Special Report: Heritage

Balsa Wood Heart: Where Does The Hermitage Go From Here?

A Heritage Committee member suggested a public contest where people could offer suggestions as to how the Hermitage should look. Here's a suggestion: the way it looks now.

By R. William Patry
Published May 30, 2014

Ontario Heritage Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. 0.18

Its purpose: to give municipalities and the provincial government powers to preserve the heritage of Ontario.

Its primary focus: to protect heritage properties and archaeological sites.

There amongst the solid limestone ruins lies the heart of the Hermitage. You can't see it, but it's there and it's made of balsa wood. Light, ethereal and fragile, it beats ever more softly as time goes on. The years, and decades bleed into each other, and still the frail heart goes on.

The Hermitage is indeed a ruin. A mere transparent wisp of what once was a beautiful Southern Ontario mansion ravaged twice by fire. And now the Hermitage is fighting for her life, and few seem to know or care.

Her fate lies in the hands of bureaucrats. Not the people that visit her in her aged years amongst the beauty and the serenity of the Dundas Valley. Not those we have seen the landscape of Southern Ontario get chewed up and spit out by developers.

Not those who have fought and won the right to keep these homes and archeological sites pristine in a protected and safe custody. On the contrary, the stewards of her heart are businessmen, accountants and government officials who spin and react to budgetary constraints rather than perform the duties of the custodians that they should be.

I must confess that prior to last year, I had never heard of the Hermitage. Only through happenstance late one evening on television did I learn of her ghostly charms. This was back in the early spring of 2013.

Once the snow had thawed, and the soft moist ground was hard enough to be walked upon, I made my way to visit her for myself. There stood the Hermitage in front of me. Immediately in her company you realize how beautiful and magnificent she must have been in her youth. And now she is delicate and the years are waning around her.

The building clearly is in a state of decay. Make no mistake. She is in an advanced state of decline. However, the people must protect the Hermitage if only to commemorate and honour a time of grandeur gone by. The Hermitage belongs to the people of Ancaster, of the province and of our country. The site is a notable symbol of strength and endurance in spite of fires and destruction.

I spent Tuesday afternoon into early evening with the Hamilton Municipal Heritage Committee at Hamilton City Hall. I was there merely as an observer, neither involved in any of the proceedings or discussions.

On the agenda were half a dozen items that needed to be addressed by council. Most of them revolved around reviewing permit applications for Heritage homes in and around the city of Hamilton. Window and door treatments, a house's turret changing from cedar shakes to copper roofing and the replacing of gingerbread trim in the front gable of a home were all up for discussion.

Homeowners or contractors were invited to speak relating to the physical changes to their heritage properties. One of the stipulations of living in a heritage home is that you must get Board approval prior to making any changes to these sites, thereby protecting their original integrity, craftsmanship and both social and historical significance.

The Board members handled each and every application with concern and an understated compassion for each site's case. Thorough questions were posed focusing on physical changes, overall street aesthetics and structural changes and damage.

Each case was conducted in a respectful manner to the permit applicant, but no stone was left unturned when it came to heritage home alterations. So far, I was impressed with the line of questioning relating to each request.

Then, after almost a three-hour wait, at 7:00 pm, item i. on their agenda started.

i. 739 Sulphur Springs Road, Ancaster (The Hermitage) - removal of the upper portions of the ruins.

The ambience in the meeting room was very sterile and antiseptic. As the actuary compiles numbers and statistics relating to body counts, so did these members dissect the information submitted. The Hermitage to them was simply a "ruin". Even the wording on the Agenda sounded clinical "Removal of the upper portion".

This was not a place for history, passion or preservation. The de facto word of the evening was "ruinesque" describing the way that they (the committee) wished the final results to appear. Requesting the permit were members of the Hamilton Conservation Authority (HCA) who own the land, and ultimately the ruins that bare witness to the past.

Immediately the volleying of thoughts, ideas, comments and rebuttals began. Inopportunely, neither side gained any ground, and neither side had a clear course to follow.

The HCA was there to be handed a permit to tame the beast and put The Hermitage in its place. Slice it down to a formidable height; cap it off, and as one member put it, give it "the appearance of a barbecue pit".

The HCA's plight clearly is to jackhammer the Hermitage into a park where pedestrians can ogle the concept of what once was. I suspect that if the HCA were in charge of the Tower of Pisa it would be straight up. The Liberty Bell crack would be filled with filler and spray-painted bronze, with added faux patina, and the Venus de Milo would have arms retrofitted.

By the end of the evening, nothing was accomplished other than "let's go back to the (proverbial) drawing board". To be continued at the next meeting.

I think that everyone on both sides missed the entire point. This is a site that should not be tampered with. Leave it well enough alone.

One committee member suggested a public contest where people could offer suggestions as to how the final site should look. Here's a suggestion: the way it looks now.

Both the HCA and the Heritage Committee are bound to preserve, protect and keep these sites intact. They should use the same discretionary methods for the Hermitage that they apply to homeowners requesting permits to change the porticos of heritage homes.

Preserve its natural beauty. Add to the history by putting up a small gazebo with educational information and photographs of the home as she once was. Keep the grounds clean and clear of overgrowth and debris.

If the building needs to be cordoned off for safety purposes - DO IT. It seems to work for the Coliseum in Rome and the Parthenon in Greece.


Alma Leith, the daughter of Hermitage builder John Leith who remained on the property long after it had burned down, wrote a series of historical articles for the Hamilton Spectator in 1896, entitled "Delving Among the Ruins". It seems that Alma's passion was to write about local houses, mills, churches and graveyards that had fallen into ruin.

Over one hundred and twenty years ago, she pointed out to the people of Southern Ontario the importance of cherishing and preserving the iconic monuments of the past. Sadly, The Hermitage shows that Ms. Leith's words may have fallen on deaf ears.

Perhaps the aged balsa wood heart is not of the Hermitage, but of Alma. And only a faint sound can now be heard as she sees her home transposed into an architect's mid-term project.

R. (Rob) William Patry is a published author (Pinnacle of Vandalism (A selection of thoughts, feelings and musings) ­ISBN 978-0-9918166-7-5), blogger and consultant. A passionate writer with a biting sense of humour. His work includes broadcasting and freelance. You can visit his website or follow him on Twitter @rwilliampatry.


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By Michael Adkins (anonymous) | Posted May 30, 2014 at 08:41:36

Well written, thought provoking opinion.
Thank you for your input.
Ihope you follow up and attend the next Permit Review meeting.
Chairman,Heritage Permit Review

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By rwillpat (registered) - website | Posted May 30, 2014 at 09:08:53

Thank you Michael. I will certainly try.

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By Sleepy (registered) | Posted May 30, 2014 at 14:24:01

If it's left looking the way it is now, as you suggest, it won't be around for much longer as it is deteriorating at a rapid pace. Which maybe is what should be done. Leave it as is; let nature take it's course, whatever that may be. Doesn't make sense to spend tons of money to prop up or re-build something that really doesn't have historic value besides being old. It is not an iconic monument; it was a rich person's house that burned down; that is all, nothing less, nothing more. For the member who suggested "a public contest where people could offer suggestions as to how the Hermitage should look", perhaps they can also offer suggestions as to how whatever work is done will be paid for.

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By rwillpat (registered) - website | Posted May 30, 2014 at 15:45:51 in reply to Comment 101841

Sleepy I agree with you. I would rather leave it the way it is, fence it off, and let nature take its course. I also agree with you about the rich person's house. But so is Dundurn Castle, Casa Loma, The great mansions of the Hudson Valley, the Hearst mansion, the antebellum mansions of Louisiana, and Biltmore Estate. The rest of us live in houses that do not share such admiration. I think we should attempt to preserve these sites as much as possible, without molding them into something new, as was presented to the Heritage Committee.

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By mel (registered) | Posted May 30, 2014 at 14:24:19

Guelph had a similar challenge with the remnants of the Goldie Mill. It was shored-up and the site turned into a park where people gather for concerts, movies, pottery shows, wedding photos, and many other public activities.

Google "Goldie Mill Guelph" images and you'll see how the Mill has become a part of Guelph life.

Goldie Mill was not made pretty or razed but rather made a stable 'ruin' for people to enjoy.

Unfortunately, politicians and bureaucrats have become risk adverse that usually leads to simplicitic solutions.

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By rwillpat (registered) - website | Posted May 30, 2014 at 15:49:09

I'm not sure if The Hermitage is as sound as the Goldie Mill. Guelph has done an incredible job in creating a beautiful space out of an exisiting structure. It is stunning.

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By erskinec (registered) - website | Posted May 30, 2014 at 18:29:48

The Rich man – poor man is a red herring. If you were poor, then your house was a wooden shanty that was either torn down or burnt down long ago. Look at Cork-town; none of the original homes of the Irish exist from the 1830s to the 1850s. It is only the middle and upper class homes that had any real chance of surviving to the 20th, and even those homes are few and far between.

The real issue is whether the Hamilton Conservation Authority (HCA) is going to step up to the plate and protect designated heritage buildings that speak to a time when Ancaster was known for its mineral waters. Despite the significant decay of the structure, it still sparks the imagination of visitors for a time when we were connected to the land and the seasons. Over the past two months, I have made several drawings of the building over 2-3 hour sittings and I dozens of individuals and groups have told me how much they love the place.

What the HCA is proposing is the demolition of a heritage site that they are responsible for maintaining. A four foot wall does not save any of the designated architectural features. The only reason they are willing save a four foot wall is the cost to demolish completely the building is about the same.

The only thing more outrageous than the HCA proposal is the Heritage Permit Review Sub-committee willingness even to consider their application. The committee’s job is to protect designated heritage buildings, not to ease their path to destruction.

There was very little discussion about how the HCA should change their plans so that Georgian symmetry of the surviving building is preserved, nor saving the remains of second floor Italianate windows, or French windows below that once allowed access to a long gone veranda; nor saving the surviving ring beam that was once supported by corbels.

It appears that the only people on the committee who seem understand the purpose of the committee is to save heritage is Joseph Zidanic and Rebecca Beatty. Mr. Zidanic was particularly effective in pointing out that the HCA has owned the property since 1972 and commissioned many reports over the past 40 years, but they have done little more than quick fixes.

It times for the HCA to set up to plate and start properly taking care of the Hermitage; even if the Board doesn’t consider it part of their strategic mission of watershed management.

Comment edited by erskinec on 2014-05-30 18:30:28

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By rwillpat (registered) - website | Posted May 31, 2014 at 04:02:46 in reply to Comment 101865

What is so daunting is that this site is not in the crosshairs of a a developer. It's not in the way of a builders condo, or taking up valuable space where a strip mall could go. It's on protected land. The solution Is simple. We should not look at The Hermitage in terms of reciprocal value. Our duty, our mandate, our obligation is to take care of and protect her.

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By Missy2013 (registered) - website | Posted May 31, 2014 at 06:30:15

If the structure is unstable, it's becomes a liability issue. Does it therefore make sense to remove the 'dangerous' upper portion, yet retain 'the lower frame' so that people can continue to move freely around the structure OR should it be cordoned off so, at a distance, we can just watch Nature take over completely? Both solutions have pros and cons. Clearly, most of the fun of the Hermitage is to walk around and through the ruins, but what happens when, kids being kids, they start scaling the walls and an unfortunate accident occurs? Parent sues HCA for negligence ... On the other hand, if the upper section was removed, and the ruin was 'stabilized' so that kids rambling escapades did not result in injury, certainly the heritage value is diminished, but the fun of meandering through the folly would remain. Ersatz, but so what? If, alternatively, the site was cordoned off, with no tending whatsover, Nature would reclaim these remains in very short order. Within 20 years, the top will collapse, Virginia creeper will wiggle into any remaining wood cavities, all will rot and decay. All that will remain is, in fact, the stone foot-print of the structure. It is 'a problem' with no easy solution. Because the Hermitage is, essentially, on 'public property' now, it needs a 'public' solution that does address the wants and needs of that public. Thing is, looking at something is not the same as being in something. And that, seems to me, to be the crux of the issue.

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By erskinec (registered) - website | Posted May 31, 2014 at 14:46:28

The first and easiest solution to heritage preservation should not be its destruction. The Hamilton Conservation Authority has had over 40 years to address this problem.

It is time for them to make the investment that they have been trying avoid since they purchased the property back in 1972. The Board has neatly refined the organizations strategic goals to ensure that no further investment can be justified.

The HCA has a foundation for funding such investments. This is not a question of lack of resources, it is a question of priorities.

The fact that HCA dares to make this kind of proposal after the Town of Ancaster, the City of Hamilton, and Province of Ontario have decided to make this a designated heritage building is shameful.

The fact that the HCA is seeking to a partial demolition permit after the community fund raised back in 1997 to save the property is shameful.

The fact that the HCA is seeking to destroy Ancaster past when the community has a tradition of valuing its history; particularly with its excellent Ancaster Heritage BIA area (only minutes away from the Hermitage) is shameful.

People should yelling shame, shame, shame at the Board of Directors.

Comment edited by erskinec on 2014-05-31 14:49:11

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