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REMEMBER THIS: Which Newmarket heritage projects get a thumbs up?

In this week's column, History Hound Richard MacLeod examines wins, losses when it comes to local heritage preservation over the years

This is part two of my series examining local heritage preservation, which focuses on some specific heritage properties, evaluating the projects using the criteria set out in part one, and determining their relative successes or failures.

I plan to examine examples of all three categories of heritage preservation as laid out in part: the re-purpose, the historical preservation and the historic facade, along with a few examples of heritage properties that were demolished either because they were deemed to be beyond preservation or through simple neglect.

Let us begin with properties which underwent a re-purposing.

In my article on the historic Doane house, I highlighted its re-purposing as the Doane House Hospice. This project would surely be considered a model preservation — a unique and historic property was restored to its original state while being repurposed into a new, vital usage.

The land where the original building stood sits waiting for redevelopment, hopefully into much needed housing.   

You will remember that in Part 1, I indicated that every project must be judged by three criteria: is it financially and logistically beneficial?; does it contribute to the communal goals of the town?; does it preserve the historical property moving into the future?

This project appears to have scored high on all three counts.

Not all projects score as well, I am afraid.

A project at the opposite end of the spectrum, the Davis Tannery Mall project on Davis Drive serves as a perfect example of a project that just didn’t work out. It would appear the all-important due diligence was not followed in the early stages.

The structure had several issues before the project was even begun. Given that it was an old tannery, a problem with arsenic onsite should have been expected to rear its head again.

A decision was made to attempt to correct obvious structural issues by building over them, installing lots of marble over an aging wooden structure. 

You will remember that one of our criteria was that it should benefit the community in its new use. It was never an attractive shopping complex and was quite frankly unattractive from the beginning. One must wonder if an effective and detailed plan was ever done to determine the feasibility of the new use or if there was even a need. 

Most people will remember the controversy that surrounded the move of the town’s operations to the complex from Main Street, so it had that initial burden to overcome. One must wonder about the quality of the restoration as the site very quickly deteriorated and its tenants fled the property.

I would ask, do you consider the property to still be historic? Was the essence of the heritage retained or is it historic in name only?

I would suggest that the property as an historic landmark was downgraded by the renovation, leaving us with neither an historic site nor a landmark commercial site upon its completion.

The tannery project may indeed stand as a clear example of what not to do with a heritage property.

An historical preservation project that held much promise when it was first considered involved the re-purposing of the old Cane Mansion on the southeast corner of Davis Drive and Prospect Street on the site of York County Hospital.

The initial project involved the conversion of the Cane residence into a new hospital to serve the community in the 1920s. The project was successfully completed and the reviews at the time indicated that the project had been a resounding success.

It came in on budget, it preserved an obviously historic property, and its repurposed use was of a benefit to the community. Then, just after its completion, it burnt to the ground and the hospital that we see there today was constructed in its ashes.

We have generally had excellent luck with the re-purposing of residential properties into community or commercial properties. A heritage site currently in the news, its transformation from a federal building into a boutique hotel being follow intensely, is the former Post Office on Main Street.

Over the years, this property has been the focus of the three methods of preservation. You will remember the idea, put forward by developer Bob Forrest was to create a facade that would encase the building, much like the old bank that is part of the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto. 

There was a discussion about plans to engage in a full historical restoration, but that idea was not deemed very prudent. We now see a re-purposing of this old federal building into a hotel and from what I can see, the idea has a very good chance of being a win-win scenario.

Whether a hotel on Main can be economically sustainable is the question I hear most often, but it most certainly seems to be the best solution of the three options proposed.

There have been many success stories involving the re-purposing of heritage properties over the years. What do I consider the key elements of a successful re-purposing? If the building becomes a useful community-based centre and is thought of first for its current use and secondarily as an historic property, then I think that it has been successful.

The CN rail station on Davis beside has been transformed from a commercial transportation facility into the Newmarket Chamber of Commerce office and this process has proved very fitting.

The old Free Methodist Church on Millard near Church Street was transformed into the Newmarket Veterans Association, again with some success. 

The Masonic Hall on Millard was once the Gospel Tabernacle on Main, but it moved to Millard Avenue serving a new purpose. Also on Millard, we have Newmarket’s first Grammar School, where most of our early community leaders, including Sir William Mulock, were schooled. It is now apartment units and has been for quite a while.

This time of the year, the Grey Goat is in the news for its tradition of being haunted, but it was once a private residence, among other usages, and now it serves as a successful tavern and entertainment centre.

I had occasion to visit the King George Condo and Townhouse site the other day as part of a walking tour I conducted. This school went through much the same process as the post office with each of the three categories for preservation being considered.

The best alternative, it was determined, was the re-purposing of the old school into housing. There was no place to move the property and the idea of enclosing it inside a larger complex seemed ill conceived.

Earlier, the old Office Specialty building went through a similar process before it was transformed into a loft complex. The condition of the structure is, of course, of primary importance before the process of re-purposing a heritage building into housing can be considered.

Few people remember that the Newmarket Legion was once the officer’s mess at the old Military Camp at the Fairgrounds. It found a new life after the war as the Legion’s headquarters.

The North York Registry Office found a new life, after the creation of the Regional Municipality of York as the Elman W. Campbell Museum. The building proved to be ideal, a win-win scenario, and while it is a bit tiny for a museum, it certainly proved to be a godsend for our community.

The old Sykes home on the southeast corner of Main and Ontario streets has had several lives and thankfully this incredible building is still with us today. It started its life as a private residence, was transformed into a Catholic monastery of sorts and is currently a spa. Thankfully for us, its current owners have maintained the property lovingly.

I have left the Union Hotel to the last by design. This project seemed doomed from the beginning. Rule 1, you will remember, is to determine what it is that you want to accomplish with a re-purposing. It was clear to me, throughout the Union Hotel project saga, that this was never really determined.

Here we had a wooden structure that had been bricked earlier in its history. I can remember talking to people before it was designated for re-purposing about its provenance and saying that while it was indeed an old hotel, it was not really a unique example, or so I was told.

It had a reputation as having been a ‘house of ill repute’ in its past. The house next to it to the east was of much more historical interest, it should be mentioned.

I believe that the town and then the region felt that since it was being moved farther from the road as part of the Davis Drive project, that it could be restored to its original state as part of the process.

I spoke to colleagues in Toronto who said that a wooden structure that had been clad in brick for much of its history would be a problematic project to tackle. The wooden structure, at best, would have deteriorated tremendously and likely a rebuild would be necessary. 

This leads us to another of the criteria that I laid out last weekend for historic preservation. At what point is a building undergoing extensive rebuilding still considered ‘historic’?  

We have much the same conflict with the Bogart house on Leslie Street. I will leave it to you to determine whether the Union Hotel, as it stands today with its aggressive rebuild, is still an historic property worth preserving.          

We do not have many examples of the total historical preservation of a building locally.  In my opinion, it is essential that one has the option to relocate the heritage property to a space where it can be both preserved and free up space for the redevelopment of the land.

As I mentioned in part one, we had once set aside land for a heritage park, much like the one in Markham. It was to be located just west of Yonge Street, essentially behind where Staples is currently located. Two buildings were relocated to the heritage park, the old Ballard homestead (Bonshaw) and Dawson Manor.

The town then reversed its vision, perhaps because the escalating demand for land to develop had become so intense and they sold the park off in the 1970s to a developer, which put an end to the idea.

Dawson Manor, which was initially on the west side of Yonge north of the Staples plaza, was relocated to its current location and was repurposed into a spa.  Bonshaw, which was also relocated to the same area, is now housing a few businesses. Both properties were completely restored to their original state and are fulfilling their destiny, saved for posterity.

While other properties have been relocated and restored, an example being the Hollingshead home now located on the northeast corner of Church and Eagle streets that now houses NACCA, it would have been even nicer to have had these properties as part of an enhanced heritage park.

There have been quite a few properties that we have lost to posterity primarily because we have no viable location to move them. The Bogart home and the former Alexander Muir School immediately come to mind.

There are not too many good examples of the historical facade around town, which aims to promote continuity of design rather than heritage preservation. Surprisingly, it can also be the most difficult to achieve and fraught with additional costs. Some but not all the heritage buildings on Main are facades.

The front of the building represents its glorious past while the body of the building is new or relatively new. This is particularly true on the east side of Main where the numerous fires over the years have rendered the building in some cases replicas of their past.

We must always remember the first criteria when rescuing a site: will it still retain its heritage characteristics, is it indeed still historic? This is part of the debate over the Bogart home. Can the structure be rescued and retain its heritage value or will the developer’s plans simply preserve a facade. Is that enough?

Of the three categories of heritage retention methods, I prefer the re-purposing method should the circumstances make it a prudent because it is usually a win–win proposition with the new owner getting a new location, while we retain our heritage properties. Realistically, we cannot preserve everything, and it is not imperative that we do so.

Heritage preservation takes work, much more than what's involved in building a new property, but I believe it to be vital. The re-purposing of a structure depends on the dedication and long-term commitment of its owner. It must make both financial and communal sense.

The only method of heritage preservation I believe should be subsidized out of the public purse is the complete heritage preservation of a site such as that of Dawson Manor, Bonshaw or the Doane House.

While part two of this series is highly subjective in nature, I do believe that it is important to have a plan, form opinions, and keep our eye on how we want our future to look. I understand that some of you do not see heritage preservation as a priority and I respect that.

Many of our heritage properties are sitting on land that is ideal for the building of housing and therein lies the dilemma. If we had kept the heritage park concept, then our heritage properties could have been relocated and the valuable land on which they presently stand could have been repurposed for housing.

Sources: The Newmarket planning department, The Newmarket Era.

Newmarket resident Richard MacLeod — the History Hound — has been a local historian for more than 40 years. He writes a weekly feature about our town's history in partnership with NewmarketToday, conducts heritage lectures and walking tours of local interest, and leads local oral history interviews