Already gone. What we've lost forever, and how it can happen again.
Meaford is lucky. Much of our history still stands in brick and wood and concrete. This level of preservation is rare in Ontario, and it gives us a competitive edge that's the envy of other towns and cities in the province.
But it doesn't take much to tear down a chunk of our heritage.
In 2003, Toronto architect Catherine Nasmith wrote in Built Heritage News that "Meaford has a wealth of heritage buildings and an astonishing lack of heritage protection in place to preserve them."
Eight years later, this is still true.
We have lost many of our valuable older buildings, and beyond heritage designation for Meaford Hall and the old Fire Hall, the rest of Meaford is vulnerable.
Back in the 1965, they tore down Meaford's old Grand Trunk Railroad station. A lot of Ontario towns lost gems like this around the same time, and we can dismiss the action as the product of an unenlightened period when newer was always better. We're more aware now, and we recognize the value of our historical buildings, right?
Well, no. Ten years ago two houses, including a pretty, graceful Victorian with a curved wraparound porch, stood here.
Massive willows and other mature trees shaded the walk along the Bighead River. Seemingly overnight, it was gone. With plans to expand his grocery store, a previous owner acquired the properties behind the store and prepared to make way for a larger building and parking.
Demolition permits were granted and the bulldozers rolled in. Before you knew it, the buildings and trees were gone, and the land had been drastically regraded. Ten years later, the property remains an empty lot.
In 2010, the former Disciples of Christ Meeting House, which was built in the 1850s and heavily damaged by fire in 2009, was purchased and quickly levelled. It remains empty.
One may be able to argue that the decisions to allow these demolitions were sound the best of available alternatives. But since we don't have defined, transparent procedures that account for the long-term value of our architectural heritage, we can't know for sure.
And as development pressure mounts on Meaford, who knows what new hole in the fabric of our community we'll wake up to tomorrow?
This sturdy brick building was erected at the turn of the last century to house McCann & Sparling Planing Mills (later Grant's). In the last century and more, it has remained an important part of Meaford's economy and history home to a planing mill, a number of popular restaurants, and a fitness club. It has seen thriving industry, good times and grand gatherings. It survived a fire that closed one restaurant to re-open again. And it remains in sound condition with potential for use. Yet the Realtor for the property describes it as a "redevelopment site
overlooking the Big Head River." The ad claims, ridiculously, that the "current building [is] of little value and is being sold as is."
This building the "Harbour Moose", was demolished beginning January 4, 2012.
Because the Building Department has no tools in place to deny a demolition permit if it meets the current criteria, the process took only a matter of weeks, with Council learning about the demolition a couple of weeks before the trucks rolled in. The claim of Realtor Bob Mackey? "It has been let go for so long it's not worthy of looking after anymore."
The building has stood for more than 100 years, and had been out of use for five.
Note the modern roof trusses, replaced after a fire two decades ago. Meaford Heritage member Billie Bridgman recently toured the property with a developer friend who was seriously considering partnering with an architect friend to develop the building. "I've worked on buildings that were five times worse off than that one," Bridgman told The Meaford Independent
. "It was fully recoverable, it breaks my heart."
A building's place in the fabric of a community is not simply the property of the owner. Zoning regulations and noise bylaws, for example, seek to protect surrounding neighbours and the community from actions that can impair their ability to enjoy life and lower the value of their own property. Heritage preservation does the same.
Many of Meaford's older, historical buildings are still in sound repair and more than viable as business locations or residences they are a big part of what makes Meaford attractive. But if we continue to ignore their value, lack of maintenance and repair will speed deterioration. "Demolition by neglect" is a serious concern in many communities, and given enough time, the Realtor's claim about Grant's may actually come true. We need incentives in place to help owners realize the value of their heritage buildings and encourage owners to maintain them. And we need protections in place to allow reflection before demolition.