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.