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.