Friday, July 26, 2013

Summer Rambles Continue

As the heritage explorer wanders the streets of London . . . someone might be watching. Who knows where this is? takers on this one. Here's a hint:

The above symbol appears on a fence surrounding the property. Can anyone guess where this is?

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Gore Cemetery

Gore Cemetery on Trafalgar Street was set aside in 1834 to be used as a pioneer burial ground.  Originally part of London Township, the cemetery has become surrounded by the ever-expanding London. The city-owned property, closed to burials since 1954, is now protected with metal fencing and padlocked.

The Historic Sites Committee of London Public Library has been researching the site with the intention of erecting an historic plaque. To that end, groups of historians have been allowed to enter the grounds and look around. The investigators noted broken and chipped markers, as well as stones obscured by vegetation - in particular, a large mulberry tree.

The plantings could be a problem. The roots of the trees and bushes may cause the cairn to heave and break underneath while the shade provided by the mulberry promotes dampness detrimental to masonry and stone. Organic matter accumulates inside the walls, holding moisture in and producing an unkempt appearance which promotes vandalism.

The cemetery has been restored in the past, which accounts for the gravestones having been moved from their original positions and set into a concrete cairn. This mid-twentieth century trend was an alternative to repairing markers in situ. But the reconfiguration means there's no way of knowing where specific persons are actually buried.

Overall, when one considers the restructuring, wear and tear, broken stones, and greenery at this site, it's a far cry from the way it must have looked in pioneer days. One can only hope another restoration project will take place in the near future.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Thoughts on Downtown

Ask ten random Londoners what should be changed about the core and you're likely to get ten different answers. So now that city planners have drafted a "master plan" to revamp the city's heart, there's likely to be much public debate about whether the ideas are constructive or a silly waste of money. Chip Martin of The Free Press summarized many of the suggestions here.

Since I know you're all waiting for my take on things, here it is:

Dundas Street: The idea is to turn our main street into a pedestrian walkway on a "flexible" basis. But heck, why be flexible about it? Why not turn part of Dundas into a permanent pedestrian mall like Sparks Street in Ottawa?

Alley way connections: Back alleys would be put to use for something else besides dumping garbage. It's about time.

Queens station: A transit hub on Queen's Avenue outside St. Paul's Cathedral. Why there exactly? How big would this hub be? Would it ruin the view of our city's oldest church? Not that St. Paul's isn't already hidden by surrounding buildings.

Clarence Street: Enlarge sidewalks and plant trees. Well, OK. I'm in favour of all the trees the Forest City can grow. But a pedestrian bridge over the CN tracks? Probably a waste of money when there are other crossing points.

Sports heros' way: Setting aside the question of whether athletes are really heros, why would it be a good idea to turn Kensington Bridge into a "pedestrian link?" Isn't this one of the main driving routes into downtown? And the bridge does have a sidewalk already. It's Blackfriars Bridge that needs to be turned into a pedestrian bridge as I've already stated.

As for featuring Labatt Park as part of a gateway to the core, we should advertise Labatt Park as a destination in its own right. It is, after all, the the oldest continually used baseball diamond in the world. And the city should be promoting it. They own it.

Market district: "Enhance and connect" the public squares outside Budweiser Gardens (alias the JLC) and Covent Garden as a venue for festivals, etc. I won't judge this idea until I see exactly what they have in mind but it seems to me it's attractive as it is.

Richmond Street: Improve "pedestrian walkways" (aka sidewalks?) and "reduce the north-south artery to three lanes, one of which would be for rapid transit." Not sure about this. Fewer lanes usually means more traffic congestion.

City gateway: A new public square in front of the VIA station with "access" to Dundas. Not necessary, unless we're suddenly going to have thousands of people taking the train and strolling to Dundas Street. But this isn't Europe. Our train service will have to improve a great deal before more people want to use it. And what's on Dundas that these hoards want to visit?

Forks of the Thames: Ideas here include a riverside promenade and a concrete beach. One of the pictures associated with the article shows a proposed "beach" at the old Victoria Hospital site. A refreshing treat on a hot summer day for people who can't make it to Port Stanley or Grand Bend. But wherever they put it, I'm afraid an inner city beach is going to be costly to keep up. Is it worth it?

Many people would say that, considering London's current unemployment rate, City Hall should be focusing on more serious issues than making downtown prettier. But it's also likely that beautification projects bring more people to London and encourage the idea that we're a forward-thinking community. I'm in favour of positive changes for downtown, so long as they incorporate heritage buildings and a bit of nature. But these ideas need more discussion.  And I'm sure we'll have plenty of it...

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Gateway to London's past...

Ah, summer. The time to step outside, look about and explore. What interesting nooks and crannies can the intrepid heritage explorer discover? What paths to history may be found? Actually, clues to London's past are everywhere. Let's start with a fairly easy one. Who knows where these steps lead?  

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Fugitive Slave Chapel, Thames Street

An extremely important part of London history is threatened. Aboutown Transportation wants to level 275 Thames Street to make - you guessed it - a parking lot. Aboutown's Jim Donnelly says the building, which they own, is beyond saving.

This isn't your average old wreck though. It was the first chapel built by London's black community, mainly fugitive slaves who arrived via the Underground Railroad. It was originally named the African Methodist Episcopal Church and was later renamed the British Methodist Episcopal Church.

Abolitionist John Brown probably spoke here in 1858, appealing for funds to fight slavery in the United States. In all probability, Brown's plan was to form a black military company which would join other black fighting units from Ontario to bring about his proposed abolitionist revolution. The following year, his raid on Harpers Ferry acted as a catalyst in bringing about the American Civil War.

Eventually, London's black community founded another church on Grey Street and 275 Thames Street became a residence. In August 1986, an historic plaque was placed on the building by the London Public Library Board. The plaque has since gone missing and it's thought that former owners took it with them when they moved.

Londoners, and Canadians in general, should be proud of Canada's role as sanctuary for fugitive slaves during the years before the Civil War.  This is not a building to be lost. Somehow, a solution must be found.

Update, September 2015: Well, they did it. In November 2014 the very determined folks at The Fugitive Slave Chapel Preservation Project moved the old building to sit beside its daughter church at 432 Grey Street. Now the real challenge begins as the committee raise funds to restore the building. See here for more details.

Update, October 2015: Architect John Rutledge of Blyth has been hired by the FSCPP to restore the building for museum purposes. If all goes well, this will turn into one of London's best examples of adaptive reuse.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Beautiful Blackfriars

London's oldest bridge has spanned the Thames since 1875. Built by the Wrought Iron Bridge Company of Canton, Ohio, it was actually a kit, put together on site by Isaac Crouse. Now well past its intended life span, the bridge is still connecting Blackfriars and Ridout streets.

Local residents are getting used to the almost annual round of repairs. The bridge is currently closed since sections of its wooden deck are peeling off. The repair work will take about a month. Then, just as folks get used to the bridge being open again, it'll be shut down this summer to assess the condition of its steelwork.

Two suggestions have been put forward to help preserve the old bridge. The first is to make it one-way only. Like you can use it to drive to downtown but not back. Possibly a no-brainer considering it's only one lane wide anyway. When you pull up to Blackfriars Bridge do you stop, go ahead, or only continue if the vehicle coming the other way isn't bigger than you?

The other idea is to make it a pedestrian bridge. Though weather may be the main reason for deterioration of the wooden deck, we can be fairly certain vehicles also damage the surface. As a pedestrian bridge, Blackfriars would be an interesting asset to the Thames River Parkway, that pathway system along the river that connects so many neighbourhoods.

Is the bridge worth saving? Of course, for a great many reasons. According to Nancy Tausky in Historical Sketches of London: from site to city, quoting industrial archaeologist Christopher Andreae, Blackfriars is the oldest metal bridge in North America still open to vehicles. Furthermore, it's a good example of bowstring construction. The bridge has been a source of inspiration to numerous local artists and photographers. Walking across it gives one a rural feel in the middle of a city.

Even Government has figured it out. The bridge was designated by the City of London in 1992. It's also on the provincial Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport's Ontario Heritage Bridge List.

Probably one of the reasons the bridge has survived so long has been due to its fairly low volume of traffic. It's time to cut the traffic off altogether.

Update, March 18, 2013 - The bridge has re-opened this past week. A detailed inspection has been recommended by City Hall for $300,000.

Update, February 1, 2016 - City Hall is now proposing to repair the bridge so that it will support vehicle traffic going eastbound only - the cost - $4.6 million. Better idea: let's keep the bridge for pedestrian and bicycle use only.

Update, February 2018: The bridge is gone, moved to an off-site location for a $7.9 million  "refurbishment." Watch for its return late in 2018. Meanwhile, its former location on the Thames River looks eerily empty without it. Let's hope the bridge returns on schedule.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

A Winter Garden

For many years, drivers hurtling past the intersection of Wonderland and Riverside would notice an empty house on the southwest corner next to McKillop Park. Abandoned because it was on a flood plain next to the Thames River, many would have called it an eyesore in need of demolition.

Yet its foundation was built of lovely stones the original owner collected from the nearby river. One would be hard pressed to find such workmanship and style in many houses built today.

In 2012, an interesting form of adaptive reuse took place. The best part of the structure, the stone foundation, was made into a garden by London Home Builders' Association. The Cancer Surivors Garden opened officially on June 3, 2012 and, as this picture shows, is a pleasant, attractive place even in winter. It's certainly an improvement over the five-storey office building Sifton wanted to build in 2007.

There's a metaphor here, of course. Cancer survivors are in a sense rebuilding their lives on the same foundations. They build their lives back up, stone by stone, just as this long-ago mason built his home. His craftsmanship lives on in this unusual tribute.

Thanks to the London Home Builders' Association for information.
Update: On February 19, 2015, I was pleased to present the London Home Builders' Association an award at the ACO-HLF 8th Annual Heritage Awards. Thanks again for this creative way of preserving our built heritage.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Tea at Eldon

On January 21, Eldon House held a Community Round Table in which patrons could offer suggestions to staff on how to make the house museum even better. The minders of London's oldest home were looking for advice on how to present their artifacts and grounds to make Eldon House an even more meaningful experience than it already is. They were also quite happy to receive suggestions for future fundraising endeavours. All this ties in with the recent "divorce" from Museum London, since, as of January 1, Eldon House is under its own governance with complete control of its collections. The Round Table was well-attended by visitors who jotted down lots of ideas and handed them to staff. Then we had cookies and tea.

It reminds me of another forum I heard about, called "Envison: Help define a new mission for Museum London" held on April 2, 2011. The coordinators of the Museum London workshop  asked participants such questions as, "Who should be served?" and "What should be the primary goal?" I didn't make it to the M.L. event but I'm assured that their staff received several clear suggestions from members of the heritage community as to goals. Like more of London's material culture needs to be on display. And the city really needs an historical museum separate from the art gallery.

I wonder what Museum London did with those suggestions? My guess is they filed them away with their historical artifacts in the basement holding cell. Many of us interested in London's history could still make quite a few suggestions to the "Museum," like:

  • Create a permanent historical display on the founding and growth of London, not just occasional exhibits on specific themes.
  • Allow some of the stored artifacts to actually see the light of day.
  • Encourage more history-related programming.
  • In view of recent events, find a way to keep volunteers happy so they'll stay.
But it seems the real goal of Museum London was to make it look like they wanted community input. They'll continue to be an art gallery calling themselves a museum, while a real museum down the street, Eldon House, provides interesting history related programming for its patrons.