Who says progress always needs to come from a wrecking ball?

All across the city, historical buildings – commercial and residential – tell the tale of ages past. While some private owners have allowed their buildings to fall into disrepair, others are getting broad public support for preservation. But restoring a century-old building does not come cheap.

At what point does maintaining a historical structure become more prohibitive than starting fresh?

LondonFuse sat down with Benjamin Vazquez, President of the London East Historical Society, and Board Member of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario (London Region Branch), to speak about the idea of breathing new life into some of London’s heritage buildings.

New life, new use

Vazquez says the idea of preservation is a stuffy one, conjuring images of a building under glass. The preferred term for most people, he says, is conservation. However, it doesn’t really capture the idea of using old buildings for new purposes.

“The question isn’t, ‘What happened in this building in the past?’” Vazquez says. “The question is, ‘What can this building do for us now?’”

Vazquez and others in London’s historical community seek to maintain an architectural building stock that is diverse and vibrant – not simply preserved. Imagine walking down a street where earlier structures blend seamlessly with the modern.

1. The Crown Livery (c. 1880s – 620 Marshall Street, south of Dundas/Adelaide)

Currently unoccupied and available for lease.

Benjamin Vazquez in front of the Crown Livery
Benjamin Vazquez in front of the Crown Livery. Photo by Sylvia Nagy

“The Crown Livery is one of London’s best Flemish facades. The livery stables would have been basically your rent-a-car for horses,” Vazquez explains.

The building is one of the few remaining livery stables in Southwestern Ontario. To the best of Vazquez’s knowledge, it’s the only remaining purpose-built livery stable in London.

Why is this building important?

It’s gorgeous and there’s nothing else quite like it in the city. The style and design of the building would be nearly impossible to authentically replicate.

“There’s a bit of mish-mash in terms of style,” Vazquez says. “There’s some Romanesque elements… But this is really, a very Flemish building.

“This is probably the only building in London that would feel at home if it were transplanted to Amsterdam.”

The Crown Livery isn’t treated in a way that honours its structural or historical value. Vasquez believes it has been empty for the past several years.

“You can view a lot of the building’s use from the outside. On the ground floor, horses and carriages would have been available for rent,” Vazquez says. “Each of the small windows alongside the building, correspond to a horse stall. The entrance is built large enough that horses and carriages can pass through.”

This is a building that once lived. People worked here. Customers came to arrange their travels. Equine eyes stared through stall windows onto a London we will never see.

Reuse, recycle.

Vazquez isn’t a purist. He embraces new and old architectural mashups and has tenderness for the historical clumsiness of some buildings. Refilling the livery with horses and for the sake of 1880’s precision is not his ideal.

Rather, he says he wants to walk down a street that hearkens the past, hails the future, and stands boldly in the present.

2. Lilley’s Corners (c. 1873 – Above the Money Mart at the corner of Dundas and Adelaide)

The mustard yellow signage of Money Mart (and its inherent controversy at that location) can distract one from seeing the architectural history as the southeast corner of Dundas and Adelaide.

Lilley's Corners at Dundas and Adelaide
Lilley’s Corners at Dundas and Adelaide. Photo by Sylvia Nagy

But the building, known as Lilley’s Corners, has its own story to tell. The building is considered the first commercial structure east of Adelaide. However the second storey, to the best of Vazquez’s knowledge, has been unoccupied for over a decade.

“It’s a bit of a clumsy building in one sense. It is not elegant in the way that one would expect from an Italianate building.”

So, what is Italianate?

The style can be defined as two-storied cubes like Lilley’s Corners. The gently arched windows, with decorative trims, extend to the bottom of its second floor. The roof’s overhang and supporting brackets are also Italianate features.

However, Lilley’s Corners has clearly been built by people who are not architects.

“The pillars aren’t regularly spaced along the building,” Vazquez says. “I mean, the style is one that usually relies on symmetry. And symmetry is just not there in any meaningful sense.”

Imperfect appeal

Vazquez compares the building to a Kindergarten student drawing a face.

“The mouth is up top, the eyes are down below and there are legs sticking out from the side of the ears,” he says. “And you’re like, “that’s not quite right, but it’s extraordinarily charming.

“I feel that way about Lilley’s Corners.”

“There’s a lot of charm even in its general clumsiness. It grows on one. It grows on one very quickly.”

3. Camden Terrace (c. 1870 – 479-489 Talbot Street)

Camden Terrace is a row of six townhouses on Talbot Street, just south of Dufferin. At the time they were built, they would have been populated by well-to-dos. These days, they are decaying almost to the point of no return.

Camden Terrace (c. 1870 - 479-489 Talbot Street)
Camden Terrace (c. 1870 – 479-489 Talbot Street). Photo by Sylvia Nagy

“These buildings are extraordinarily important. They were designed by Samuel Peters Junior, London’s first architect,” Vazquez says. “They have been undergoing ‘demolition by neglect’ for the past year.”

In “demolition by neglect, ” a property owner intentionally allows a historic property to deteriorate beyond the point of repair. According to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, such long-term neglect is generally a tactic to evade heritage responsibilities.

While the facades are historically impressive, the townhouses appear sad and abandoned. Plywood boards cover windows and doors, as well as the buildings’ significant heritage.

Rose among thorns

“They’re one of the few really appealing structures in an area that is becoming awfully bland,” Vazquez says. Talbot Street’s newer constructions – their height, their glass, their uniformity – are like metallic sentinels, more machine than man.

In may of 2016, London’s Heritage Advisory Committee received an official application for the redevelopment of Camden Terrace. However, the proposal involves demolishing the building.

“I’m sure there’ll be a fight,” Vazquez says. “But I don’t yet know what that’ll look like.”

So, why keep Camden Terrace? Why keep any of these buildings?

“Buildings can serve as landmarks,” Vazquez says. “Buildings can serve as homes for new and interesting ideas. They tell us something about the area we live in.”

We shape our environment, but our environment also shapes who we are.

London needs to ask itself – who do we want to be?

*Note: Since this article’s publication in June 2016, Camden Terrace has indeed been demolished. Sigh. 

This article was originally posted on LondonFuse.ca on June 1, 2016

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