Thursday, November 4, 2010

Vestibulism on Springbank

Motorists driving along Springbank are treated to an unusual sight these days - a vestibule with no building attached. The former Kensal Park Baptist Church has been levelled, except for its front entranceway. Property owner Tim Owen says he wanted to incorporate the old building into the restaurant he's constructing but discovered the church's foundation was crumbling. Well of course it was. That's how we demolish buildings in London, by neglect. At any rate, one wonders what the cost difference is between repairing a foundation and tearing a building down in order to erect a new one in its place. One would think demolition and rebuilding would be more expensive.

As construction proceeds, it will be interesting to see how the vestibule looks. I suspect about as good as the bricks of the Talbot Streetscape hanging on the outside of the JLC. Or the frontages of the Bowles Building and Capitol Theatre with entirely new buildings behind. I've mentioned this before (see December 10, 2009) - the habit of preserving building facades and pretending we've preserved heritage. Only in the case of Kensal Park, it's not even a facade being preserved, just a vestibule. We've moved into vestibulism.

Restoration vs. Renovation

Some possible good news for an older building. The five-story block known as Jarvis Apartments on Princess Avenue is being renovated into affordable housing for seniors. At age 75, the 64-unit building was in poor condition, was a neighbourhood eyesore and definitely needed repair. Since cheap living in the core is a rarity, it's nice to know that the building is becoming part of an affordable housing project. According to a November 1 Free Press article, "Once-charming apartments restored," rents will be kept at 70% to 80% of market rates for the next 25 years. All electrical work and plumbing is being redone and new appliances added. If only we could get a few more projects like this for (ahem) those of us who AREN'T seniors perhaps I could live downtown again, walk to work, get exercise, do my part for the environment, attend downtown festivals without having to figure out where I'm going to park - all that good stuff.

But wait, further reading reveals that, instead of the original 64 apartments, there's going to be 53, with a range of bachelor, one and two-bedroom units. Woodfield Developments are adding laminate flooring and ceramic tiles. And the reporter adds "its new red brick exterior makes it look thoroughly modern." How much of the original building is left? Is a 1930s building improved by being made to look "thoroughly modern?" This isn't so much a restoration as a renovation, although many writers, including this one, seem to use the words interchangeably.

Monday, November 1, 2010

A Sign of the Times

At last London City Hall plans to clamp down on "Farhi" signs. It's about time. I've been wondering for months why it was necessary for a big-time downtown landlord to let us know just how much of the city centre he owns by way of giant banners on all his properties. Sure Mr. Farhi has the right to advertise. It's just that a) many Londoners already suspect he owns nearly everything, b) he could use a little more subtlety, and c) his signs don't exactly add to the charisma of heritage buildings like Wright Lithographing (above). Interestingly, the banners contravene a city bylaw, but politicians have preferred looking the other way to taking on someone as apparently big and daunting as Farhi. Trouble is, every way you look downtown there's a Farhi sign and they're getting harder to disregard.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A Change of Heart

So Sharon Hassan, who's co-ordinating the renovation of 142 Dundas Street, has discovered heritage is pretty neat after all. According to an October 13 Ian Gillespie column, "Hassan admits she used to drive down Dundas and wonder why somebody didn't tear down some of the old, decrepit buildings dotting the street like rotten teeth."

But since her renovation began, such items as an 1884 fashion magazine and an old box of promissory notes have been found. Now, apparently, the London lawyer has decided heritage has merit. "Lives were lived here and stories were told...And you can't just tear that down."

Perhaps if we took some land developers and city councillors on a tour of our older buildings, we could make a few more converts?

Update: Sharon and Hamoody Hassan received a heritage award at the ACO-HLF 8th Annual Heritage Awards on February 19, 2015. The award recognizes their work in preserving this historic building on Dundas Street and providing an example for the future restoration of downtown London.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Doors Open Highlights 4: The End of the Adventure

Three more places I managed to get to at Doors Open: Brainworks, St. Luke's in the Garden Chapel and Woodland Cemetery.

Brainworks, a former home at 79 Ridout St. S., I wasn't expecting to get all that excited about. I'd never heard it was one of London's more spectacular century-old houses. But I'll go in any old house if the owners will let me so in I went. Well, it turns out Brainworks is an excellent example of how an old house can be converted into office space while saving historical details. Built in 1910, the red brick building still has attractive double verandahs, a Romanesque arch around its door, stained glass and magnificent wood panelling.

Then off to Byron. St. Luke's in the Garden is located in the former Beck Memorial Sanatorium, now CPRI. A picturesque building surrounded by lovely gardens, it also has appropriately divine stained glass windows, featuring individuals like St. Luke himself and Florence Nightingale. Less impressive is the state of a white frame building closer to the road, formerly the residence of the Medical Superintendent. Deteriorating since it stopped being used in 1990, the once-attractive Priority 1 building is yet another example of demolition by neglect.

By the time I made it to Woodland, they were out of their self-guided tour booklets. Which shows just how popular a cemetery can be - people are just dying to get in (groan). I visited the monument erected in memory of railway workers killed in the line of duty (see photo above) just because I remembered it from a previous visit. The choo-choo train at top manages to be both droll and heart-rending at the same time. And the Victorian epitaph below is guaranteed to make most modern people snigger - yet wipe their eyes. On a more macabre note, I then joined the Crematorium tour, which proved there's definitely such a thing as too much information...

No Soap

One of London's lesser-known heritage monuments is this reminder of the London Soap and Cosmetic Company at Clarence and South streets. The factory, here from 1875 to 1984, burned in April 1985, at which time it was the oldest surviving soap factory in Canada. These machines were taken from the ruins and made into a monument by the Ontario Society for Industrial Archaeology. Pretty cool, eh? It's tributes like these that add interest and entertainment value to our streets, especially when people come across them unexpectedly.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Doors Open Highlights 3: Inside Antiquities

Doors Open also provided a chance to look inside the Antiquities Building. I had the shock of my life in there. This simple frame building from 1872 has an almost posh interior. Magnificent wainscoting, corner closets in upstairs bedrooms, a back staircase for the maids, wallpapered ceilings. But with horsehair insulation, no central heating and a crumbling foundation, much will have to be done to this building to bring it to modern standards. I'm just glad I had a chance to see it the way it is now, truly a monument to another time.

Doors Open Highlights 2: Banting Bliss

My second stop on Doors Open was Banting House National Historic Site. Now the embarassing thing is, I've lived in London 26 years and never been there. (Probably for the same reason New Yorkers have never been to the Statue of Liberty or Parisians up the Eiffel Tower - but I digress.)

I found out Sunday morning what a wonderful little museum this is. It commemorates one of the most important medical breakthroughs of the 20th century, when Frederick Banting came up with the idea that led to the discovery of insulin. His upstairs bedroom is filled with emotional tributes left by visitors, many of whom wouldn't be alive without his research. Down the hall there's a room full of his artwork. Turns out he could also paint and in the style of the Group of Seven - maybe it should have been the Group of Eight! Truly a great site dedicated to one of our all-time greatest Canadians.

Doors Open Highlights 1: The Cage

Having worked all day at Attic Books on Saturday, September 18th, I only had Sunday the 19th to check out some of London's heritage in Doors Open. First stop was Meadowlily Woods, a delightful spot I hadn't been out to in a while. It's still delightful but I found myself wondering, and not for the first time, why anyone thought it necessary to put metal fencing down the centre of the bridge. I know, it's for safety; the City of London doesn't want anyone falling off the sides and suing them. But couldn't something more attractive than this band aid solution be found? No wonder local residents call it "the cage."

Update December 2012: A staff report presented to London's Civic Works Committee suggests a rehabilitation plan for Meadowlily Bridge costing about $1.9 million and likely to begin in spring 2013.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

London, Strut Your "Stuff"

An Ian Gillespie article in the London Free Press this past week highlights one of this city's long-term heritage problems. The article discusses former fire chief Jim Fitzgerald's collection of firefighting memorabilia, some of which dates back to the 1840s. The artifacts include photos, posters, helmets, hoses, alarms, masks, coats, etc. Every item tells a tale about brave firefighters of London's past.

Jim's collection was recently on display at City Hall lobby. Which is nice because normally no one would get to see it. Though he's tried for years to get the city to establish a firefighting museum, the city's just not interested. "I can't get to first base," he was quoted as saying. "It's sad." He adds: "It's a damn shame this stuff isn't in a permanent home." Presumably the artifacts spend most of their time in Jim's basement.

Of course, it's not just firefighting "stuff" that doesn't have a permanent home in London. Witness the recent closure of the Guy Lombardo Museum near the former Wonderland Gardens and the wrangling over ownership of the music legend's speedboat.

Then there are the various London museums in crowded, inappropriate quarters - like the First Hussars Museum in an Ontario cottage behind the Old Courthouse. Or the ones in out of the way places - like the Secrets of Radar Museum somewhere behind Parkwood Hospital. (I know, veterans will find it there - but who else?)

What this city needs is a real historical museum (by "real" I mean not like Museum London) with sections devoted to: the founding of the city at the Forks, the First Hussars, the Western Fair, Guy Lombardo and the Royal Canadians, the Medical Hall of Fame, Royal Canadian Regiment and the Secrets of Radar. There would be room for firefighting artifacts. Throw in a section on London's role as a refuge for fugitive slaves before the Civil War. Have a special display on our worst disaster, the Victoria riverboat capsizing. The role of the railway in developing the city.

I could go on but you get the point. Most of our heritage should be under one roof, not scattered throughout the city. And we don't even need to build new. There's an unused library on Queens Ave. Its lobby is probably large enough to hold Engine 86. There are dozens of empty stores on Dundas Street, most large enough to hold Tempo VI. There's an empty Normal School in Wortley Village...

If we build it - and make it good - they will come. Even pay. And Jim could get all that "stuff" out of his basement.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Slippery Slope

David Nielsen, in his September 4th letter to the Free Press, informs us that the former Victoria Hospital building on South Street should be demolished. His reasons include lack of air conditioning, not enough floor space and possible violation of the fire code.

His most interesting reason, however, involves sloping floors. "If you had ever pushed a wheelchair there, you would quickly realize the building is sinking toward the river. By now, the floors may have sloped several inches to the south."

David says he used to work there but doesn't say in what capacity. Doctor? Janitor? Candystriper? Is he an expert on building codes? Did he quit nursing to go into architecture?

Question: Is a building with sloping floors inherently unsafe? If so, my elementary school in Prescott, Ontario should have been condemned years ago. The hallway had such a steep slope that you started Grade One about a foot higher than when you graduated from Grade Eight. I don't think the building was in danger of collapsing. Granted, the school was a bungalow and nowhere near a river.

But what about all those medieval buildings you see in Britain and Europe, the ones standing at rakish angles, leaning over, looking a little drunk? I've seen streets in English villages where every house must have sloping floors. I slept in a 15th century B&B in Cambridgeshire where the foot of the bed was lower than the pillows.

Of course all these buildings are shored up, well looked after, not abandoned and ignored. And that's the main difference between them and South Street. Leave any building empty and its problems will quickly grow worse. That's the real reason South Street may be past saving - not because its floors are sloping but because the City of London is once again practising demolition by neglect.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

From Vanneck to Dunboyne

Having expressed concern over the closing of Hyde Park United Church, I was pleased to see two rural United Churches celebrating birthdays this month. Vanneck United Church, at the corner of Vanneck and Ilderton roads, is celebrating its 150th anniversary. Once known as the English Settlement Church, the congregation was first established in 1825 and relocated twice before building the present sanctuary. The church is an excellent example of the simple but elegant architecture of 1860 and was one of the first country churches in this area to have a pipe organ.

Also celebrating an anniversary this month is Malahide United Church, at Imperial Road and Calton Line in Elgin County. This is also not the original building for the congregation, its precursor dating back to 1857. The current Malahide building is younger than Vanneck, dating to just 1910, but it's also an attractive example of southwestern Ontario's Christian heritage.

Coincidentally, both these churches are located at the sites of long-vanished hamlets. In the 1880s, Vanneck consisted of a post office, shoemaker, tile maker, doctor and general store with a population of about 50. Malahide Church was located at the hamlet of Dunboyne, which at the same time period consisted of a post office, schoolhouse, shoemaker and the Dunboyne Cheese and Butter Factory. After the cornerstone for the new church was laid in 1910, the large crowd gathered for the event strolled over to the cheese factory for a celebration supper.

There's nothing at either Vanneck or Dunboyne today to suggest these intersections were once little settlements. So there's yet another reason to conserve historic churches - many of them are the last remaining reminders of extinct communities.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Magnificent Meadowlily

On August 28, residents of London's east end celebrate Meadowlily Bridge's 100th birthday. The metal truss bridge has stretched over the south branch of the Thames since 1910, once providing a route for area farmers to deliver milk or visit London's market. Now for pedestrian use only, the bridge is located inside Meadowlily Woods Environmentally Significant Area. When I visited, I had the astonishing sensation of strolling down a tree-lined country road to the London of yesteryear.

Meadowlily was constructed by Isaac Crouse, the same man who built Blackfriars Bridge. Though not as important as Blackfriars (London's oldest iron bridge dating back to 1875) Meadowlily is still of historic significance for eastenders. We have a few other oldies as well, like the King Street Bridge dating to 1897, the Sarnia Road Bridge of 1909 or the Thames Street Railroad Overpass of 1889 (my personal favourite - it looks so ancient).

Info on Meadowlily and other bridges may be found on, a Michigan-based website that records historic bridges in surrounding states and Ontario. But prepare yourselves. The webmaster doesn't have high praise for Canada's bridge recording track record: "In Canada, there does not appear to be such a requirement in place that mandates the evaluation of all bridges in the seems that agencies like the Ministry of Culture do not even know about the bridges in the first place. If the local counties, townships, or municipalities want to consider their bridge historic and preserve them, or consider them non-historic and demolish them, that is their own decision." What Canada needs, it seems, is an historic bridge inventory, a list of all bridges over 50 years old, so that structures on the list may then be evaluated for significance.

Ouch. Canada, we should get on to that right away. But don't hold your breath. We don't even have a website like historicbridges, let alone any sign of a government inventory. How come it's up to an American website to highlight our region's heritage for us anyway? Couldn't someone in London get busy and make a nice bridge website? I'd do it myself but I'm too busy writing these rants...

Monday, August 23, 2010

What to do with an old church...

Another church is closing. Hyde Park United is shutting down after 134 years. Built as a Presbyterian Church in November 1876, the congregation has served its community well. But sadly, its dwindling congregation has decided it cannot afford the upkeep. A September 19 open house service will celebrate the church's long history and a final service will take place on September 26.

Many of you might say, so what? In our increasingly secular age, the United Church of Canada is closing a church a week. Other denominations aren't doing much better. But from the point of view of heritage preservation, the closure means another historic building is threatened. What will happen to this old sanctuary and its manse? Well, they're likely to be put up for sale and, as a Free Press reporter euphemistically put it, the land "redeveloped." To put it more candidly, a land developer will likely regard the property as a fine place to put about 30 "luxury" condos. And does Hyde Park have a Timmies yet?

Here are some better ideas. Check out this - if Stratford can do it why not our very own H.P.? Or this. Or how about this. I know, some people will be offended at the thought of church structures being used for culinary or domestic purposes. And they'll like it even less when they're used as galleries for sculptures of naked women. But as we say in the heritage world "it's better than tearing it down."

Update, January 26, 2011: And for another wonderful example of what to do with an old church, right here in London, Ontario, see my post on the Church of the Redeemer.

Update, March 23, 2011: Rumours are circulating. A potential buyer wants to remove the steeple, stating it would cost too much to repair. Stay tuned.

I Stand Corrected

Gosh, I was wrong (it doesn't happen very often). The "Antiquities" building appears to have been saved, as over 200 Londoners were willing to contribute money to preserve it. Now an agreement has been reached between Heritage London Foundation and The Pathways Skill Development and Placement Centre to restore the building for Pathways' use. The stabilization of the foundation has already begun.

If you're not familiar with Pathways, they're an organization that provides skills training for the unemployed or underemployed in London. In other words, they're not a heritage organization. That's okay. That means we have a ground-breaking initiative here. Two organizations - one heritage and one not - have come together to save an interesting part of London's past. This is the kind of partnership we need to see more of in the future. Adaptive reuse here we come!

You can check out the building (and the renovation process) for yourself during Doors Open London, Sept. 18 and 19, from 10 am to 4 pm. It's a rare opportunity to see inside one of our oldest surviving wood frame buildings.

Update, March 23, 2011 - Renovations have now begun on this historic building. Two chimneys have been removed and soon the entire structure will be moved off its rotting foundation so a new one can be poured.

Update, June 14, 2012 - The building is finally ready for Pathways to move in. An open house was held this evening so community members could check out this new old building. Awesome sight!