In the past two decades London has become much more focused on preserving its heritage buildings.
We now have a number of heritage districts, whole neighbourhoods where special rules are in effect to preserve the landscape for future generations. The most recent one, approved by city council in May, is the Blackfriars Heritage Conservation District on the west side of the Thames River facing downtown.
But it took the massive destruction of the Talbot Block downtown in the late 1980s to really get London residents, and eventually city council, riled up about the issue. That’s when the site was cleared of architecturally worthy century-old retail shops and walk-up apartments to make room for a shopping centre that never got built.
Today it’s the location of Budweiser Gardens, the structure of which contains a replica of the old Horton Street in the corner facing Dundas.
Destruction of our past on that scale shouldn’t happen again, says Don Menard, the city’s heritage planner, if for no other reason than there are rules in place to prevent it. As well, today there is far more documentation of London’s heritage stock, an inventory of more than 2,000 buildings.
Many of those buildings have received special commendation because most of their original architectural features have been retained or because of their attachment to historic characters or events. Examples would be Eldon House, 481 Ridout, the oldest residence in the city built in 1834; or the old Hawthorne Hotel, now the Arts Project, 203 Dundas Street, built in 1873.
What makes any old building worthy, Mr. Menard says, is the design value, historic association or contextual value. Those with high marks in any of those categories can get added to the city’s heritage list, although not without the owner’s consent.
It’s a misnomer to say a building designated as a heritage property can’t be changed. In fact many are, sometimes for safety reasons or to expand the use. What the city is trying to protect, though, is the view from the street. So rooflines and design features, window and door styles – things you see as you drive by – must be retained.
“It’s not true that designation means a building is frozen in time,” he says. “We don’t take as hard a line as some communities. Changes can happen to any designated property, but they do require approval from the city. In recent years, for example, we’ve allowed asphalt roofing tiles because the original slate is prohibitively expensive to replace.
“Window technology is an issue, sometimes in fact the old ones are better. We allow replacement in the same style.”
But sometimes, he says, “we accept we’ve got to lose them. We look at which buildings are important and try to work with owners to retain the streetscapes, perhaps to set back the higher floors so someone walking past still has the sense of the older building.”
This is not to say, though, the city’s hands are tied. The city can refuse a permit for demolition of a heritage building, a decision which can be appealed to the Ontario Municipal Board. An unauthorized demolition can bring a fine up to $100,000, or even jail time.
Going forward the city’s determination to protect our heritage may expand, at least that’s a recommendation in the new Official Plan now before council.
Philip McLeod, a longtime London journalist, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org