As a citizen and member of the larger community, the meddlesome pundit does have a legitimate interest in the fate of heritage buildings.
By Shawn Selway
Published February 07, 2013
It is contrary to the interests of public policy if contractors, like feudal barons of ancient times, are permitted to have responsible public servants posturing as if they were personal lackeys.
-- City Solicitor Ken Rouff, 1971, in a submission to the judge conducting the inquiry into the construction of Hamilton City Hall, cited in Freeman and Hewitt, Their Town.
Blanking. East side of James between King and Main. Wasn't there a building here, not too long ago? I can't quite remember...
Last October, David Blanchard, (Wilson Blanchard), having acquired most of the block bounded by King, Main, James, and Hughson streets, including the Union Gas building and the HSBC bank, as well as 18-28 King on the Gore, announced his firm's intention to build something or other there.
Mr. Blanchard's firm naturally wishes to maximize the square footage available for its projects, and the price at which that footage can be sold or leased. The latter is determined by location and design and the income of potential tenants.
In order to increase footage or attract preferred tenants, it is not clear which, Wilson Blanchard wants to remove 18-28 King. This proposal has provoked strong resistance from the growing numbers of Hamiltonians who wish development to occur without further loss and degradation of the existing building stock.
Mr. Blanchard was putting up a trial balloon -- the second of Operation Gore. The first was the shotgun alley he ran through at 30 King Street East in May 2011. Although the building was registered by the City on its Inventory of Buildings of Architectural and/or Historical Interest, Wilson Blanchard had no trouble obtaining a demolition permit.
Whatever might become of the rest of the dominos in this row, the gap at 30 gave access to the core of the block from King Street. (It would be interesting to know who owns the alley in the rear, as it is obviously of importance to servicing the buildings on the Gore in that block.)
Floating the demolition of 18-28 is causing a good deal more turbulence, but as it stands today Blanchard Wilson is close to being rid of 24 and 28. He will be able to deal with 18, 20, and 22, which remain unprotected, at a later date - presumably when there are spiffier renderings and firmer plans for the condos which he wants to sell into an implausibly crowded market that includes the Connaught and the Vranich buildings under construction on Main.
18-28 King rear ie looking north from Main Street. Bank of Nova Scotia to the left, HSBC on the left.
What has been most interesting in this episode is that the developer seems prepared to engage in a discussion which the city seems unwilling to have. In fact, even taking Mr Blanchard's words with the scepticism due to a developer's public pronouncements, city staff has appeared more eager to demolish than to explore possibilities with he and his architect.
The City of Hamilton does not owe Blanchard Wilson any particular rate of return on their real estate speculations. However, the City does have a duty not to devalue Mr Blanchards's property by, for example, allowing a building contractor to deposit truckloads of dirt in Gore Park.
Council also has a responsibility to protect and transmit the best of the past, and a representative sample, to the future.
And if the community insists on their interest in the cultural landscape, and persuades their representatives to act upon it, then the community may also wish Council to pony up some cash -- on the principle that is unfair to impose new obligations without also providing some means to meet those obligations.
The key word here is new. Mr Blanchard knows very well the significance of the Gore, and the possibility that some or all of those buildings could be designated, and surely has reckoned with the implications.
The fact is, the City and the Province have what amounts to a lien on properties in a historic district like the Gore, through the provisions of the Ontario Heritage Act.
If he were unable to demolish, Mr. Blanchard would just do business as usual, and distribute the costs of renovating the historic buildings, along with all his other costs, among the eventual tenants of whatever project he realizes on the parcel.
The Gore has been extremely important in the life of Hamilton, not only as a ceremonial site and public amenity but also commercially, and these uses are tightly intertwined. Even the fountain (1859, 1996), sponsored by a bank, was installed not only as an ornament but as an advertisement.
The builders of the first waterworks wanted to make a display of a crucial economic asset: clean, pressurized running water. Before the reservoir on the side of the mountain was even connected to the pumphouse, the city fire brigade hooked their hoses to the new mains and shot water over a four story building.
The commercial message: build your hotel or factory here, and when your neighbour's building catches fire, we will put it out before yours goes with it.
Gore Park fountain advertised a comparative advantage. It still does. Almost everyone has clean running water and a fire service now, but few have anything comparable to our stock of historic buildings coupled with our lakeside situation, and no other town in southern Ontario has a feature like the Gore.
In addition to its duty to protect cultural resources, Council also has responsibilities toward the environment. No building should go to the dump before a very close comparison is made in terms of lost materials and embedded energy. (No, it is not the case that all new structures are more energy efficient than all old ones.)
Not demolition but adaptive reuse is the responsible default position, whether the building is of historic or architectural importance or not. However, preservation and adaptive re-use are not always complementary. They can conflict, and as it happens a Blanchard building serves as a very good example of the problem.
The Spectator, approving the demolition of 24 and 28 King but with reservations (Compromise on Gore plan is a win-win, Jan 17 2013) reminded its readers that
"Blanchard has, in the past, demonstrated his commitment to preserving Hamilton's heritage, through his involvement in the redevelopment of the Piggot, Landed Bank and Gowlings buildings."
(Gowlings is the former Bank of Montreal 1929.) Not mentioned is 1 Hunter East (1954, 2007), formerly 74 Hughson South, also a Blanchard Wilson effort and by no means a work of preservation; indeed, it was an alteration so drastic as to obliterate the previous building.
I introduce this not to diminish Mr. Blanchard's reputation for thoughtful stewardship of historic properties, which is irrelevant anyway: keeping one building or ten does not give you a license to destroy the next one. Rather, the treatment of 1 Hunter shows how sharp a conflict can arise between the adaptive re-use of a building and the preservation of its historic integrity.
Hamilton Health Department,74 Hughson Street South, c.1954 Source: HPL Local History and Archives.
Designed by the city architect, Stanley Roscoe, for the City's Public Health Department and completed in 1954, it is essentially a steel frame supporting floors of highly finished prefabricated concrete slabs and sheathed in brick ie an early instance of the modular approach that is now the standard for low-rise non-residential construction.
It was equipped with roll-away cabinetry and furniture, some new and some rehabilitated. The dental chair was "refurbished with some new parts, fresh upholstery and a coast of green paint. The latter was a $300 job...A new dental chair costs $800. Then there is the old examining table rejuvenated by an automobile shop by a thorough scraping and a new coat of gleaming white enamel --and finally dressed up with a foam rubber cover." (Spectator June 5 1954)
1 Hunter Street East.
This building sat empty for some years before receiving its current form in 2007, which differs greatly from the original. A new floor was added, and many other changes were made to the facades. Had this building been designated, with the consequent requirement of approval for alterations, the east elevation, which was the main entrance as built, would certainly have appeared on the list of elements of significance, and its complete removal would not have been approved. Similarly the insertion of the elevator shaft in the south elevation, which would likely have been moved to the rear.
If we had this building as it was, across from the GO station (former TH&B 1933, 1996) along with the Ed Centre (1966) across from the City Hall (1960, 2010), we would have an interesting set of modernist institutional buildings of all scales, to go along with the wonderful set of modernist houses that were featured in the Sleek shows (Crawford, Butler, Tessier, 2010, 2012) lately mounted at History and Heritage.
We would have, in short, a richer cultural landscape, interesting and instructive not only to us and our children, but to newcomers and visitors as well.
On the other hand, the Hamilton Health building did not go to the landfill, and as an adaptive reuse which was also a re-design of the building, this seems successful. (Personally, I like the glass elevator shaft with its exposed mechanisms quite a lot.)
The land is in use and presumably the developer is making money. But new problems will arise down the road, when, about 2035, the choice to adapt, restore or demolish comes around again.
Would we insist this thing be kept as an example of early 21st century rehabilitation as well as mid-century modernism? Maybe restore? But what is going on under that stucco? Is there a parting layer between the styrofoam and the brick, or was the insulation laid on with an adhesive, in which case the brick face is coming off with it. And so on...
Was the rehab the best choice? Preferable might have been the upgrade of services but retention of the historic exterior details, which are in the public space, but with the addition of the extra floor to increase income.
But then would we have an occupied building, or any structure at all on this corner? The point is, every case must be considered in detail and on its merits, and it is not easy to get the right mix.
Similarly with those buildings on the Gore.
It is absurd to accept that century-old buildings (160 years old in one instance) be discarded without thorough investigation and careful thought. Where is the diligence due to buildings of this age and prominence on the part of staff and Council?
A couple of meetings, a casual acceptance of the developer's statements, and done. Not even a requirement for documentation of these structures. Again, these remarks are made not to denigrate Mr. Blanchard or his architect, but rather to urge a process adequate to the importance of the decision.
Designation under the Heritage Act is not a blunt instrument that kills change and development- it is a management tool, meant to control alterations, not stop them.
But it is not always the best tool, because it places another level of administration between the start and the end of a rehabilitation effort, and paperwork costs time and money.
The result in Ontario has been that larger projects in the built-up areas often pair an architect with a heritage architect, whose task is to ensure that retrofits are compatible with the heritage character of historic buildings, and to obtain the required permissions to achieve what the owner wants to achieve with the property.
Another approach is to do pretty much the same but less formally, which is more flexible but also riskier, and I believe that this is what Mr. Blanchard is signalling. Don't designate, tell me what you care about and I'll see...
To which the reply should be, alright, we'll put a third-party expert on it to see what's of "commemorative significance", as the term is, and get back to you; but if there's no deal, we designate.
This kind of deal, however, requires three-cornered trust, between the proponent, the City, and the community, and this does not exist in Hamilton. It does not exist, in my opinion, because Planning and Economic Development are not working to build it.
24, 28 King. Much altered?
Here are a few of the items emerging from published comment on 18-28 King which really require more investigation.
Mr. Blanchard told the Spectator (24 Oct 2012), that "the King Street strip has been altered too many times over the years to be of major historical value..."
That a building has been modified over its history does not in itself disqualify the structure from conservation. It is a fact which enters with others into the overall evaluation. It is a professional opinion, to be tested by another.
Further, Mr Blanchard told the Spec, "the buildings along the park are structurally unsound and architecturally difficult to handle. Each one is long, narrow and dark.
"They're like bowling alleys. It's a nightmare," Blanchard said."
Structurally unsound? If so, it is certainly not apparent from the outside.
Above, the rear of the Hamilton Club. The gap to the left allows the fire escape to be placed unobtrusively. Below, the rear of 26 and 28 King. There is mortar loss but no obvious movement here, no arches coming out above the windows. Note the repair on the right corner second storey.
Architecturally difficult to handle? Those who have renovated comparable structures on James North say that no, these long, narrow buildings are easy to rehabilitate just because they are so structurally simple - thick brick walls with short, heavy joists spanning a narrow space.
Sean Burak offers pictures and more detail on this point of view in a recent piece for Hamilton Magazine.
Mr Blanchard also permitted the Spectator's photographer to take pictures from a roof of the interior courtyard behind the Thomas building, which functions as a light well in the centre of the complex.
This is an intriguing feature. Was the courtyard integral to the original building? Or a consequence of a later addition? Judging from the stonework, integral. But in either case, it may be worthy of preservation along with the facade. The matter should be investigated by someone with the appropriate expertise.
But also, that courtyard surely has implications for those long dark buildings that their owner is complaining about. Might it be possible to open to from the gap formerly occupied by the demolished 30 King, or from the rear alley?
Of course, such suggestions from uninvested bystanders are meaningless: any sidewalk pundit can conjecture whatever they please. Or, as Mr. Blanchard put it to the Globe and Mail:
There are all kinds of people running around, they're doing their thing, trying to tell us what to do... We'll talk to them. I don't know what good it's going to do and I don't know who's going to pay for it, but we'll talk to them.
But as a citizen and member of the larger community, the meddlesome pundit does have a legitimate interest, and it is set out in the Ontario Heritage Act, the building code, the Official Plan and elsewhere.
With apologies to the councillors who have stepped up, that legitimate public interest is not being adequately asserted at the moment. There is something wrong here.
Mr Blanchard is representing himself as amenable to discussion but the City is not negotiating. Why not?
It is because demolition, regardless of historic or architectural value, is considered the default option at City Hall - a situation which is potentially very costly in the long term, and which we will look at in the next part of this series.
You must be logged in to comment.
There are no upcoming events right now.
Why not post one?