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!