Monday, November 21, 2011

Those Were The Days...

A postcard from circa 1971 or later
shows Reg Cooper Square (or Centennial Square) next to City Hall. Looking a bit like a Venetian piazza, the square has a fountain, trees in the planters, and a weed-free look. Gosh, there are people sitting in the square, not just passing through. The postcard was published by Victor Aziz Photography, a long-time London business.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Survey Says...

What's this cute little rock? Someone's gravestone? Cairn? Milestone? Halloween decoration? Actually it's none of the above. It's an Ordnance Survey stone erected to mark the northeast corner of the military lands where British troops were stationed up until 1868. The Ordnance lands were passed over to the City of London in 1873 to become Victoria Park, the Fair Grounds, and rows upon rows of housing that today makes up part of London's residential core.

The stone stands in a little patch of shrubbery on the southwest corner of Waterloo Street and Kenneth Avenue, just on the edge of Piccadilly Park. An explanatory plaque nearby was erected by the City and the London & Middlesex Historical Society. Just one of those small but delightful historical items one comes across when prowling about the city on foot.

Reg's Rough-and-Tumble Rectangle

Good old Reg Cooper Square. For those of you not familiar with it, I refer to that mismanaged attempt to create a public space between City Hall and Centennial Hall in downtown London. Named after a long-serving civic employee who deserved better, the "square" - actually a rectangle - was meant to be a place for concert-goers to gather during intermission, an outdoor lunchroom where city workers could eat from their their brown bags on sunny days, and a pretty view for those living on the west side of Centennial House Apartments. Instead, it's become a repository for pigeon poop, weeds growing between flagstones, and garbage strewn about by people attending downtown festivals. (Odd that anyone would think a park bench benefits from having a rib bone stuck between its slats - but I digress.)

OK, it's not all bad. The little tribute to Japanese Canadians added in 1977 (left) is an attractive, if rather well-hidden, feature. And although I'm not usually a fan of modern art, Ted Bieler's sculpture "Release" (above) is no eye-sore. It's just that both these monuments could use a more attractive setting.

Part of the problem may be the surrounding buildings. I don't actually mind City Hall; there's nothing shabby about it. The Centennial House is not beautiful but, as I'm currently living in it, I can't critique it too much and can only assure the world that it's better on the inside. It's Centennial Hall that should be blown up - oops, I mean demolished - and a proper performing arts centre built on the same site. It's a mid-twentieth century disaster that doesn't deserve the term architecture.

Reg Cooper Square's main purpose at the moment seems to be to act as a short-cut for downtown pedestrians who don't want to hike around it. But maybe if we could convince the city to try a little maintenance, people might stop instead of passing through. Cutting the weeds back more often, painting the benches, repairing broken paving stones, and adding some attractive plantings might improve the square so much that not even its proximity to Centennial Hall could make it ugly. I mean, doesn't our Mayor ever look out the window?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A Stone on Simcoe

This little war memorial stands on the south side of Simcoe Street, commemorating students from Simcoe Street Public School who fought, and presumably died, in World War I.

It's also indirectly a monument to Simcoe Street Public School itself. Also known as Governor Simcoe School, it stood on the north side of Simcoe Street just east of Clarence. Built in 1887 and demolished in 1976, the school would have been attended by Guy Lombardo and his brothers who lived just a block away.

A reminder of London's past as well as a lost generation.

Friday, August 12, 2011

A Tribute to Dr. Agnos

Many of London's monuments pay tribute to notable local individuals. An example is this sign in a green area next to the semi-detached houses at 224-226 Richmond Street. It asks us to remember Dr. John William Agnos, avid naturalist and respected radiologist. John's father William, a Greek immigrant, bought 224 Richmond in 1950, while John's sister Georgia bought 226.

John graduated from Western's medical school in 1952 and became Head of Radiology at Westminster Hospital. But he was also an active and well-known environmentalist (in the days before environmentalism was trendy) and a president of the McIlwraith Field Naturalists. Eventually his interests in science and nature prompted him to produce a monthly column on these matters in the London Free Press. John passed away in 1991.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Heritage on Talbot

This attractive building - complete with heritage paint colours - has its own particular claim to fame, being the oldest wooden store front in London. Located at 357 Talbot Street, it's been sitting here looking cute since about 1863. It's currently the home of Heritage Antiques.

It looks small but stretches a long way back, and proprietor Tom Smits has filled it with a delightful variety of furniture, paintings, china, and ornaments. I coveted an 18th century French sideboard but realized it was too large to fit in my apartment. Maybe one day.

Update, May 2013 - Tom is closing his shop at the end of November. After 38 years in business, he's decided to enjoy a well-deserved retirement and travel. We'll be watching 357 Talbot to see its next incarnation.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

What to do with an old confectionary...

Earlier this year Arch Sturaitis made a presentation at a City of London Public Planning forum, the purpose of which was to find possible uses for the old McCormick's property near Dundas and Highbury. Arch suggested we preserve the facade of the building (although see my comments about facades) along with some interior elements.

The purpose of the building? A Museum of Industry and Commerce (MIC) focusing on London and region's accomplishments in "Manufacturing, Finance, and Enterprise." Arch also suggested incorporating a Science Education Centre, Horticultural Centre, Industrial Textile and Millinery Arts Centre, Gemology Centre, Historical Archive/Museum, Cultural Works Centre, and Research Library for the Arts.

Just for the record, the current status of the factory is up in the air and apparently London's Realty Services Division will be accepting bids for the property sometime this fall. So if anyone out there would like to snap up an old biscuit works and turn it into an MIC, this could be their big chance. I don't know much about gemology centres but I've already pointed out that we need a real museum and we could also use an archive.

I contacted John Fleming of City of London Planning Division to see how far London's got in organizing all this. Not very far. Mr. Fleming agrees that the proposed MIC "would likely fit nicely with the revitalization initiatives and planning underway in the Old East Village." But he added a few questions to ponder. Like, who would own this building once renovated? Who's going to pay for the renovation? Would the finished result generate enough revenue to help pay for itself?

If anybody has the answers, feel free to leave them here.

Update, July 2012: I see no one had the answers. Neither did City Hall. And the tax sale was a no sale. Counsellor Stephen Orser considers this good news and stated in a recent Free Press interview that "we are moving forward." As Counsellor Orser's idea of moving forward is demolition, we can anticipate a vacant lot here soon.

Update, September 2012: A fire has now wreaked havoc in the building. Not surprisingly - after all, that's what happens to lots of abandoned buildings much more worth saving than McCormick's. Remember Locust Mount and Alma College? We can probably expect the fire-damaged section to be demolished even if a buyer is found.

Update, June 2014: I stand corrected. Sierra Construction, a Woodstock firm, has bought the building for $1 and are talking about turning the old building into a seniors' residence.

Update, June 2015: Perhaps someone should bid $2 for Kellogg's?

Thursday, July 21, 2011

What a great building. Pity it's not ours.

What an attractive old building. Designed by architect H. B. Sinclair and completed in 1858 in the Italianate style, it was once considered one of the most attractive public buildings west of Toronto. A bell was added in the 1860s and a clock came along in 1897 to commemorate the Diamond Jubilee.

It isn't falling down. It's been intelligently renovated. It's actually being used, not neglected. It doesn't have a glass tower protruding from its centre and it hasn't been landscaped with flourescent metal trees. You guessed it - it's not in London.

It's Cambridge's Historic City Hall, once the administrative centre for Galt. In 1981 Cambridge moved its municipal offices to another location. City Council and committee meetings are still held in part of this building, but it was renovated in 1990 to become the home of the Cambridge City Archives as well.

That's right, a city archives, in a community smaller than London (120,000 as opposed to 350,000). In a city that's only officially existed since 1973. In a renovated heritage building, not an expensive, purpose-built eyesore. This building now holds paper records for Galt, Preston, Hespeler, and the modern city of Cambridge. Historic elements have been preserved while incorporating needed changes for accessibility and conservation.

How did they do it? Well, obviously many of the movers and shakers in the City of Cambridge liked their historic City Hall enough to restore it for continued modern use. But an interesting fact is that the renovation was paid for in part by Toyota Canada soon after the company located a plant at Cambridge. I'm not sure what percentage of the final restoration bill Toyota paid, but there's an obvious lesson here for London heritage activists: a corporate sponsor could be asked to alleviate some of the costs in transforming one of our older buildings into a much needed archives.

Gosh, maybe when Toyota finally takes over Ford Talbotville we could convince them they'd like to throw some money around...

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Downtown, where all the lights are bright...

So here I am living in downtown London at last. What a joy to no longer have to commute to work, just stroll out the front door and be at my job in 10 minutes. No traffic jams. No sliding all over the roads in winter. And Victoria Park is right across the street; my little old pooch and I have enjoyed several perambulations there already. I'm looking forward to walking to the Central Library, the JLC, the Old Courthouse, etc. without having to get the car out.

Nothing's perfect, of course. There are a few problems downtown. I knew what they were before I moved here. Still, now that I'm a resident of "the core" they're bugging me. So here's my pet peeve list:

Jenny's Top 10 List of Things Needed in Downtown London:
1. A grocery store. Currently the closest grocery store to where I live is near Oxford and Richmond. It doesn't carry a lot beyond the basics. Thank goodness I still have a car and can drive to a bigger store in the suburbs. If I didn't own a car, I'd hate to lug several bags of groceries home on a bus. Of course one can do one's shopping downtown if one visits several different locations, eg. Covent Garden, the Bulk Barrel, etc. but it's nice to have a one stop shopping place.

2. More free parking. Where's the incentive for anyone in Masonville or White Oaks to shop downtown when they can drive to a suburban plaza that's closer and park for free? But don't hold your breath - the city makes over $1 million a year from parking metres.

3. Lower priced housing, including rentals. After eight months of looking, I found a home I can (almost) afford. Parking's not included but all utilities are. And it's large enough to hold all of my junk. At the moment I'm renting but one day I'd like to buy a home, preferably downtown. It's nice that the second Renaissance Tower will offer a $1 million penthouse. Gosh, do you think it would hold all my house plants?

4. More trees. I mean real trees, not those "artistic" creations the London Downtown Business Association has put everywhere. Last I checked this is the Forest City, not the Fluorescent Scrap Metal City.

5. More bicycle lanes. No, I don't have a bike myself (other than the exercise bike in my bedroom that I really am going to get back to using sometime). But there's a reason why I don't own a bicycle. It's not safe to ride a bike on the streets of this city and I refuse to endanger pedestrians by riding on the sidewalk. Let's get some dedicated bicycle lanes downtown to encourage cyclists.

6. Some classy establishments on Dundas. By "classy" I mean like Kingsmill's, Attic Books, and the Jonathon Bancroft-Snell Gallery. Not like tattoo parlours, pawn shops and all the empty decaying store fronts. We need incentives to bring first-rate businesses downtown and to encourage Londoners to visit them.

7. A real historical museum. London needs one interesting, informative historical museum highlighting the city's development and accomplishments, preferably one in a heritage building (psst - there's an unused central library on Queens and an empty normal school in Wortley Village). London does not need that object on Ridout Street that looks like a bunch of thermos bottles lying on their sides.

8. Free concerts in the churches. Many of the churches in downtown London, England hold free noonhour classical music concerts, increasingly popular with office workers on their breaks. It's a great way to offer some tasteful entertainment and get people back into the churches for a few minutes. While there, visitors could check out our imposing ecclesiastical architecture and might even drop a few coins into the church coffers as a way of saying thank you.

9. More historic plaques. I don't know how many times I've walked past an interesting old building and thought "What a great place! Wonder who built it?" or "Gee, what did that use to be?" We need more commemorative signs to tells us these significant details. While we're at it, we could develop up-to-date historic walking tour booklets to go with them.

10. Fewer Farhi signs. I know I've ranted about this before, but does every second building need a Farhi banner? We already know the guy owns most of downtown.

If there's an 11, it's that London needs some spring weather so I can explore the downtown core without shivering. But I'm sure the hot air coming from City Hall will warm me nicely...

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Of Bridges and Engines

Many railway buffs will be familiar with Engine 86, an old locomotive currently on display at the Western Fair Grounds. Manufactured by the Canadian Locomotive Company in 1910, Engine 86 was used by the Grand Trunk and CNR before being donated to the City of London in 1958.

Unfortunately, donating an antique to the City of London is a mistake. That is, if you actually want it to be looked after. Despite being restored, mainly by GM Diesel in 1996-99, the Engine is rusting and animals are building a nest inside. The water tank was left uncovered for years so that rain and snow entered and rusted away the bottom of the tender. Although it was painted just a few years ago, rust is once again showing through.

Now maybe it's just me but I can't really see the point in spending money to restore an antique locomotive and leaving it outside to rust in a Canadian winter. A humble opinion: the Engine should not have been moved to its current site without providing it with a shelter. The result has been wasted time, misspent money and a lack of respect for our railway heritage.

But hold on - the folks at LACH (London Advisory Committee on Heritage) have proposed a solution. One that also concerns the Sarnia Road Bridge. (It's like hitting two heritage birds with one stone - kind of.) And wait til you hear it: all we have to do is tear down that silly old 1909 steel-truss bridge, store its bits and pieces for a while, and someday in the future use the pieces to make some kind of cover for Engine 86. This is a fabulous idea, except that:

a) no one's really clear how you adapt bridge bits to make a shelter for a locomotive, and
b) the bridge will no longer exist as a bridge.

Better solutions for both these heritage puzzles?

a) build a real shelter around Engine 86, complete with interpretive plaques so passers-by will understand this is a cool old locomotive, and
b) move the Sarnia Road Bridge over a bit and continue to use it for pedestrian and bicycle use.

Unfortunately, neither of these things will happen because:

a) the current Mayor and Council would never agree to spending the money, and
b) come to think of it, that's the only reason.

So here's what will really happen to these two artifacts in the future:

a) The Sarnia Road Bridge will be demolished.
b) The City will store its parts.
c) Some of the parts will disappear into the basement of Museum London and never be seen again (along with most of the other artifacts donated to them over the years, but that's another blog post).
d) Some of the parts will rust away in the City Hall parking garage.
e) Most of the parts will be lost.
f) Engine 86 will continue to rust.

Note: Many thanks to local historian and railway buff Stephen Harding for his commentary on the current state of Engine 86. The opinions expressed here, of course, are strictly mine.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

More "What to do with an old church"

Further to my post of August 23rd, 2010, we now have yet another example of what to do with an empty church besides tear it down. We can turn it into apartments! Yes, the former Church of the Redeemer at Grosvenor and Adelaide streets has been turned into 12 units for adults with developmental disabilities. A project of the Alice Saddy Association, the City of London (imagine them preserving heritage) and Riverstone Developments, the renovation provides tenants with rents they can afford with the occasional support they need. It also means an older building has been preserved and, heck, those solar panels don't even look all that bad!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

An archive at last?

Next week there'll be an event of special interest to those of us hoping for a county archive. Middlesex County Council will meet at the Middlesex County Building on Tuesday, January 11 at 1:00 pm to discuss a proposal to build an archive facility at Fanshawe Pioneer Village. So all those of you who'd like to see an archive established should try to attend this meeting. It's a great way to let County Council know how many people support this endeavour to preserve our past. (For those of you who don't venture into downtown London too often, the County Building = the "Old Courthouse" = that building that looks like a medieval castle at 399 Ridout Street opposite the JLC.)

Now for some of the more obvious reasons why the county needs an archive:
- to preserve historical records from the county's past, especially those from annexed or amalgamated townships
- to apply proper conservation procedures to documents disintegrating in damp or otherwise unsuitable storage facilities elsewhere
- to facilitate scholarly local research by students, historians and journalists
- to provide another cultural tourism destination for the London-Middlesex area
- to repair Middlesex County's reputation as the "black hole" of Ontario county archives
- to shame the City of London into creating an archive of its own

Researchers of all kinds really do travel for hours, if not days, just to visit archives. After visiting the Middlesex County Archive, they'd stay in a hotel, eat in local restaurants, visit our museums, possibly go to a Knights game - the list goes on. An archive is actually an investment in our community and one that's long overdue.

Update, January 25: First they delayed the vote for two weeks. Then the whole event turned out to be a farce. Despite a Council chamber crowded with archive supporters and several pro-archive speeches, Council members had already made up their minds. So no archive. No reasons were given but we can be certain they include a) money, b)the fact that no one in government sees any need for historical preservation and c) the County is probably hoping London will eventually build an archive and the County can piggyback (which also boils down to money).

Another black eye for the heritage community. Fortunately, we're used to them and our vision remains unaffected.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Aid for the Aeolian

The Aeolian Hall needs a new roof. Director Clark Bryan is asking City Council's Finance and Administration Committee for $80,000 to augment the $10,000 in donations he's received directly from the public.

This building has a long and diverse history. It was built in 1884 on the southwest corner of Dundas and Rectory as London East Town Hall. It didn't remain a town hall for very long though; London East was annexed by the city the following year. Strangely for London, the fact that the building could no longer be used for its original purpose didn't result in it being torn down. A crowning example of adaptive reuse, over the years the hall has been used as a fire station and a Public Library branch among other things. For many years now it's been a performance hall, providing an excellent venue for classical music events. An especially memorable concert was Scott St. John's appearance in December 1997, headlining a group of London chamber musicians paying a tribute to Franz Schubert.

Some might say supplying a new roof for a heritage builing shouldn't be part of City Hall's mandate. But when it's not just heritage at stake, but also the performing arts, London really needs to cough up the cash. The "east end" has been looking after its "town hall" for a good long time and the city needs to continue the trend.