Special Report: Heritage

The Brandon House - In Memoriam

Let's let Brandon House be not just a tragedy, but the catalyst for change.

By Shannon Kyles
Published April 16, 2020

The Brandon House at 262 Wilson Street in Ancaster was a key feature of the town's main street, providing a delightful structure that was distinctly Canadian.

Brandon House (Image Credit: Ancaster Township History)
Brandon House (Image Credit: Ancaster Township History)

An old stone Ontario farmhouse constructed by expert craftsmen, its charming bay window overlooked lush hedges, giant trees and a gently cascading lawn. Built in an era when people either walked or were transported by horse power, part of the day's nutrition was gathered from drinking in the sound of birds, smelling the flowers and grass, and stopping to notice the play of sunlight on a dappled surface.

People read poetry. The population was versed in the language of beauty and 'the picturesque'. Now the frantic tizzy of beeping devices, enclosed vehicles and hermetically sealed living units forces people to learn 'mindful meditation' in order to appreciate what was once taken for granted.

Outpouring of Grief

The Brandon House has always been considered a gem by those who appreciate good architecture. The outpouring of grief seen on Facebook or Reddit when pictures of the demolition were published bears witness to the multitude of Ancaster residents, past and present, who adored the building.

Even people once employed by the city's building and culture departments were astonished that it had not been Designated. In Ontario terms, 'Designated' means protected under the Ontario Heritage Act (OHA).

These same people might be surprised that the Hanley building beside the Coach and Lantern is similarly unprotected. That property will soon be replaced by another multi-storey condo. In fact very little of Ancaster is protected, and, after today, we have only ourselves to blame..

For those unfamiliar with the process, 'protection' of a building is a long and difficult process, while obtaining a demolition permit is easy. As Rob Ziegler of The Cotton Factory has noted "In Ontario, it takes 4 weeks to get a demolition permit and yet it took me almost 2 years and tens of thousands of dollars to get the Cotton Factory designated (with the full support and assistance of the City)."

Three Levels of Heritage Designation

There are three levels through which a building must pass before it is protected. First it must be added to the city's inventory. Then it must be registered as being identified for designation. Then it can be designated. Each of these steps requires its own stages of delegations to a subcommittee, then the municipal heritage committee, then to city council.

The initiative to designate is up to concerned citizens, by and large. Property owners rarely nominate their own for designation with the mistaken idea that they can no longer make any repairs or changes to the property. Designation applies only to the street facade of the building. Interior changes and non-street facades can be changed at will.

The Brandon House was identified as an important historic building decades before the town of Ancaster was amalgamated with Hamilton in 2001. Before amalgamation, each town had a list of designated properties. In some municipalities all properties were automatically rolled over to the heritage registry upon amalgamation. In Ancaster, this did not take place.

Hamilton runs a web page where heritage buildings are identified as Inventoried (yellow), Registered (orange) or Designated (purple). As you can see from the map taken from the Hamilton Heritage website, only five properties along Wilson Street were designated. The rest were simply added to the Inventory. In other words, there is no protection for anything except those five properties.

Heritage designated properties in downtown Ancaster (Source: City of Hamilton)
Heritage designated properties in downtown Ancaster (Source: City of Hamilton)

The vast majority of heritage buildings in Ancaster, Dundas and Waterdown were simply Inventoried. In the case of the Brandon House, both a former owner Joanna Speller and the Ancaster Historical Society asked for it to be designated, but these appeals were simply filed.

No Protection from Demolition Without Designation

Many properties that are on the Inventory meet criteria for Designation but they have no protection from demolition until they are Designated. First they must be Listed.

The second level in the process is having a building Listed in the Registry. These are seen in orange on the website. This means they are protected by a 60 day period in which the community can voice its concerns. There is no guarantee that it cannot be demolished.

The third level of protection is having the building Designated. These buildings, seen in purple, are almost immune from destruction. Several cases of having buildings unDesignated have come up and some have been successful. Europeans, of course, find this 'gob-smacking.'

The official process of designation is carried out by staff in the Heritage Planning Office with the help of volunteers. A group of engaged citizens sit on the Hamilton Municipal Heritage Committee (HMHC). This volunteer committee is set up to oversee any activity on heritage properties. It is an advisory committee to city council. Four working groups are set up to aid HMHC. The only paid person is the one in charge of taking minutes of the meetings.

Staff are present at most meeting but are not members of the committee. There are often asked to present or answer questions. The Inventory Research Working group provides background for buildings to be registered and designated. These volunteers provide preliminary heritage evaluations.

Once properties are identified by the Inventory Research Working group as being important, they are added to a list that would eventually be given to a roster of consultants that the city consults to complete the reports.

Work Plan

The Inventory Research Working currently has a Work Plan with a list of buildings that, at the current rate of approval, would take a decade to get through. The Brandon House was not on that work plan.

However, if a significant building such as the Brandon House was identified as being under threat, it may be given to the Inventory Research Working Group for consideration and be bumped up and given priority. Constraints in this process are clearly time and budget. The list of buildings on Inventory is huge. At current rates of processing, it might take a century to get through it.

If an owner applies for a demolition permit on an Inventoried building, the most that heritage planning staff can do is ask for a Documentation and Salvage Report. This was done for the Brandon House, but this information was not shared with neither the Hamilton Municipal Heritage Committee nor the Inventory Research Working group.

Speller's letter requesting designation, written December 2019, was submitted as an addendum to the HMHC monthly meeting in February. This was three working days before the Demolition Permit was approved. (All documentation regarding HMHC meetings and agenda items is available to the public at the City of Hamilton Meetings page).

Comprehensive List of Heritage Sites

Hamilton probably has the most comprehensive and well-researched list of heritage sites of any City in Canada, thanks to Nina Chapple, Hamilton's Heritage Planner for many years, and Ann Gillespie, heritage consultant.

Following the shocking demolition of the Birks Building in 1973, an army of City of Hamilton staff, students and volunteers worked tirelessly to list and designate a series of heritage buildings in Hamilton.

Another frenzy of activity ensued in 2014 when several key buildings in Hamilton were threatened with demolition. The tireless efforts of Diane Dent, the Durand Association and a large selection of heritage advocates, aided by the efforts of the new City Planner Jason Thorne, resulted in a great many buildings being Registered and quite a few being Designated.

The take-away point here is 'Hamilton' properties. Both the Durand district and the Downtown district saw large numbers of properties registered en masse. Waterdown, under the direction of Councillor Judi Partridge, managed to register a large amount as well. Other communities are left waiting. If we want to protect our buildings, it is up to us to push for that change. Otherwise it will not happen.

Amalgamation Removed Local Control

In 2001, when the Province forcibly amalgamted the City of Hamilton with the towns of Ancaster, Binbrook, Dundas, Stoney Creek and Waterdown, these communities had successfully guarded and maintained their built heritage. A request to save a much-loved school, home or town hall was directed to people who lived in the town, went to the school or got married in the town hall.

Since then, any attempt to save a structure has to be heard first by a building department that has a hard-working core of heritage staff but no Chief Heritage Planner possessing both familiarity with the area and the clout to do something about it.

There is rapid turnover in the capable but junior ranks of the Heritage office who are often hired only on contract. If your attempt at designation is unsuccessful, you can plead your case to the 13 City Councillors, who have to date demonstrated neither awareness of architectural value nor interest in built heritage. We need to change the political will of this city.

As pressure grows from the Ontario government to increase populations in Southern Ontario, the requirements to demolish heritage buildings seems to have become more slack. Ten years ago, Rosemary Cottage, a beauty in the Regency style, had stood in Ancaster since 1790. Its 'new' addition had been added in 1830s. It was rolled over during Amalgamation to the Inventory but no one had asked for a Designation.

The fact that the building was unstable due to dry rot was not considered reason enough for this gorgeous home to be demolished. Still, a full Heritage Impact Assessment was required before a Demolition Permit was granted.

Now Brandon House, perfectly stable and lovingly cared for also Inventoried pre-amalgmation but with no structural issues and two recent requests for Designation on file, was not considered worthy enough to have its Documentation and Salvage Report properly distributed. No HIA was required. Demolition rubber stamped.

Popular sentiment might be directed towards believing that the property at Rosemary Lane would support only two houses, just doubling the tax base, where the property at Wilson and Rousseau could provide much more tax if a multi-unit condo went in (based on commentary on Facebook and Reddit).

Or is this just the result of junior heritage staff, no Chief Heritage Planner, and no political will on the part of Councillor Lloyd Ferguson?

Act Now to Protect Heritage

Ancaster is exploding, as is Dundas, Waterdown, Binbrook and Stoney Creek. For those who want to save our small town architecture and small town atmosphere, we need to act now. Past this point, we now how the process works and we must be proactive in making the changes that we want.

First, we need to let our politicians know that heritage is a priority. Next, we need to gather in groups (the very thought of that is quite wonderful at this point) and creating working associations and plans to save our communities.

The developers are not the enemy. New condo buildings do not remain empty. The City of Hamilton does its best with limited resources.

We must make it obvious that we want our towns maintained. We can't just sit back and expect that someone else will do it. Let's let Brandon House be not just a tragedy, but the catalyst for change.

Shannon Kyles runs ontarioarchitecture.com, is an executive member of Architectural Conservancy of Ontario, has taught History of Architecture at Mohawk College for 32 years, does the architecture column on CBC's Fresh Air and has written for Arabella and Acrorn magazines.

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By positive1@cogeco.ca (registered) | Posted April 17, 2020 at 08:09:47

Excellent article Shannon. A couple of points stood out - 1. " ... the most that heritage planning staff can do is ask for a Documentation and Salvage Report. This was done for the Brandon House, but this information was (not) shared with neither the Hamilton Municipal Heritage Committee nor the Inventory Research Working group." This is disturbing and indicates that there are issues with the process itself. Concerned citizens, following the long, arduous process leading to designation, are at one point, arbitrarily shut out for no reason that I can ascertain, leaving one to assume that the process itself is a sham or 'window dressing'. 2. "... protection' of a building is a long and difficult process, while obtaining a demolition permit is easy."
Why do we value empty parking lots or often (but not exclusively) poorly built new structures, slapped up in a few months over a well-crafted, beautifully proportioned building with historical and heritage value? The charm of Ancaster 'Village' is not derived from the endless suburban tracts that you can find anywhere near large urban areas in Anytown, Canada. No the beauty and charm of Ancaster lies in the gorgeous, historical residences and commercial buildings, churches, hotels etc that front onto Wilson St. Why the local councillor is uninterested in this is puzzling. Is it really worth demolishing these valuable assets for a few dollars more in tax assessment? Obviously, for some, with little or no knowledge of the town's history or heritage, it is. As Joni Mitchell sang, "You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone". Kyles suggests, "you can plead your case to the 13 City Councillors, who have to date demonstrated neither awareness of architectural value nor interest in built heritage. We need to change the political will of this city." I believe that a small number of councillors may not fit this description but nevertheless, if we care about preserving what we currently have in terms of our built heritage, we must write or email all our councillors regarding this matter. Here is a link to their email addresses: https://www.hamilton.ca/council-committe... Grant Ranalli, Hamilton

Comment edited by positive1@cogeco.ca on 2020-04-17 08:10:27

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By grok (registered) | Posted April 28, 2020 at 19:22:21

Capitalism knows no limits on its sociopathic grasping after endless filthy lucre. FINANCIAL Capitalism makes this process OBSCENE on the face of it.

Condo speculation IS the financialization of what USED to be a REAL economy. Let's get these parasites OUT OF HAMILTON. And that STARTS with 'City Hall'...

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