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Community, town in shock over tear-down of Newmarket's heritage Simpson building

'The best that we can tell, at this point, is the building didn’t come down on its own, but that the owner or someone working for the owner took the building down,' Newmarket mayor says

Speculation is rampant about how and why Newmarket’s historic circa-1850 Charles Hargrave Simpson building came down seemingly overnight late last week, its insides picked away for months by sometimes masked construction workers behind scaffolding that has become part of the Main Street South heritage district streetscape.

“I, personally, am disappointed and extremely concerned when an important heritage building like this literally vanishes,” Mayor John Taylor said Friday.

He is as shocked at the apparent demolition of the former home of Ontario’s first female druggist as the residents and downtown merchants who contacted him.

“The best that we can tell, at this point, is that the building didn’t come down on its own, but that the owner or someone working for the owner took the building down,” he said.

It appeared the Simpson building’s facade, the wall that faces Main Street, was all that remained Thursday morning. But a closer took today shows that the entire structure has been razed, save for scattered pieces of debris about the foundation on which it once stood. A small building in the laneway just south of the Simpson building has also been demolished.

Local historian Richard MacLeod said when he heard the buildings were down, the Simpson building topped his concerns.

“It’s the only one, in my opinion, that has any relevance to our history. This is the building where the first female druggist was," MacLeod said. “It means something."

The Charles Hargrave Simpson building is at 184/186 Main St. S. It was home to Ontario’s first female druggist, Anne Mary Simpson, who ran an apothecary there from 1886 to 1914.

The town’s chief building officer on Thursday evening, Oct. 10, issued a stop-work order to the property owners, developer the Forrest Group, on all of its buildings at 188, 190, 192 and 194 Main St. It is a legal device common in the construction industry that puts the brakes on all activities at a site until the involved parties reach an agreement to move forward.

Non-compliance with a stop-work order can carry steep penalties for corporations, including a maximum of $500,000 for a first offence and $1.5 million for a subsequent offence. 

“A building coming down is a very serious issue, so it requires a very serious response,” Taylor said. “A stop-work order is an appropriate action on the part of our staff. The other thing is, in case there was anything else that occurred that was not appropriate, now the answer is nothing can occur.” 

“It’s a way of saying everything is stopped until we understand what has occurred, and don’t take any further actions in case any of those actions are not in keeping with what’s acceptable,” he said.

The town launched its own investigation Friday and by about 4 p.m. had not yet spoken with representatives of the Forrest Group. Taylor also said the town is exploring what options it has for addressing what has occurred.

“I’m 100 per cent certain no one at the town gave a demolition permit or an OK to take the building down,” Taylor said. “A staff member can’t just say go ahead, you have to have a demolition permit. That didn’t happen. I am very certain that the town in no way provided any direction or acceptance of this. I’d go further and say I don’t believe anybody at the town was aware of it in advance anyway.”

The work at the Main Street South clock tower properties is supposed to be a heritage restoration undertaken by the developer group in April 2019, after it was reported here that it decided to abandon its long-stalled condo development plans and instead ready the four properties known as the Clock Tower project for sale, a company official told NewmarketToday at the time.

Ontario Municipal Board appeals and a court action ended in spring 2018 with a settlement between the Town of Newmarket and the Forrest Group. 

That agreement saw the town provide the developer, on behalf of the project known as Main Street Clock Inc., with $100,000 to help pay for its planned facade, interior and exterior improvements to the heritage-protected properties at 180, 184, 188 and 194 Main St.

“There’s an economics that comes into play for a developer. You have to be able to make it work. To renovate and to do what was there before (at the clock tower) doesn’t work,” the Forrest Group’s vice-president of operations Colleen Forrest told NewmarketToday in April, in reference to the town’s rejection of its proposal to build up to a seven-storey condo tower with 165 residential units at the corner of Main Street South and Park Avenue.

“It’s the best exit plan we can get for our partners because we can’t continue to pour money into the project," Forrest said in April.

The Forrest Group did not return requests for comment for this story.

The clock tower development project has not been without controversy, which includes Newmarket’s landmark circa 1914-1915 clock tower building at 180 Main St. S. 

And while many local residents joined together in protest to preserve Main Street’s heritage and supported the creation of a heritage district downtown, others supported the condo proposal.

One of those residents, Art Weis, believed the Forrest Group’s condo proposal would help revitalize Main Street. But the demolition of the Simpson building has him hopping mad.

“For the developer to go on to destroy one of those buildings without a permit is unconscionable,” Weis said. “I would support a criminal investigation. I do not know the law, but I would support a criminal investigation if an act such as this is covered by the criminal code. If not, the town should pursue the most vigorous course it can under the relevant civil laws.”

Weis also posted similar comments to a local Facebook group.

Newmarket photographer Ron Clifford said he’s going to hold off on speculation.

“I was also in support of renovating and adding a multi-level dwelling (there),” said Clifford. “I'm really curious to see how it unfolds. Taking into consideration the scope of the work, the back parking lot has been reasonably accessible throughout.”

Similarly, longtime resident Jill Kellie said she, too, supported the clock tower redevelopment proposal.

“I agree that this is very different and I am shocked and appalled,” she said, of the destruction of the building. 

Downtown business owner and community volunteer, Jackie Playter, who is active on the town’s history and heritage committees, urged residents to not “jump to conclusions”.

“We need to wait until we hear exactly what happened before we condemn anyone,” she said.

For Newmarket native Jim Barber, a journalist, author and history buff who now calls Napanee home, there are no sanctions against the developer that can replace history.

“They will just shrug, pay a fine and build whatever monstrosity they want to make it more sellable. Sad for my hometown,” Barber said. “There isn't much of historic Newmarket left in amongst the urban sprawl and endless shopping plazas and big-box stores and hipster condos. So, let's rip down some of what remains.”

Mayor Taylor acknowledged that the loss of the Simpson building is a “serious and unfortunate setback”, but said he and the town are committed to finding a way forward.

“Somehow, some way, we need to get construction on the street finished and Main Street looking good and moving forward again,” Taylor said. 

“Part of the reason I’m so concerned and, frankly, quite upset about this is because the town and, I believe I, have done a lot of work in this area for a long time to preserve heritage,” Taylor said. “We took a lot of time and spent resources to put in place a heritage conservation district in our downtown, we went to the Ontario Municipal Board to object to this site being altered and to preserve its heritage, and not allow a larger building to be built there.”

“We came to a settlement that would allow the current work to move forward, and we’ve been working for years to preserve the heritage of the downtown and this site,” he said. “So, it’s an extreme concern for us to see this occur.”

Local realtors Joshua Campbell and Graham Purvis are representing the developer in the sale of the Clock Tower and adjacent Main Street South properties.

Here is a summary of the historic buildings and the proposed restoration work, according to the Town of Newmarket:

184/186 Main St. South ​

This two-storey building is identified as a historic commercial building in the Lower Main Street South Heritage Conservation District. The existing multi-layered siding will be carefully removed from the upper storey. Once the original siding material is exposed, final façade restoration will be determined. The District Conservation Plan indicates that the original finish was likely plaster.

188/190 Main St. South 

The existing painted brick is in fair condition on this two-storey historic commercial building. The façade will undergo a gentle cleaning to remove the paint and the brickwork will be restored, repaired and repainted as necessary, depending on the condition of the brick. The original parapet, extending above the ridge of the gable roof behind, will be replicated based on historic photographs. 

194 Main St. South 

The removal of the metal siding revealed a number of anchors throughout the façade and missing heritage attributes, such at the parapet, lug sills and cornice and pilasters on this historic commercial building. 

The façade restoration will see the upper portion of the heritage façade rebuilt to match the façade of the building to the south and replica cornice and pilasters matching as close as possible to the original configuration above the storefront. 

The brickwork will be restored, repaired and repainted as necessary. The storefront will be brought forward to be in line with the upper façade. 

Window and masonry restoration is based on the following principles: 

Windows: Restoration and re-glazing of windows, documentation of all windows, replicate existing muntin profiles and fenestration pattern, and clean sills and lintels where soiled, stained or painted

Masonry: Structural analysis of the street facade walls, stabilization and restoration of masonry, and selective masonry cleaning

All storefronts will be replaced with new glazing and trim ready for new owners. The existing one-storey, late 20th-century infill building between 190 and 194 Main St. South is noted as being neither historic nor complementary in the Conservation District Plan. 

The one-storey building will have a new storefront and is proposed to have a false wall representing a second storey, bringing the height up to that of the building at 194 Main St. South to keep a consistent height between the existing buildings.

For more information on Main Street Clock Tower Inc., visit the town's webpage here.

Kim Champion

About the Author: Kim Champion

Kim Champion is a veteran journalist and editor who covers Newmarket and issues that impact York Region.
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