Thursday, July 2, 2015

Another Sign of the Times

The plaque dedicated to William Saunders has been stolen from Campbell Park on Dundas Street.  Saunders (1836-1914) was a local botanist and agriculturalist. He bought a farm east of London in 1869, planted fruit trees and began experiments in hybridization. He also found time to help establish the Canadian Pharmaceutical Society, be a director of Huron and Erie Savings and Loan, and teach in Western's medical school. Saunders Secondary School is named after him. If you want to see what his plaque looked like, see here.

This isn't the only sign stolen recently. Missing from Gibbons Park are the Historic Sites & Monuments Board plaque to the IJC (International Joint Commission), the dedication plaque on the foot bridge, and numerous family memorials on benches or near trees. Meanwhile, at Eldon House, a cast iron garden cherub has apparently flown away.

The thieves are hoping to sell these items as scrap metal but it's apparent not every metal recycler will take them without evidence of ownership. Once the thefts make the news, its even more difficult to sell "hot" metal. Notice that the thieves who stole the bell from Brick Street School found it too difficult to dispose of and eventually returned it. But it's too much to hope that many of these bits and pieces will be brought back.

Let's all keep our eyes open for these items. And if you see anyone trying to steal some of our remaining plaques and monuments - from parks, museum grounds, or cemeteres - call the police. London's memories are not scrap.

Update, July 21 - Well, at least the Eldon House cherub has returned, as mysteriously as it disappeared.

Update, September - Now a baseball-themed birdhouse designed by Gordon Harrison has been stolen from Labatt Park. The birdhouse wasn't historic but it's been a nifty addition to the ball park since it was donated in 2013. Why can't some people see something attractive without feeling they have to have it for themselves?

Update, October - The birdhouse has just been found nearby on Wilson Avenue, undamaged and complete. It will soon be back at Labatt Park.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Opportunity on King

Southside Group wants to demolish 183 King Street, built 1892. Not for any particular reason, mind you. According to Paul Hubert, Chair of London's Planning Committee, Southside has no stated plans for a replacement structure. And although empty, the Second Empire style building isn't falling down, isn't an eyesore, and just happens to be in the Downtown London Heritage Conservation District.

So here's an opportunity. An opportunity to create attractive offices, charming condos or apartments. An opportunity for a restaurant or night club to open on the ground floor. An opportunity for new residents, employees or visitors to drive through the old carriageway to park behind. An opportunity to inject some more life into this section of King Street. An opportunity for adaptive reuse, which is what a creative city does with its historic buildings.

I'd like to suggest a new heritage organization for London. One that attempts to connect buyers or tennants with appropriate heritage buildings so that the structures are used, not empty and deteriorating. An opportunity like this just shouldn't be missed.

Update, June 16: Southside, through their lawyer, is now suggesting a compromise in which the developer preserves "some heritage aspects" of the building while making room for a highrise. In other words, preserving the façade. Perhaps the carriageway could be the entrance to the underground parking garage? Or maybe they could paste some bricks on the outside of the new tower, making it reminiscent of the Talbot Block/Budweiser Centre?

Update, January 15, 2016: Developer Vito Frijia states 179-181 and 183 King constitute a "fire trap" that's "beyond repair." Sounds like he's been practicing demolition by neglect already. Since the city has told Frijia at least the façade should be preserved, he intends to take his case to the Ontario Municipal Board. The city wants additional heritage protection for the buildings, but that means a) saving the front 30% only, and b) if they're destroyed, they have to be "rebuilt." Rebuilt? Like Adam Beck's home? A "rebuilt" structure is no longer a heritage building. Why can't the developer just build in the parking lot next door?

Update, May 16, 2016: A city-requested engineering report states that the blue building, 179-181 King, is too run down to save. The report does not extend to 183 King next door.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

South Street Heritage

At a City Hall Planning and Environment Committee meeting on Monday, March 8th, City Planner John Fleming recommended saving two of the former Victoria Hospital buildings on South Street, the Colborne building and the original part of the War Memorial Children’s Hospital, built 1922. There are other older buildings on the site, namely the Medical Services Building, Gartshore Nurses’ Residence, and a row of 1950s buildings on Hill Street.

War Memorial Children's Hospital

Time constraints usually prevent me from attending city planning meetings but I made it to this one. There was an awesome moment when Ward 4 Councillor Jesse Helmer made a motion to save all four buildings on South Street – awesome because it isn’t often we hear a city politician make an impassioned plea to save a heritage streetscape. Unfortunately, his motion didn’t get a seconder. In the end, the committee voted to keep the Medical Services Building, the original 1922 section of the War Memorial building, and the Colborne building across the street. Imagine, London councillors actually voting to save more than what was recommended.

For the most part I’m pleased. Tearing down the War Memorial Children’s Hospital would have been a poor way to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the First World War. The oldest section was built in 1922 with funds raised by the IODE. The top is graced with four urns, symbols of mourning, with three carved wreaths below. The boarded-up Colborne building across the street, built 1899, is now the oldest remaining hospital building on the site.

Colborne Building
There are large costs involved in saving these buildings, including security, abatement (the removal of hazardous materials), and carrying costs of about $1 million a year until the buildings are sold. Abatement shouldn’t be an important issue, though, because hazardous materials have to be removed whether the buildings are saved or demolished. But then, if the city is going to spend the money to save three buildings, why not spend a bit more and save all four?

The problem is that the nurses’ residence was built as a dormitory and therefore had very small rooms. It simply didn’t lend itself to much in the way of adaptive reuse. It would have been nice to have at least saved its façade, though. I’m not generally in favour of what’s been called facadism, but saving the façade might look less peculiar than plunking an entire modern building onto an early twentieth-century street.

Gartshore Nurses' Residence
As for the mid-century modern buildings on Hill Street, I’ll stick with my unpopular opinion  that mid-twentieth century is when architecture ended and unsightliness began. No doubt Growing Concern Day Care centre, currently housed in the former Crippled Children’s Treatment Centre, would like to stay where it is, but the building is about to become a victim of progress. One hopes the replacement buildings will look better, not worse.

Speaking of those new buildings, we have no idea what they’ll be. Imagine a city tearing down almost an entire complex of buildings without having the faintest idea what they’re going to replace them with. Will the space be filled with condos? Offices? A commercial centre for a newly-revitalized SoHo? Perhaps the site of the old Victoria Hospital is where we’ll build our performing arts centre?

Update, September 2015: Next month the City of London intends to send out a request to developers for proposals. I hope whatever is built on this site will fit in with the neighbourhood's heritage and history. But developers, of course, will build whatever they think will earn them the most money and that's rarely sympathetic infill.

Update, September 2017: The Colborne Building has been given a heritage designation by Planning & Environment Committee. 

Update, April 2018: At last the city has begun the design process to redevelop the old Victoria Hospital lands. A contract has been awarded by council to Dillon Consulting, to be completed over the next two years. Construction could start as early as 2020 on two apartment towers and other projects. Let's hope the remaining buildings can be incorporated into the overall design.