The great wall: Council votes to take down ‘unsafe’ wall at Olde Gaol

By Kirk Winter

“Our engineers have said the walls are unsafe,” Mayor Andy Letham said. Photo: Roderick Benns

In a battle of conflicting expert reports, Kawartha Lakes has decided to take the advice of their own staff and voted to approve the demolition of the majority of the walls that currently surround the courtyard of the Olde Gaol Museum at 50 Victoria Avenue North in Lindsay.

In what seemed like the tale of two very different sets of walls, the Kawartha Lakes Municipal Heritage Committee (KLMHC) argued that the walls should remain as they are safe for the short term and that no further talk of demolition be broached until the completion of the cultural centre feasibility study and the long-term use of the space decided in alignment with the Cultural Master Plan. The city, led by Mayor Andy Letham, said of the same walls that “they were unsafe and this issue needs to be dealt with now because at the end of the day you can’t have unsafe walls.”

Athol Hart, chair of the Kawartha Lakes Municipal Heritage Committee, made an impassioned virtual deputation to council citing a number of reasons why the walls should not be demolished that covered issues including the exclusion of KLMHC from the negotiation of the lease at the Olde Gaol by the Historical Society, the issue of what is designated as historically protected and what isn’t, the structural soundness of the walls and the presence of corpses in the courtyard who cannot be disturbed under the Cemeteries Act .

Hart made it clear that “everything onsite is designated of historical significance including all buildings and walls. It does not matter when the walls were built; they are still designated.”

“The integrity of the walls (is) good,” Hart said. “The walls were built to Ministry of Corrections standards and an inspection in 2009 by Wilcox Architects stated the walls are solid with full foundations. Only the capstones have deteriorated and they can be repaired and replaced. The deterioration has been caused by lack of city maintenance.”

Hart reminded council that there are three bodies buried in the courtyard, reflecting the use of the property as first a jail for hangings and then a work house for people down on their luck.

“Those bodies are protected by provincial legislation and there is a $250,000 fine for tampering with a non-registered cemetery,” Athol said.

Athol told council that with all the information he provided, it makes the most sense to await the task force report looking at the new cultural centre and to make decisions about the fate of the walls once the committee’s recommendations are made available.

Letham extracted the demolition issue for more debate, and argued that the walls need to come down, and with the $200,000 for the work already set aside in a previous budget it is time to get the work started before someone or something is hurt or damaged by falling debris.

“Our engineers have said the walls are unsafe,” Letham said. “This needs to be dealt with now and we have months old engineering reports that indicate the walls are unsafe.”

Councillor Doug Elmslie asked if the city inspection of the walls had been just visual, if core samples had been taken or if x-rays had been made.

Manager of parks, recreation and culture, Jenn Johnson, replied, “In 2016 a full inspection was done of the east wall. We have been monitoring the walls since and the walls are unsafe.”

Councillor Ron Ashmore, who sits on the Municipal Heritage Committee, was very concerned about the plan to tear down the walls.

In what seemed like the tale of two very different sets of walls, the Kawartha Lakes Municipal Heritage Committee (KLMHC) argued that the walls should remain as they are. Photo: Roderick Benns.

“We went in to take a look at the courtyard,” Ashmore said. “It was a ghastly site. There was stuff everywhere. If the walls come down everything that is stored there will be exposed to the street. Are we going to replace the walls? What kind of perimeter are we going to provide?”

“If we tear the wall down,” Ashmore speculated, “we might as well tear the whole thing (wall and jail building) down.”

Councillor Kathleen Seymour-Fagan wanted to know who was responsible for the “ghastly” conditions found in the old jail courtyard, and the mayor replied, “The tenant (The Victoria County Historical Society).”

Johnson said that a site cleanup has already begun and the garbage is being removed. Johnson also said that director of parks, recreation and culture, Craig Shanks, is hoping that once the walls come down the site might remain for use of the Victoria County Historical Society.

Ashmore made one more plea for the walls to remain saying, lots of activities went on in its courtyard “when it was well maintained.”

“What do they (the museum) do when the walls come down? If the walls come down I fear the whole building will come down. I believe the walls are strong. I also believe that the demolition cost will exceed the $200,000 allocated.”

Economic development officer Emily Turner, Councillor Tracy Richardson, Emmett Yeo and Deputy-Mayor Pat O’Reilly spoke strongly in favour of demolition.

“Staff from engineering state the walls are unsafe,” Turner began.

“You can see the sky through the walls,” Richardson said, “and that is not good.

“This (demolition) has been on the books for a long time,” said Yeo. “It needs to be dealt with and hopefully we can keep a piece of the wall for history’s sake.”

“This is a safety issue,” O’Reilly said, “and I hope the courtyard can be repurposed as public open space.”

Letham wrapped up the argument for those on council favouring demolition saying, “If it isn’t safe it isn’t safe. We have to rely upon the experts”

Council approved the demolition 7-1 with Ashmore the lone dissenting voice. A timeline for demolition was not announced.

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