Wednesday, December 5, 2012

1st Hussars Recognized

City Council has voted in favour of recognizing Fanshawe Park Road west of Richmond Street as the 1st Hussars Commemorative Highway. A nice tribute to the regiment that has served Canada for more than 150 years from its base in London and a detached squadron in Sarnia.

The 1st Hussars have their own museum at 1 Dundas Street, a cute little c. 1880 cottage that's one of the last remaining original buildings near the Forks of the Thames. The museum portrays the history of the regiment through the Boer War, World Wars, conflict in Afghanistan, and peacekeeping missions.

As a labourer's cottage, it might seem like a strange place for a military museum. It looks more like it should contain displays about 19th-century working-class life. It also looks like it would be a good place for a display on the history of London and its relationship to the Thames and in fact it used to be The Forks of the Thames Interpretive Centre. In London, however, we present our heritage in whatever way we can, and it's good to see the building in use. Check it out.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Adaptive Reuse

It's always nice to present another heritage preservation success story. For years derelict, this cute little house at 24 York Street is  now the home of Decorating Resource Studio. Built c. 1870 the two-storey brick structure has a sympathetic new addition at the rear and retains some decoration on its bargeboard. It's a Priority 2 on London's Heritage Inventory and described as the vernacular style. Just an example of what can be done with an older building when you have access to a little cash and good taste.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Let It Go

Next week another request for demolition goes before Planning Committee. Labatt's wants to tear down an office building they own at 75 Bathurst Street in order to create more parking. The office was built about 1950.

Already, admirers of 20th-century buildings are getting themselves worked up. Apparently this is a Priority 1 on London's Heritage Inventory. Who'd have thought? Turns out the structure was once used by Silverwoods Dairy and is a prime example of International Style architecture.

This raises a number of questions:

  • Is the International Style really a style or just a replacement for style? Ever since it was created it's been criticized as stark, sterile and just plain boring.
  • Aren't there enough examples of the International Style internationally?
  • In a city that can't bring itself to save something really sweet like  Locust Mount, is anyone at City Hall going to listen if we try to convince them they need to save this?
  • If heritage conservationists try to save every single building, aren't our pleas for conservation taken less seriously?
  • Who's going to renovate this for some other use? And why would Labatt's sell it to them?
Frankly, the only good reason to save this building would be the general principle of reusing all structures instead of tossing more construction materials into landfill sites. That's not likely to convince Planning Committee. Let this one go.

Update, November 27: Planning Committee has OK'd demolition.

Location Location Location 2

In the age-old battle between individual and collective rights there's seldom a clear winner.

Take the battle over 591 Maitland Street for example. On the one side, a homeowner's right to do as she pleases with her own house, including tear it down and start afresh. On the other hand, the community's right to protect our shared built heritage from destruction.

A lot of nonsense has been spouted by both sides in this debate. Members of the Woodfield Community Association are being portrayed as elite impractical snobs trying to force a young couple to live in a shack. Heritage conservationists, on the other hand, talk as though this cookie-cutter home built in 1884 actually has great architectural merit somewhere under its aluminum siding. It doesn't. Even Yours Truly, Roaming Heritage Reporter, hasn't trudged over to Maitland Street to snap a pic. It's not worth braving the cold November wind.

Nevertheless, there's a good reason why this building shouldn't be demolished. It's in the West Woodfield Heritage Conservation District which makes it a designated building under the Ontario Heritage Act. Of course it can still be torn down with the permission of City Council. Several buildings have been torn down in West Woodfield already. But this case is grabbing lots of media attention. Many Londoners are watching the FP with bated breath for the next thrilling installment of the War In West Woodfield.

That means this case could set a notable precedent. Once it's been established that it's acceptable to tear down a house in an HCD, developers (or their children) can tear down another. And another. And another. And next thing you know it's not an HCD anymore. Demolitions have defeated the purpose.

So let's train potential buyers to research an older home before buying it. Get them to take along a checklist that includes questions like:

  • Is this house too small for my growing family?
  • Are the cracks in the foundation widening as I watch?
  • Will a strong wind blow it down?
  • Is it in a Heritage Conservation District?
  • If I volunteer to knock it down does the neighbourhood become a heritage combat zone?
If the answers to the above questions are "Yes," consider buying a house in White Oaks.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Mural, Mural On The Wall...

Public art doesn't always appeal to everyone. And there will always be those who'll argue that the money spent on culture could be better used for social programmes.

Nevertheless, local artist Tracy Root's large mural beside the bicycle path under Oxford Street Bridge is worth a second look. Mainly sponsored by London Arts Council and London Cultural Office, Tracy's colourful painting shows rolling hills, picturesque farmhouses, and this male figure ploughing a field. The scene may remind passers-by of their childhood on the farm or of pleasant drives in the country.

We need more of these murals for several reasons: First, they brighten otherwise boring or ugly cement walls. Second, they promote and assist local artistic talent. Third, they act as interesting conversation pieces as walkers and cyclists stop, admire the artistry, and chat. Finally, historic scenes like this remind residents of former landscapes and industries, helping them to connect with their neighbourhood's past. Way to go, Tracy!

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

A New Old Building Downtown

Bud Gowan, owner of Bud Gowan Antiques, is retiring at last. While London will miss both the man and his store, at least we don't have to wonder what will happen to his historic building. 387 Clarence Street has been sold to John and Nancy Fyfe-Millar who plan to renovate most of it into apartments. It's positive news for an historic building in the core area.

Built in 1892 for the Featherbone Corset Company, the structure has had many uses over the years. In the 1940s and 50s it was home to London Shoe Company, as evidenced by the cool "ghost sign" high on the north side. What are ghost signs, you ask? They're faded signs painted years ago by former business owners on older commercial buildings. They provide us with interesting links to London's retail and manufacturing history.

Update, August 19, 2013 - For more details on ghost signs see this London Free Press article.

Update, September 14, 2013 - The Fyfe-Millars held an open house late this afternoon so guests could view the building after Phase 1 of its restoration. Visitors descended to the basement to view the foundations, then climbed the circular stairs to inspect the second, third, and fourth floors. Some folks had a ride in the elevator - London's oldest, shown at left - which is truly an experience in itself. We also had the opportunity to sign a guest book that was enclosed in a lined soft cover salvaged during the restoration.

Rumour has it the ground floor may become a bistro or bar while commercial space will be available on the second floor. An excellent opportunity for a business wishing to locate in the core. Many thanks to John and Nancy for providing us with a chance to prowl inside a great building!

Update, September 2015: The reconstruction project will begin in October and is to be called The Featherbone Building after the corset company. Bravo John and Nancy! This is all so much better than having a certain developer slap his own name on a building and let it sit empty ...

Monday, September 24, 2012

Heritage in the Core

London's Planning and Environment Committee has received  a demolition request for 199 Queens Ave., an attractive Italianate with a large ugly addition. The owner, Farhi Holdings, apparently has plans for the site. Note the building is a Priority 2 structure on London's Inventory of Heritage Resources and is located within the proposed Downtown Heritage Conservation District. Built about 1880, the structure is within walking distance of the Grand Theatre and other downtown attractions. It would make a nice setting for a classy restaurant or boutique hotel. 

Anyone concerned about this should attend the public participation meeting on the second floor of City Hall, at 7:30 pm on Monday, September 24, 2012. While Planning Committee may decide to permit demolition, partial demolition, or refuse demolition altogether, a good showing from the heritage community might tip the scale in our favour.

Update, September 25, 2012: Planning Committee has delayed a decision on this building's future for 45 days while Mr. Farihi and city staff look for a way to incorporate the old building into the proposed new highrise. Kudos to committee members for attempting to save parts of the building rather than automatically granting a demolition permit. However, if incorporating the old structure into the new one means another absurdity such as the hanging of the Talbot Block on the outside of the JLC, it might be better to demolish it. Our cultural legacy should not appear incongruous and silly.

Update, October 15, 2012: Permission has been granted to demolish the building.

Update, February 8, 2013: Walked by this building today. It's weird watching a demolition in a snowstorm.  The front porch is gone already and soon this building will be a memory.

Update, June 15, 2015: Surprise, surprise. The site is still a parking lot.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

This Bud's For You...

Budweiser Gardens. It may sound like the name of your favourite patio but no, it's the new name for the John Labatt Centre. The new sign is up already, thus expunging the name of the oldest continuous industry in London and replacing it with the King of Beers. Another blow to London's heritage - cheers!

Monday, July 30, 2012

Location Location Location

Summer is a great time to enjoy a leisurely stroll through downtown London. Mind you, not everyone would think of heading for Clarence Street south of Bathurst to do their sightseeing. Only a certifiably crazy heritage architecture buff skips the shade of Victoria Park on a hot summer afternoon to stumble over the railroad tracks and visit this neighbourhood once dominated by the Michigan Central Railroad Station. This hasn't always been one of London's more prepossessing locales, to put it politely, and Bathurst Street today isn't very inviting.

But if these houses are any indication, things may be looking up. The plaque on the cute little cottage at left tells us this was the home of John Crooks, blacksmith, in 1856. The Italianate at right dates to about 1885. Keep going south and you'll see this adorable Second Empire style house built c. late 1880s. All are neat, tidy, apparently well looked after, and even somewhat landscaped. Other interesting buildings, including some row houses, stretch south to Horton Street. The entire block appears to be a great example of neighbourhood revitalization. I'll be trotting down this way again. 
Update, September 2014 - For those interested in putting a sign on their own home, they can apparently be purchased at Print Studio on Dundas Street as well.

Monday, July 23, 2012

The next battle?

Auburn Developments wants to tear down these two buildings at 560 and 562 Wellington Street and build a 25-storey tower overlooking Victoria Park.  Both buildings are within the West Woodfield Heritage Conservation District. They're still in use, not neglected, and among the very few heritage structures still standing around Victoria Park. Auburn's proposal should prompt quite a few questions about heritage preservation as well as urban design. Do we want a huge tower looming over Victoria Park? 

Update - May 2015 - Auburn is still planning a 25-storey tower here, but needs rezoning approval and a change to London's official plan before beginning. Opinions differ as to how this will affect Victoria Park, the Woodfield neighbourhood, and other older buildings around the park.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Another Sign of the Times

A group called Our Street London has started to hang signs downtown. These brightly-coloured messages give directions to local landmarks, businesses, museums - even the river.

Mind you, I'm not sure how the organizers decided it takes exactly nine minutes to walk from Dundas and Clarence to the Forks. I suspect the timing might depend on the age and energy of the pedestrian. Not to mention the weather - in January I walk a lot faster. However, musn't quibble. The signs are a new great way to help folks explore London's downtown. And a great many of them point the way to historic sites.

One feature in particular should appeal to younger  hikers - each sign has a QR code. For those of you not up on your technology, a QR or Quick Response code is that cute little barcode you may have already seen on items at the grocery store. Hold your smart phone camera over it and you'll get a webpage that will tell you more about that wonderful site you're walking to. Of course, those of us who only have stupid phones will have to wait until we get home to Google.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Dwelling on the Positive

Since most heritage commentary dwells on the negative - that is, yet another neglected building in danger of demolition - it's good to occasionally point out a heritage preservation success story. One of these is the so-called Kenross House at the northeast corner of Waterloo and Piccadilly. A Priority 1 building on London's heritage inventory, the Queen Anne style mansion was built about 1908 for Charles J. Somerville, mayor of London in 1918-19. Architectural highlights include half-timbering, a round tower, wide verandah, and the Dutch gable pictured at left. Owners Timothy and Natalie Tattersall won an ACO-HLF Heritage Award in 2009 for restoring this building. An especially nice touch is the small garden on the corner with a plaque dedicated to Jean Ann Hills, a former owner who passed away in 2007.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Heritage Myth # 5: Heritage buildings aren't green.

The environment seems to be what everybody talks about these days, whether they're environmentalists or not. The way trendy people converse about greenhouse gases, fossil fuel emissions, and deforestation, you'd think they actually know what they're talking about. Meanwhile, of course, they continue to drive SUVs, sit around their backyard pools, and forget to recycle.

New buildings are often billed as environmentally friendly and quite often they really are. Solar houses like this one are just plain cool. And earth-sheltered buildings are beneficial for tempering inside spaces. The trouble is, projects like these tend to be expensive, even taking into consideration long-term energy savings. And when a historic structure is torn down to make way for a new one, the developer is usually more interested in making a buck than creating sustainable architecture. 

A more practical way of greening architecture would be to stop tearing down so many heritage buildings. Currently about 35% of the contents of Canadian landfill sites are building materials. Then there are the unofficial landfills. The remains of our very own Hotel London, torn down in 1972, were tossed into a field beside Vauxhall Park at the end of Price Street. An ignominious ending for a local landmark and more garbage in the ground.

So the modern world isn't just covered with buildings, but with the remains of buildings. How about restoring or renovating the heritage structures we already have instead of tearing them down and creating more structural waste?

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Martyr Shrines

There are a few tributes in London to the Tolpuddle Martyrs. The plaque at left is in Labour Memorial Park, a small riverside green space at York and Thames streets. It accompanies a large work of art entitled "Good Hands" by David Bobier and Leslie Putnam.

The so-called Tolpuddle Martyrs were six farm labourers who lived in Tolpuddle, Dorsetshire in the 1830s. When the seven shillings a week they earned was not enough money to support themselves and their families, they went on strike. All were arrested, found guilty, and transported to Australia in March 1834. Public indignation was so great over this that they were pardoned two years later and returned to England in 1837. The event is still regarded as a turning point in labour laws in the UK.

Upon their return, five of the six men, along with their families, emigrated to Upper Canada and settled near London. George Loveless, wife Elizabeth and family pioneered on what is now Fanshawe Park Road. Siloam Cemetery on Fanshawe Park Road East contains headstones for George Loveless and fellow-martyr Thomas Standfield. In commemoration, there's a memorial plaque outside the Siloam Cemetery gate.

Another monument to these men is the Tolpuddle Housing Co-Op on Adelaide Street. And the London and District Labour Council annually presents its Tolpuddle Memorial Award to an activist who has contributed extensively to labour and social causes in the community. One suspects George and his friends would approve.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Heritage Myth # 4: Canada's history isn't old enough to be worth preserving.

Ever had anybody tell you: "Why would we need to save that building? It's not old." They might be referring to a 20th-century factory, a 1930s home with Art Deco styling, or a Supertest gas station. It's as though they think only the only interesting buildings are pioneer log cabins or Victorian mansions with gingerbread. Or worse, the only real historical buildings are European castles and ancient Near Eastern ruins. 

But an interesting point was made by Terry O'Reilly, keynote speaker at the 2011 Ontario Heritage Conference in Cobourg. 80% of heritage sites in England were built after 1800. Thus demonstrating that even across the pond in merrie olde England recent history is considered important and worth preserving.

Old buildings reflect our cultural identity regardless of whether they're 50, 500, or 5,000 years old. It doesn't need to be a moated manor house or an Egyptian pyramid to have value. Canada's heritage should and does have significance for Canadians.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

London's Last Brick Pavement

This little-used patch of Adelaide Street near the CNR tracks contains London's last stretch of brick paving. The second last section, on Talbot Street south of York, was ripped up late in the summer of 1979.  Just a quaint reminder of the London of yesteryear.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Heritage Myth # 2: All heritage organizations are the same.

It seems there's no clear idea among the general public about who London's heritage community is and how it operates. Sometimes the heritage community itself doesn't seem to be too sure how it operates, so it's not surprising so few others get it.

The fact is, local heritage organizations are often approached for information they can't provide. The Historical Society, for example, is prone to getting requests from genealogists.

So let's clarify who the local public should go to for what information:

Have a question about London history? Contact the London & Middlesex Historical Society, the oldest of London's heritage organizations, in existence since 1901. Several of its members are walking reference books on London history.

Researching the history of your house? Try the London Public Library's London Room. Librarian Arthur McClelland has been known to do talks on this very subject.

Renovating a heritage building and not sure what alterations you should make? Contact the London Advisory Committee on Heritage.

Interested in learning about local architecture? Get in touch with the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario London Branch. If that seems a little long-winded, call them ACO London for short.

Researching your family tree and becoming stumped? Contact London & Middlesex County Branch, Ontario Genealogical Society. Or OGS for short.

There are lots of other local groups, many of which I've provided links to from this blog. Sorry, no real historical museum or archives yet.

And yes, we could use an umbrella organization that represents all the heritage groups in London. It would add another level of bureaucy but might also provide the historical community with some unity and direction. How about United Heritage Front? What do you mean, the initials U.H.F. been used for something before...

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Heritage Myth # 1: Replacing old with new is progress.

"You can't stand in the way of progress."

How many times have heritage preservations heard this? Apparently many people still think progress consists of substituting new buildings for old. Well maybe, sometimes, depending on the buildings. But most of the time, no. There are many reasons for preserving older architecture, like...

Heritage buildings reflect the individual styles of countries, cultures, or regions. Modern architecture reflects globalization. Oh, sure there are some interesting modern buildings in the world. But most of them don't exactly reflect local building traditions.

While public buildings sometimes show a little originality, most new domestic architecture is a bore. Sometimes it seems there's a plot to make entire cities and countries look like this, or, horror of horrors, this. Would you be able to tell the difference between a new house in Toronto, a new house in New Zealand, and a new house in England? They all look like Masonville McMansions.

Modern architecture is science. Old architecture is art. Art is more aesthetically pleasing than cold, impersonal science. It's amazing how often beauty isn't in the eye of the beholder.

Old architecture is human-sized and welcoming. New buildings make one feel puny and insignificant. Compare London's old and new courthouses which are the 2nd and 4th pictures on this link. Of course we need larger buildings today - we have more people than we did in 1829 - but there's something cosy about our colonial past. Kudos to the County of Middlesex for preserving the Old Courthouse, our own little castle.

Visitors like to look at interesting old buildings and it's hard to do that when they're not there. Heritage means tourism and tourism makes money. Look at Niagara-on-the-Lake. A giant live-in museum is a cash cow. Let's try milking the cow here.