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.
"HERE WAS THE SITE OF THE HERMITAGE"
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.
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