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?

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."

Monday, September 15, 2014

Doors Open Middlesex 2014

St. Andrew's Presbyterian, Napier
In 2014, Doors Open London and Doors Open Middlesex fall on different weekends, allowing adventurous Londoners to explore the wilds of Middlesex County and still view London attractions later in the month. Being restricted to one day of sight-seeing only, I couldn't even fit all the Middlesex locations into my schedule. But the fact that the locations were restricted to the western part of the county, mostly in the Strathroy area, made getting about a little easier.

I chose to drive all the way out to Napier and work my way back towards London. Napier is an idyllic "ghost town," filled with hustle and bustle in the nineteenth century but now a quiet reminder of the Ontario of yesteryear. In an out-of-the-way location on unpaved Napier Road, St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church and surrounding hamlet might be a little hard to find, perhaps explaining why I was the only visitor at the church when I arrived about 1:00. It's disconcerting when there are more volunteers than guests so I hope there were other callers at this quaint 1887 brick building. The inside is plain and simple, not surprising for a structure built by a late-1800s rural congregation, and the sense of peace and calm is palpable. Not that St. Andrew's is a closed church; a small congregation of about 30 is using it for Sunday services. The congregation was founded in 1863 in an earlier church building, making last year a 150th anniversary.

Making my way back to Strathroy, I stopped at the former Strathroy Flour Mills on Albert Street, now home to the Strathroy Brewing Co. I was a little late to join a large tour, so contented myself with a generous sample of 1812 Independence Pale Ale, named to commemorate the fighting spirit that maintained Canada's independence from the United States during the War of 1812. There were considerably more visitors at the brewery than at my first stop, suggesting either that breweries are more popular than churches in general or that Strathroy locations are easier to find than those in Napier. (I suspect both ideas might be right.)

While in town, I also stopped at Strathroy Antiques Mall, not a Doors Open location, but if you like this kind of thing, than it's the kind of thing you'll like, so I thought it was worth a visit. It's very similar to London's Memory Lane with numerous antique vendors packed under one roof. It's wonderful and convenient to have so much material culture assembled in one location but, after a while, everything turns into an historical blur. I managed to escape with only a few items to add to my apartment's clutter of "artifacts."

Finally, I made my way to Delaware to check out the new Middlesex Centre Archives. After campaigning in Middlesex County for years to create a general Middlesex County archives, a committee of heritage-minded citizens finally decided to go ahead on a more local level in 2013. The archives acquires and preserves historical records pertaining to Middlesex Centre, the former London, Lobo, and Delaware townships. Staffed by volunteers, the archives is still operated on professional standards, and well on its way to becoming the nucleus for a future county archives.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

More Summer Rambling

On what stately building in Old South can this gable be found?

Update: Oh, come on now, London, it's been over a year since I posted this. I'll give you a hint. It's a very BIG building in the heart of Wortley Village. Pretend you win a prize if you answer correctly.