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.