Wednesday, October 8, 2014

What do we want for our riverfront?

The County of Middlesex has applied to redevelop the site of the Middlesex County Health Unit, possibly into a 30-storey highrise with 200 residential units and 4,500 sq. ft. of commercial space. The location at 50 King Street overlooks the Forks of the Thames and the Middlesex County building shown at right.

Anyone opposed to the plan has been portrayed by the media, including the London Free Press, as an elitist NIMBY living in a Renaissance penthouse, disturbed by the thought of another tower ruining his view. The heritage perspective has been overlooked, not surprisingly.

This is the historic heart of London. It was at about this spot in March 1793 that Lt.-Gov. Simcoe and his party first arrived at what he called New London. At the southwest corner of King and Ridout, Peter McGregor built his log shanty, becoming the first resident and tavernkeeper on the surveyed town plot. (The Peter McGregor tower is on that site today.) It was here that the London District Jail and Court House was completed in late December 1829. In altered form, the Middlesex County Building, or Old Courthouse as it's generally known, still stands today.

The castle-like Gothic appearance of the Old Courthouse was designed by Toronto architect John Ewart who also designed Osgoode Hall. It is believed to have been modelled after Malahide Castle in Ireland, birthplace of Col. Thomas Talbot. Situated on a hill overlooking the Thames, the Courthouse quickly became a landmark and gathering point, due to its central position in the rapidly developing settlement. The property was used for markets and fairs - and public hangings also drew large crowds from all over. In this building the Donnelly trials took place. Historically, it's the oldest and most important building in Middlesex County.

Ridout Street was London's original north-south thoroughfare. Just to the north across Dundas is the Ridout or Labatt Restoration, a group of commercial buildings once known as "Banker's Row." North of that is Eldon House, the best remaining example of the riverside mansions built for wealthy Londoners, the city's first "suburbia."

A modern highrise on the site of the health unit will dwarf the older buildings, making our heritage appear trivial and insignificant. The Thames may not be the Seine, Mississippi, or even the other Thames in the other London, but surely both the river and surrounding neighbourhood deserve more respect than this. What we need at the Forks are parks, gardens, restaurants, walkways, and historical plaques, not skyrises.

Update, November 2015: Here it is. See what you think of the latest design for the proposed tower. The reporter says it's "sure to impress."

Update, April 2017: Having overcome an OMB hurdle, this development is likely to happen, pending a transportation impact analysis. 

Monday, September 15, 2014

Doors Open Middlesex 2014

St. Andrew's Presbyterian, Napier
In 2014, Doors Open London and Doors Open Middlesex fall on different weekends, allowing adventurous Londoners to explore the wilds of Middlesex County and still view London attractions later in the month. Being restricted to one day of sight-seeing only, I couldn't even fit all the Middlesex locations into my schedule. But the fact that the locations were restricted to the western part of the county, mostly in the Strathroy area, made getting about a little easier.

I chose to drive all the way out to Napier and work my way back towards London. Napier is an idyllic "ghost town," filled with hustle and bustle in the nineteenth century but now a quiet reminder of the Ontario of yesteryear. In an out-of-the-way location on unpaved Napier Road, St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church and surrounding hamlet might be a little hard to find, perhaps explaining why I was the only visitor at the church when I arrived about 1:00. It's disconcerting when there are more volunteers than guests so I hope there were other callers at this quaint 1887 brick building. The inside is plain and simple, not surprising for a structure built by a late-1800s rural congregation, and the sense of peace and calm is palpable. Not that St. Andrew's is a closed church; a small congregation of about 30 is using it for Sunday services. The congregation was founded in 1863 in an earlier church building, making last year a 150th anniversary.

Making my way back to Strathroy, I stopped at the former Strathroy Flour Mills on Albert Street, now home to the Strathroy Brewing Co. I was a little late to join a large tour, so contented myself with a generous sample of 1812 Independence Pale Ale, named to commemorate the fighting spirit that maintained Canada's independence from the United States during the War of 1812. There were considerably more visitors at the brewery than at my first stop, suggesting either that breweries are more popular than churches in general or that Strathroy locations are easier to find than those in Napier. (I suspect both ideas might be right.)

While in town, I also stopped at Strathroy Antiques Mall, not a Doors Open location, but if you like this kind of thing, than it's the kind of thing you'll like, so I thought it was worth a visit. It's very similar to London's Memory Lane with numerous antique vendors packed under one roof. It's wonderful and convenient to have so much material culture assembled in one location but, after a while, everything turns into an historical blur. I managed to escape with only a few items to add to my apartment's clutter of "artifacts."

Finally, I made my way to Delaware to check out the new Middlesex Centre Archives. After campaigning in Middlesex County for years to create a general Middlesex County archives, a committee of heritage-minded citizens finally decided to go ahead on a more local level in 2013. The archives acquires and preserves historical records pertaining to Middlesex Centre, the former London, Lobo, and Delaware townships. Staffed by volunteers, the archives is still operated on professional standards, and well on its way to becoming the nucleus for a future county archives.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

More Summer Rambling

On what stately building in Old South can this gable be found?

Update: Oh, come on now, London, it's been over a year since I posted this. I'll give you a hint. It's a very BIG building in the heart of Wortley Village. Pretend you win a prize if you answer correctly.

London Building Types: Ontario Cottage

One of the most common home styles in London is the Ontario cottage, popular from the early days of settlement right through to the early 20th century. Usually a single storey with a square plan, the Ontario cottage has one or two windows symmetrically placed on either side of a central doorway. A hipped roof slopes from a central point to all four sides. Although small, there's often an extension at the back. And while some are very simple, such as 23 Cathcart Street, shown at right, others have more ornate doorways and decorated gables, like 12 Cathcart Street below.
Some would call "Ontario cottage" a misnomer. The cottage is actually found in many parts of the world and isn't native to Ontario. The style probably received its name because it's prevalent in Ontario and not seen so much in adjoining provinces or states. The style was influenced by Regency architecture, but, in fact, the Regency cottage can be traced back to a style of home brought to England by soldiers who had served in India. Once it became popular, it was naturally transferred to other parts of the Empire.
After a few years in Ontario, the cottage changed a little. The pitch of Ontario roofs is usually steeper than English ones, probably to provide for more insulation against winter weather and to let the accumulation of snow slide off. The pitch was so steep that sometimes a half storey would be added under the roof and a Gothic window added to light the upstairs as in the ornate 47 Bruce Street shown below.

Hundreds of Ontario cottages are scattered throughout London's older neighbourhoods. Often constructed for tradesmen, labourers, and clerks, the Ontario cottage must have been deemed the most practical and affordable home the average person could build. Cottages are still practical as starter homes or for singles and couples not requiring a mansion.

A variation is the side hall plan with the front door on one side. A cute example, shown below, is 1 Dundas Street near the Forks of the Thames, now the First Hussars Museum.
The oldest cottage in the city isn't found in the downtown core, however. Flint Cottage in Springbank Park, below, likely predates any other cottage in our area. Fisherman-turned-builder Robert Flint built the cobblestone buildings well known in the Byron area, including this family homestead, built 1837. The cottage remained in the possession of the Flint family until 1891 when it was bought by the London Board of Commissioners. It became a stop and shelter for the London Street Railway.
Whether downtown, in Old North , Old South, Old East, Soho, Blackfriars, or beyond, there are enough cottage examples in the city to fill several posts.  International and yet home-grown, quaint but somehow stately, the Ontario Cottage has become an integral and charming part of London, Ontario's architectural tradition.


Wednesday, May 28, 2014

London Building Types: Italianate

A walk through London's older neighbourhoods provides fans of Victorian buildings with some true architectural delights. One of the more commonly found housing styles is the Italianate which must have been a favourite among London's builders.

The term Italianate stems from the Italian villas, particularly those of Tuscany, that inspired the style. The villas were built for the Florentine elite during the Renaissance but English architects, searching for a new look, went for it in a big way in the 1800s. The fact that Queen Victoria's husband, Prince Albert, designed Osborne House in the Italian villa style helped popularize the look.

It's a giant leap from Renaissance villas and royal palaces to the Italianate homes of London, Ontario. The square towers didn't appear here at all. Nevertheless, an extremely scaled down version of Italianate become popular throughout the province from about 1860 to 1890 and London has numerous examples.

23 Peter Street, built about 1873, could be a textbook illustration of an Italianate house. The low-hipped roof, wide eaves, double brackets, and elongated windows are typical of the style. Bricks form segmental arches over the windows and doorway and there are brick pilaster strips at the corners of the building. A blue historic plaque has been placed on this house and a sign to the right of the door tells us this was once the home of Rowland Dennis, Ironmonger, in 1875. Mr. Dennis owned Forest City Wire Works, specializing in fencing, railings, crestings, finials, and stable fixtures. By 1895, his company had been renamed Dennis Wire & Iron Works.

On the other hand, 505 Talbot, now dwarfed by the apartment building behind it, might be described as an Italianate mansion. Still the low-hipped roof, wide eaves (in this case with a frieze), large paired brackets, and elongated windows, but on a much grander scale with a two-storey central projection and nice trim above the second-storey windows. This one was built for James Owrey, a director of Agricultural Savings and Loan Co., about 1881. The brick has been painted and dormer windows added. Houses such as this one indicate this stretch of Talbot Street must once have been a prestigious neighbourhood. 

Update, September 2015: Go look at 505 Talbot while there's still time. Sadly, even though it was listed as a Priority 1 on London's heritage inventory, this is one of the buildings scheduled for demolition by Tricar to make way for a 30-storey tower.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Talbot Estate Today

The news that the old Thomas Talbot estate is up for sale for $6.3 million should come as no surprise. The property has had numerous owners since Talbot himself lived there. But no one since him has ever known quite what to do with the 300 hectare lakefront property and it'll be interesting to see if anyone ever does. 

Colonel Talbot himself arrived in 1803 and established Port Talbot, heart of the Talbot Settlement. Among the earliest structures in the area were forts to defend against American attack, mills, a distillery, numerous warehouses, and Talbot's own long, rambling home.

After Talbot's death in London in 1853, the family of his assistant, George Macbeth, inherited his estate. In 1925, the land was acquired by a group of Detroit businesmen who planned to build a luxury resort complete with hotel and golf course. But the Depression ended their plans and the property has passed from hand to hand ever since. Talbot's derelict house was demolished in 1997, a sad ending for the home that was the heart of Elgin County's earliest settlement.

The roadside cairn shown above acts as a monument to the Talbot Settlement, the founder himself, and his little troop of hardy pioneers. It was erected by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada in 1926, at a time when Talbot's house was still standing nearby. One can't help but feel that if Talbot's home were in the U.S., it'd still be there, preserved as a pioneer museum. In a country with respect for its heritage, there'd be more than this cairn to look at.