Thursday, July 14, 2022

History Murals of Southwestern Ontario

I'm always looking for something positive to report on Southwestern Ontario's historical scene. Often months go by. But this summer's day trips have provided me with lots of visual reminders of our local history in the form of colourful murals. Not only am I enjoying them, I'm starting to go out of my way to see them. 

I figure these murals are great in lots of ways: they provide work for artists; they celebrate our region's unique heritage and character; they help revitalize struggling small towns by providing energy and interest; heck, they may even bring in a few tourist dollars. 

Most of them are painted in the artist's studio on panels and then assembled on site. This means that a mural can be taken down, repaired, if necessary, and remounted later, even in a different location. Occasionally, though, there's one painted directly on a building wall. 

Of course not all murals feature local history. But this is a history blog so this is what you get:

On the side of a building in downtown Exeter, facing a parkette, this mural by Allen C. Hilgendorf features the town's Grand Trunk Railway station.

Ruth Hurdle's portrayal of early Parkhill brightens the side of an older village building.

This mural at 172 Main Street, Ailsa Craig, shows five buildings from the town's past as well as portraits of the village founders. 

What better way to brighten a boring bank? Mural in Lucan by A. R. Gillett, 2019.

This memory of the 1925 Clinton Old Boys' Reunion, complete with photo corners, greatly improves an ugly building next to a town parking lot.

Once again, a bank sponsors mural art, this time featuring historic headlines in Seaforth. Note the historic post office building in the background where the clock tower even showed the right time.

OK, London's not a small town, but we do have:

A newish mural of the Old Courthouse on the side of DeMelo Law, 239 Colborne Street, London.
What a nice touch. 

Got a blank wall? Hire an artist! I'll be adding more as I prowl throughout the summer. 

Thursday, June 2, 2022

Tombstone Tourism: St. Columba Roman Catholic Cemetery, Bornish

On Victoria Day weekend I visited Bornish, Ontario. That's the intersection of Centre Road (Hwy 81) and Bornish Road, in western Middlesex County. Historian Nick Corrie and I were making the grand tour of rural hamlets and graveyards. What better way to spend a spring holiday? 

Just last fall Nick visited St. Columba Roman Catholic Church at this intersection, so it was a bit disturbing to discover it's gone. Demolished. All that remains is its cemetery and a lonely walkway leading to nothing. 

Not that it's very surprising, of course. Unused churches are being demolished a lot these days. It's just a pity that St. Columba couldn't have been converted into a home or other use. A variety of church-to-home renovations can be seen here. Some purchasers, like this couple, are even willing to take on the role of graveyard caretakers when their new home is surrounded by a cemetery. Still, it's possible there were no takers for this out-of-the-way location. 

The church was built in 1902, replacing a frame church, which in turn replaced one of logs. The congregation celebrated its 100th anniversary on the weekend of July 29-30, 1949 when a special mass included an historical overview given by Father J. C. Cody, coadjutor Bishop of the Diocese of London.

St. Columba Church ca. 2000

For pictures and a short tour of the interior, see here. Wonder what happened to all that stained glass and furnishings? Reused? Sold? Destroyed? 

But the cemetery, still in use, is a nice place for a stroll. First we stopped at this monument to the first settlers in the area. It states the first burial at St. Columba was in about 1857. I've read elsewhere that the first burial was that of Malcolm McLeod, who drowned in Spring Creek. His body was carried for miles through a partially-cut forest trail on a crude stretcher borne on men's shoulders. In true Scottish tradition, a piper marched ahead of this sad procession.*

The farther one walks from the road, the older the gravestones get. The stones there are in memory of McDonalds, McLellans, McLeans, McLeods, McCormicks ... Well, you get the idea. This was a very Scottish part of the world. 

Apparently some restoration work is in order. Hope someone remembers where these piled stones came from. If not, could they all be installed into one group cairn?

On the south side of the cemetery, we located a veteran's grave, partially covered with leaves and encroaching grass. The stone is for SFC John  A. Morrison, 50 AERO SQ, World War I, 1892-1965. 

A little research by Nick determined that Morrison flew with the American Air Force. He was Sergeant First Class in their 50th Aero Squadron, formed August 1917. If he was a local boy, why did he join the Americans?

Bornish was founded by settlers from Bornish, Scotland, located on the west shore of the island of South Uist in the Outer Hebrides. These settlers were fleeing religious persecution and the "clearances," when, to put it simply, large numbers of tenants were evicted from their homes and left with no choice but emigration.

In the 1800s a few businesses were located in the vicinity, such as L. C. McIntyre's store and Joseph Kincaide's tavern. A post office named Bornish opened in 1874, mail being delivered by a stagecoach operating between Strathroy and Parkhill. It closed in 1901. 

Along Bornish Road to the west this steep flight of stairs rises from the road. It leads to an earlier community cemetery used from 1850 to 1860, where at least 15 individuals are buried.

This monument was erected on the site of the first cemetery in 1977. Otherwise, there are no gravestones at this spot. The text:

In blessed memory of fifteen Scottish pioneers buried here 1850 to 1860 from among the 125 families exiled from the Hebrides because of religious persecution who settled here in 1849. Three are known, Alexander McMullen, his wife Margaret McIntyre, and Donald MacDonald, donor of the Bornish church acreage. 

May they rest in peace.

* Looking Over Western Ontario, London Free Press, February 18, 1922. Mind you, by the 1850s, the concession roads should have been a bit better than "trails." And couldn't they find a wagon to use as a hearse? Perhaps the story is apocryphal. But the bagpipe is a nice touch. 

Monday, May 30, 2022

On the Cancellation of Macdonald & Roosevelt

The Thames Valley District School Board will be changing the names of Sir John A. Macdonald and F. D. Roosevelt schools. There have been news articles like this lately which you may have already seen. There's no comment section or attempt to seek different points of view. So I'll express my thoughts here. 

First, let me say I'm not sure "cancellation" is the best word to use, as though humans, even dead ones, are like magazine subscriptions or hotel reservations. But it seems to be the word in popular use, so I'll borrow it. 

After the TVDSB cancels the unpopular Macdonald, what will they choose for a new name? Landor Street School? That might do, unless someone finds out Landor is named after another person no longer deemed worthy. No, it's likely to be renamed something Indigenous, like this one in Brampton or this one in Pickering. 

Want more information? Check out the TVDSB website, where you can also learn about Menstrual Equity, PRIDE Month, Student Voice Conference for Black Students, National AccessAbility Week, and other forms of righteousness. To quote: "The purpose of the [School Name Review Committee] was to ensure school names across the District continue to reflect the Board's commitment to promoting human rights, equity and inclusive learning environments that honour the diversity of Thames Valley Schools." Note the great triumvirate of modern buzzwords: Diversity, Inclusive, and Equity (DIE). 

Of course, when I was in elementary school, back in the Dark Ages, there wasn’t any internet and the school, prosaically called Central, didn’t have a website. But if it had, I suspect it would have reminded us about next week’s Field Day and to bring our money for Hot Dog Friday. In those days, Play and Food were all we needed to think about, once our homework was done. We sure have come a long way from the 3Rs.

In case you've been living in the back of a cave, you probably know Macdonald is increasingly held responsible for Canada's Indigenous residential school system. And FDR, whose name is also scheduled to disappear, agreed to incarcerate Japanese Americans during WWII. As the TVDSB site states, both men have ties to "racism and discrimination." For the record, I'm not in favour of child abuse or Japanese incarceration. 

But as I mentioned when they renamed Ryerson School, we should take a look at everything these men did with their lives. Because all truth matters, not just part of it. 

I'll relist Macdonald's accomplishments here:

  •          A leading figure in the discussions and conferences which resulted in the BNA Act of 1867 and the birth of Canada as a nation.
  •          As Prime Minister, the builder of a successful national government for the new country.
  •          The builder of a railway across the continent, a project many believed to be impossible. It was the largest engineering project of its kind in the world.
  •          Creator of the NWMP in 1873 to patrol the North-West Territories.
  •          Creator of Canada’s first national park, Banff Hot Springs Reserve, in 1885.
  •          Proponent of Indigenous people gaining the franchise without losing any of their rights under either the Indian Act or any of their treaties. (They did not gain the vote until 1960 under Diefenbaker.)
  •          Proponent of votes for women in 1885, the first world leader to do so.

As for Roosevelt, I'll bet some Canadians wonder why there's a school named after a US president at all. But, at mid-twentieth century, when the schools were built, the victorious world leaders of WWII were regarded as heroes, regardless of their faults. 

Now trust me, if we had a Joseph Stalin School, I'd be in favour of changing its name. But does FDR really deserve to be cancelled? The longest-serving US president was one of the major players in world events during the early twentieth century. He created the New Deal, a set of relief and reform policies designed to get Americans through the Depression. He reformed finance, communications, and labour laws. Many Americans fondly remembered his "fireside chats," morale-building radio addresses in which he explained his policies. And he did it all from a wheelchair. I'm not sure one - I'll call it a mistake - expunges everything else.

But one characteristic of the modern left is how they overlook anything positive about deceased individuals and criticize them on the basis of a few actions that don't meet today's standards.  They’ve made up their minds. Selected the most convenient facts.

So what exactly is the goal of the TVDSB? I think it's to look progressive, caring, and pro social justice. To advertise their virtue, in fact.

But are they or anyone else solving the real problems faced by children today? The Roosevelt School neighbourhood looks a bit dodgy, not one of London's best. How does changing the name of the school make life better for the kids who live there? And does removing Macdonald's name from schools make life better on the reservations? Should there even be reservations?

Imagine injustice as a tree. It's big and solid, with a huge trunk and roots spreading far underground. It's been growing a long time and can't be cut down without effort. But the school board is hacking away at its twigs and leaves. They'll never get anywhere that way. The tree still stands. 

Let's face it, as North Americans it's easy to blame prime ministers and presidents for past mistakes. Those guys are famous. They made the laws. We let them take most of the the blame for our countries' historical crimes.  

But what about all our ancestors who stood by and let things happen? Don't they deserve some criticism? In the case of the residential schools, shouldn't we condemn the administrators, teachers, churchmen, and so-called caregivers who made the personal decision to abuse and neglect their little charges? If our grandparents knew what was going on, would they have done anything to stop it? Of course, those people weren't famous. We may not know their names. It's so much harder to cancel them.

None of us can change the past, of course. But we could all be a little less sanctimonious, less hard on past generations who weren't as enlightened as us - assuming we ourselves are enlightened. Cancelling our Dead White Males doesn't fix our problems. 

As for Sir John, he built Canada, and so long as our country stands, he needs no other memorial. 

Friday, May 27, 2022

London Buildings: Symmetry

Symmetry is one of the oldest continuously-used principles in architecture. It's about harmony and balance, components mirroring each other across an axis. The word comes from the Greek sym (together) and metron (measure). Basically, it means that if you're looking at the front of a building, the left side should match the right. 

Symmetry has been architecturally important in all periods and cultures. Note the Taj Mahal, Sydney Opera House, Tower Bridge, or Chateau de Cheverny. But symmetry has been important in London, Ontario too, in a variety of styles.

76 Albert St., London, ca. 1865
Take Georgian, for example, so named because it originated during the time of the Georges, Britain's kings from 1715 to 1830. It's characterized by a simple, balanced facade, with three, five or seven bays and a central doorway. The openings are rectangular and the windows (if they haven't been replaced) multi-pane. These buildings are usually brick or stone, making them look sturdy and secure. 

The plain, box-like, two-storey home at left was built out of local white brick for London Free Press owner Josiah Blackburn. It's now part of London Squash Club. 

401 Huron St., London, ca. 1937
After going out of style for decades, Georgian came back in the first half of the twentieth century as Neo Georgian or Georgian Revival. The example at right has five bays and an impressive classical doorway with pilasters on the door surround and horizontal fluting on the lintel. These multi-pane windows are eight over eight. Built by Harry Sifton, founder of Sifton Properties, it's currently a lovely pastel yellow and one of the loveliest homes in Old North. 

668 Elias St., London
 Symmetry doesn't have to be a mansion of course.     It can also be a plain and simple cottage like this one   in Old East.

22 Peter Street London, ca. 1870
Or the typical Ontario farmhouse, with one and a 
half storeys, centre door and gable above. 

562 Queens Ave., London
 Or an early apartment  building.

53 McClary Ave., London, ca. 1882

But if you do like mansions, check out the McClary House, an Italianate-style residence built for John McClary, founder (with his brother Oliver) of the McClary  Manufacturing Company. The home, known to the McClary family as Beacon Lodge, simply shouts wealth and success. And symmetry. Last I checked, it's now apartments. 

There's also Ontario cottages and many double houses are symmetrical.

496 Waterloo St., London, 1893

 Now I'm not saying every building in this world       needs symmetry. Architectural styles like Queen   Anne (left) are anything but symmetrical. In fact,   Queen Anne appears to be a rebellion against   symmetry. Here in this house built for real estate   agent Albion Parfitt the octagonal three-storey turret,   balcony, irregular roofline and wrap-around   verandah combine to make one of London's most   imposing Queen Annes. 

And, of course, Modernist architecture also celebrates asymmetry, as seen in the home at right. I like this house, although it looks intrusive in its Victorian neighbourhood.

I have to say, though, that if a house started symmetrical, it should stay that way. One of the easiest ways to ruin symmetry is through window replacement:


Monday, April 25, 2022

Kent Brewery should be preserved

York Developments proposes to construct this highrise  at the southeast corner of St. George and Ann Streets. The building, in the shape of an H, would be as high as 22 storeys at its east end and cater mainly to students. The ground floor would contain commercial space and, supposedly, a craft brewery. 

Aside from the proposed development being the silliest-looking building ever designed - what's with the Tic Tac Toe theme? - there are many reasons not to build here, as indicated by City Planning Department:

1. The development does not conform to the 1989 Official Plan.

2.The development does not conform to the 2016 London Plan, due to the proposed density on the site. 

3.The development is not consistent with the Provincial Policy Statement of 2020 which promotes intensification and redevelopment in appropriate locations while conserving heritage resources.

4.The development is near a rail corridor (the CPR) and does not have enough mitigating measures to protect against a possible train derailment, let along everyday annoyances such as noise and vibrations. York has suggested a crash wall would be integrated into the building design ... somewhere. 

5.The development would mean the demolition or removal of structures on the city's heritage inventory. 

Let's take a closer look at the more important buildings on the site:

March 2021
197 Ann Street, the Kent Brewery, is on the city's register of Cultural Heritage Resources. One of the first breweries in London, it was built and originally operated by Marshall and Hammond. Later it was operated by John Hamilton from 1861 to 1887 and his son Joseph from 1887 to 1916 when it closed due to Prohibition. One of the oldest brewery buildings in Canada, it's also one of the oldest industrial structures in the neighbourhood. By the way, it was named after Kent, England, from where the brewery imported its hops.* Cool, eh?

March 2021
183 Ann Street, the Queen Anne style house next door, was the brewer's residence, making this a rare example of an early brewing site where both the brewery and the brewer's home remain. (The only other example in Canada is apparently Alexander Keith's in Halifax.) Yes, the Labatt and Carling families lived next to their breweries but those homes are gone. This house was built by Joseph Hamilton in 1893, replacing an earlier frame building on the site in which his father lived and died. This beautiful brick home is an indication of the brewery's success. 

March 2021
Tiny 179 Ann Street, also a Hamilton family home, is the next building to the west. Built before 1881, it was home to Joseph Hamilton from 1887 to 1890. A typical late 19th-century worker's cottage, it features a bay window on the east side.

Ann and St. George is not an HCD. And, as I've mentioned before, London City Council has been known to vote against Planning Department's recommendations. The City often touts the official plan but doesn't follow its rules. So the developer might be asked to merely retain facades. Or be given the go ahead to move the structures. Or to demolish them completely. 

But the structures don't appear in poor condition and still have apartments. Undoubtedly, 197 and 183 should be designated. They might be moved, but shouldn't be moved far, since they're still on their original site. And 197 might make a great craft brewery again, being a short distance from Richmond Row, Party Central. 

The preliminaries, including possible designation, begin tonight, April 25, when Planning and Environment Committee meets. Stay tuned. 

Update, April 26: Last evening PEC voted to grant a heritage designation to the former brewery buildings. And York Developments offered to relocate at least the main brewery building itself. 
According to this, two PEC councilors don't think heritage counts for much. Surprise. In the end, the committee voted to send York's application back to city staff. But the designation does mean York Developments will have to try harder to incorporate the buildings into their plans. 

* For more information on this and other local breweries, see Glen C. Phillips, On Tap: The Odyssey of Beer and Brewing in Victorian London-Middlesex. Sarnia: Cheshire Cat Press, 2000.

Monday, April 11, 2022

On The Road Again: Another Move For London's Fugitive Slave Chapel

I've written about London's Fugitive Slave Chapel here but to give readers a short recap: The tiny building shown on the right was built by London's fugitive slave community in about 1848, was threatened by demolition at its original location on Thames Street, and was moved in 2014 to its present location beside its daughter church at 432 Grey Street, SoHo. Despite the efforts of the Fugitive Slave Chapel Preservation Project, it's been decaying ever since.  

According to the BME Church of Canada, the restoration project stopped due to COVID, but that's not true. The project stopped long before the pandemic arrived. From the rumours I've heard, the real problems were financial issues and - whether it's polite to mention it or not - a personality clash among committee members. The project that began so well seemed destined to fail altogether.

Now the word is that the chapel will be gifted to Fanshawe Pioneer Village. Various community groups are hoping to raise $300,000 for the move, restoration to the building's mid-1800s appearance, and an education scheme about the building's history and the origins of London's black community. The addition of the chapel to FPV will add another dimension to its portrayal of local history. 

I'm a bit conflicted about the move, though. Arguably, the chapel belongs next to its daughter church. The people who built the chapel also built the church so the connection makes sense. Furthermore, in recent years I've sensed that many Londoners want to move any unwanted building, such as this one, out to Fanshawe, making the pioneer village a bit of a dumping ground. And usually without suggestions as to where funding for the move will come from.

The debate, as I see it, is whether our community should wholeheartedly embrace and promote the habit of relocating buildings for the convenience of today's needs, or leave them in situ. The chapel was first moved from Thames Street so its original site could become a parking lot. When a building is moved, does it not lose some of its authenticity? Is its cultural significance not at least partially bound to its setting? Perhaps a building should only be moved under exceptional circumstances. Moving costs money and risks damage to an already fragile structure.

But in this case, with the BME Church apparently uninterested in its preservation, to leave the chapel where it is means further deterioration and the risk of losing it altogether. This little building means a great deal to lots of people. At this point, moving it for the second time is the best that can be done. 

Those wishing to donate to this excellent cause may do so here.

Sunday, April 10, 2022

My 10 Least Favourite London, Ontario Buildings

Ever since I listed my favourite London buildings here, I've been trying to decide what I'd put on a list of my least favourite. I've been thinking about it for years now, not because I can't find buildings I don't like, but because London has provided me with so many it's hard to choose. Often it's not a particular building I object to, so much as a style or trend which can be found in many cities in Ontario. 

Nevertheless, I have narrowed it down to the following:

1. Centennial Hall

Built in 1967 as London's premier concert hall and event space,  Centennial Hall is one of those multipurpose buildings that doesn't serve any purpose very well. Who enjoys sitting in the balcony at a concert, staring at the opposite side instead of the stage? Or sitting on the main floor at the rear, trying to see the show over the hundred heads in front of you? I've heard folks say it reminds them of their high school auditorium. Well, my high school auditorium was much better; it had a sloping floor and better acoustics. People often skip shows they'd like to see just because they're held here. They prefer to go to ...

2. Budweiser Gardens, formerly the JLC, formerly the Talbot Block

London tore down a Victorian block, built an arena and hung a replica of the original structure on the outside to please heritage preservationists. It doesn't. The effect is Disney-esque, only not as good. The opaque windows are your first clue it's a  façade. And if you remember the real Talbot Block, the imitation is laughable. Sure, it's a great sports and concert venue that London badly needed. But the city didn't need to insult our intelligence with the  pseudo-historic veneer. 

3. The "Towers of Spite"

Developer Arnon Kaplansky demolished bungalows on this site near Western University to replace them with student housing. Neither City Hall nor the neighbourhood association liked what he intended to build. So he had no choice but to build three towers with no visual appeal whatsoever. Right? I mean, what else could the poor guy do? 

4. Sir Adam Beck Manor Condominiums

The first house on the northeast corner of Richmond and Sydenham was "Elliston," built 1861-2 for Ellis Hyman, wealthy tannery owner. In 1902, Adam Beck bought the house, renovated it and renamed it "Headley" after his wife Lillian's parents' home in Surrey. 

Beck was the advocate of hydroelectricity who founded the Hydro-Electric Power Commission of Ontario. And founded the London Health Association, which grew into Victoria and University Hospitals. And became an M.P.P. for London. And a London mayor. And founded the Queen Alexandra Sanitorium, later the Beck Memorial Sanitorium, to treat tuberculosis. His home was one of London's great social centres. 

In 1988, the original Headley was demolished by Sifton and replaced by a replica which pays tribute to the original mansion the way the Bud Centre pays tribute to the Talbot Block. But why couldn't the original home have been preserved and renovated into posh condos like those in the tower Sifton built behind? Why would we want fake historic homes when we could have the real thing? Sir Adam deserved better than a replica.

5. 210 Dundas Street

Built in 1987 on the northwest corner of Dundas and Clarence, this three-storey structure with a mirrored exterior was once the home of Pathways Skills Development. Owned by Farhi Landholdings, it's now leased to the London Free Press. It's cold, uninviting, charmless, and incompatible with its surroundings. Make sure you're wearing sunglasses as you walk past to cut down the glare. 

6. New Homes in The 'Burbs

The soulless cookie cutter look shows no sign of abating as this new neighbourhood north of Fanshawe indicates. Charming and cosy these aren't. Mostly garage, the homes on this street are all about the automobile, as is the subdivision itself.  To get anywhere, you have to drive, since virtually nothing is within walking distance. But maybe 75 years from now, when the tree sticks have grown, these will be quaint, old-fashioned  homes on a tree-shaded street. Even if they're still in the middle of nowhere.

7. Any Unsympathetic Infill

I thought "infill" was going to mean developing unused land to add density and prevent urban sprawl. Instead, the term often applies to the demolition of  an existing building to erect something larger. The new structure often adversely affects smaller neighbouring buildings, dwarfing them and blocking their light. Some new structures just don't fit in. But perhaps that's the builders' purpose - they want to stand out from the crowd. Bigger is better, right? 

8. The "New" Courthouse

The 15-storey Ontario Court of Justice was built in 1974-76. Designed by London firm Stevens and Skinner in the Brutalist style, it's large but lacks charisma, to say the least. The term Brutalist comes from the term b
éton brut meaning "raw concrete" but there is something "brutal" about this structure at Ridout and Dundas. In fact, it could win a prize for London's most intimidating building. Is that the idea? To dissuade future criminals from breaking the law? All Hope Abandon Ye Who Enter Here. 

9. This Kind of Thing

Look, there's lots of tasteful ways to combine old and new. This isn't one of them.

10. Old Homes With Vinyl Windows

Two homes built at approximately the same time in a similar style. Not in an HCD. At left is a "handyman's special" while the home on the right has been updated with vinyl windows.

I know why, of course. The new windows are affordable, energy-efficient and bring more light into the sitting room. Depending on what you read, though, vinyl may be toxic and short-lived. Your vinyl window salesman won't tell you that. Nor will he point out how it destroys the character of an older home. Windows just didn't look like that when the house was built. 

Before replacing older windows, consider alternatives like weatherstripping, oiling or waxing the wood, replacing parts of the window only, a fresh coat of paint, or storm windows. 

A Few More Window Examples on Commercial Buildings:

Reno on Dundas. Great colour, wrong windows. 

Old store in north Middlesex. With updates.  

Clarence Street off Horton. Upper windows still typical of its era.