Wednesday, August 10, 2016

I know this isn't related to heritage but...

...why is Reg Cooper Square being sprayed with Glyfos, a non-selective herbicide that controls grasses and weeds? Obviously there is some danger to humans from this product, since the "Warning - Pesticide Use" signs have been placed around the perimeter. As the "pest" is only vegetation growing between the flagstones, couldn't the weed cutters be used as usual? Is the pesticide use thought to be safe because it's on top of an underground parking garage, not a lawn? 

Friday, May 27, 2016

"Renovating" Kingsmill's

London's famous Kingsmill's building was acquired by Fanshawe College in November 2014. This is what Kingsmill's looks like in May 2016.

I applaud the expansion of Fanshawe College into downtown London, since I work for a Dundas Street business that's likely to benefit from the increased number of students. And as a Wellington Street resident I'm in favour of a living, breathing city core.

This article gives a good overview of the building project so far and includes an illustration of the finished structure, due to open in September 2018. Notice the setback of the new tower, probably meant to preserve the integrity of the original building by separating old from new.

In the article, Shawn Harrington, Fanshawe College's senior manager of campus planning and capital development, is quoted as saying, "The challenge was the high cost of renovating existing buildings, many of which are in the designated Downtown Heritage Conservation District ... The city and the college reached an agreement where the city would provide a grant to the college to offset the high cost of renovating these properties downtown" (italics mine). And Branka Gazibara of Diamond Schmitt Architects says, "The downtown London precinct is designated to preserve historic buildings, so this project respects that and will retain the street character fronting the busy Dundas Street and Carling Street sides."

I'm not disparaging Mr. Harrington or Ms. Gazibara, who l'm sure perform their jobs competently and enthusiastically, but this project is not a renovation, nor does it preserve a historic building. This, except for one limestone wall, is a demolition.

The article also states that bricks from the red brick portion of the Dundas Street facade have been catalogued for "reinstalation" at a later date. That portion will be reconstructed to look "similar" to the original facade. Counterfeit heritage.

I understand the interior of the department store had to be gutted, because the original building had wood floors and joists that wouldn't support the predicted new loads. The narrow structural bays are also not suitable for a modern college facility. The demands of modern occupancy are definitely among the challenges of adaptive reuse. Makes me wonder whether a conversion to offices or apartments wouldn't have made more sense that a college facility.

I've ranted about facadism here but I can't resist doing it again. When the facade of a building is preserved with a new building behind it, it's considered a compromise between property redevelopment and preservation. It's a middle ground between preservation and demolition. And it's happening in nearly every city around the world.

The result, however, is an historical fragment, a sham, a folly. What will future generations think of this compromise?

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 successful, 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 in 1934 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 exposed 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. Unaffordable 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 old building became a home. After it was 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.