Safeguarding our heritage: It’s time to stop tearing down our history
Heritage buildings are more than just old bricks and mortar. The Empire State Building, Big Ben, and Casa Loma all bring tourists to their cities, and yet form more than just backdrops on selfies or fill check-boxes on bucket lists. Heritage buildings are community assets. They represent the physical portion of a city’s identity — what would Paris be without the Eiffel Tower? In this rapidly changing world, heritage buildings provide a sense of continuity by serving up memorable experiences for generation after generation.
But where is our Big Ben?
Unfortunately many of the area’s oldest, most interesting and historically significant buildings have been lost, many to the great fire of 1861, but many more to a lack of interest in their preservation.
The post office built in 1888 on Kent Street West was commonly known as Lindsay’s Big Ben. It was torn down in 1962 to build the Dominion grocery store, which is now a dollar store. Let’s not forget the Old Mill (1863-1978), the grist mill built by Walker Needler and located on Kent Street East. Once forecast to be re-purposed into a shopping mall, restaurant, library or cultural centre, it sat waiting for its fate to be determined when it was lost to fire.
The beautiful St. Joseph’s Convent was built in 1874 for the Sisters of Loretto and destroyed by fire in 1884 only to be immediately rebuilt. Ultimately, the Sisters moved to Peterborough, and the building was used by Fleming College until 1977 when it was demolished. All that remains is the cupola, which can be seen on a private residence along Highway 7 towards Omemee.
The octagonal house that once stood at the corner of Cambridge Street North and Peel Street was thought to have been built in 1854. If this is correct, then the octagon house survived the great fire, and would have been one of Lindsay’s oldest buildings. Unfortunately, the building needed maintenance and the owner decided to demolish it in 1977. It is now a municipal parking lot.
Though built only in 1906 and not as old or architecturally interesting as some buildings, 2 Glenelg Street West, the former home of Sir Sam Hughes, would surely have drawn tourists. The house was destroyed in February 2000, after the permit to do so was filed in September 1999. The 86-year old owner, who had been renting the building out, said he couldn’t compete with rental rates on newer buildings, so he opted to demolish it. He stated to Lindsay This Week, “I’ve had the building for many years and nobody made any concrete offers to me, it was just talk and I’m not interested in that nonsense.”
Lindsay’s town council knew about the demolition and opted to take no action; Mayor Art Truax said the house was private property and the owner had the right to do what he wished. But the swiftness with which the owner was able to acquire a demolition permit was not unnoticed. As one citizen proclaimed to the Lindsay Daily Post, “If you had a team of Fleet Street lawyers and £2 million, you couldn’t get done in 10 years in England what was done in 90 days in Lindsay.” A commercial building now stands on the property.
Lindsay’s Academy Theatre is often cited as a tourist attraction but even this fabled building was once slated for demolition. It was only because of the efforts of a group of citizens and singer Tommy Hunter that the building was spared the wrecking ball in 1963. Other lovely historic buildings have been converted from single-family homes into apartment buildings and office space. The Horn Bros. Woolen Mill still retains most of its bones, now as an apartment building on William Street North. In Omemee, the municipal services office has been cleverly incorporated into Coronation Hall, a building that was a gift from Lady Eaton. Clearly it’s possible for a municipality to see growth and progress while maintaining heritage.
What does it take to save a heritage building?
Local contractor Pat Murphy is the builder responsible for preserving several locations on historic Cambridge Street North. Murphy began in the industry 40 years ago as a cabinetmaker, then worked in log home construction before moving into timber-frame construction. He’s restored his own home, his neighbour’s home and the Pie Eyed Monk brewery and restaurant. Murphy says that “when you buy a historic home, you do so for the features,” not to gut and modernize; “you expect to incorporate these features” while modernizing and updating the plumbing and electrical to meet code.
Murphy and I met in the kitchen addition to his heritage-designated home, where the former outside back wall is now an interior wall, and the old carved limestone lintel remains, though the window it once graced is now a doorway. The kitchen is entirely modern with heated floors; it’s a beautiful blend of both historic and modern.
When asked what it takes to preserve a heritage building, Murphy replies, “Money.” A high-end heritage building will almost certainly require all new plumbing and wiring to meet today’s standards in building and fire codes, but will also have work originally done by craftsmen, such as carved limestone around windows, gingerbread bargeboard on gables and porches, and hand-carved balustrades on staircases. These artists are harder to find these days and the cost of their work is more than simply installing something off the shelves of Rona.
So for a builder like Murphy, whether a building is preserved or demolished comes down to costs. The Pie Eyed Monk, for example, he says was preserved because it has a larger footprint and thick walls, so demolition would have cost more, and since the new construction would have to fit into the same space, the result would have been a smaller building.
The bylaws for currently designated homes seem to suggest that only locations that have been deemed architecturally significant have been designated. So does a building have to be beautiful to be historically designated? Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site in Dresden, Ontario is a plain, two-storey house of frame construction, but it’s significant for the connection to the Underground Railroad and the anti-slavery movement — not because it has fancy architecture.
When asked about the process for designation, Emily Turner, economic development officer with the City’s Heritage Planning department, says there are nine criteria for designation, of which only three pertain to architecture and another three to historical context. A property only needs to meet one of the nine criteria to be eligible for designation. Beautiful, significant architecture is clearly not the only requirement and Turner says the bylaws for previously designated sites may have been written that way because that was what the writer was focused on. As an example, Turner says, the city approved a bylaw earlier this year to designate a log cabin in the former Somerville township because the log construction was in good condition and it had a historical context tied to the Graham family, early settlers in that area.
So why aren’t more homeowners seeking heritage designation for their homes? Fear of costs is one reason. But contrary to popular belief, heritage designation bears no additional cost to the building owner — not even in increased property taxes. If a property sees increased taxes it’s only because that building has been assessed at a higher rate because it’s had improvements, not for its heritage designation.
The heritage designation process takes time. After the building owner submits an application, background research about the property is done and the application is checked to make sure at least one of the criteria is met, and then the building is photographed. This information is passed on to the municipal Heritage Committee, which assesses the application and decides if it will recommend designation to council. If council approves, the City issues a notice of intent to designate, and gives the public a 30-day objection period. If there are no objections, the bylaw passes and the city has a new designated heritage building. By contrast, demolition permits are issued very quickly — sometimes for the next day.
So what can a community do to preserve buildings that should be saved?
Listing is a process that exists under the Ontario Heritage Act. When a property is listed and the owner files for a permit for demolition, a process is triggered that allows a two-month window for council and municipal staff to do the necessary background research before making a decision to designate or demolish. Anyone can identify a property for listing, whether or not they own the property. Simply contact Turner and the Heritage Committee, who will then present the list to council for approval.
Adding a heritage designation for buildings that are community assets can contribute to the area’s economic growth. Such buildings are physical representations of an area’s history and culture. They attract people from cities and other countries, who might like to take a scenic walk or drive to see these old buildings. Turner says, “Designated properties make people want to live here and are attractive to businesses.”
Which buildings do you consider the must-see buildings of Kawartha Lakes?