks of the Thames and the Middlesex County building shown at right.

Anyone opposed to the plan has been portrayed by the media, including the London Free Press, as an elitist NIMBY living in a Renaissance penthouse, disturbed by the thought of another tower ruining his view. The heritage perspective has been overlooked, not surprisingly.

This is the historic heart of London. It was at about this spot in March 1793 that Lt.-Gov. Simcoe and his party first arrived at what he called New London. At the southwest corner of King and Ridout, Peter McGregor built his log shanty, becoming the first resident and tavernkeeper on the surveyed town plot. (The Peter McGregor tower is on that site today.) It was here that the London District Jail and Court House was completed in late December 1829. In altered form, the Middlesex County Building, or Old Courthouse as it's generally known, still stands today.

The castle-like Gothic appearance of the Old Courthouse was designed by Toronto architect John Ewart who also designed Osgoode Hall. It is believed to have been modelled after Malahide Castle in Ireland, birthplace of Col. Thomas Talbot. Situated on a hill overlooking the Thames, the Courthouse quickly became a landmark and gathering point, due to its central position in the rapidly developing settlement. The property was used for markets and fairs - and public hangings also drew large crowds from all over. In this building the Donnelly trials took place. Historically, it's the oldest and most important building in Middlesex County.

Ridout Street was London's original north-south thoroughfare. Just to the north across Dundas is the Ridout or Labatt Restoration, a group of commercial buildings once known as "Banker's Row." North of that is Eldon House, the best remaining example of the riverside mansions built for wealthy Londoners, the city's first "suburbia."

A modern highrise on the site of the health unit will dwarf the older buildings, making our heritage appear trivial and insignificant. The Thames may not be the Seine, Mississippi, or even the other Thames in the other London, but surely both the river and surrounding neighbourhood deserve more respect than this. What we need at the Forks are parks, gardens, restaurants, walkways, and historical plaques, not skyrises.

Update, November 2015: Here it is. See what you think of the latest design for the proposed tower. The reporter says it's "sure to impress."