The Canadian Imagination

What it means to be Canadian; examining and reworking Canada as a nation.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

A tale of two fires

Within twenty-four hours of this blog posting, two catastrophic fires have broken out in southwestern Ontario. The first, in St. Thomas, utterly destroyed Alma College, a historical educational institution. The second, in London, utterly destroyed a major cold-storage facility at Versteegh Bros. Ltd, a family apple business, and may have destroyed the business.

Both are now being investigated as suspicious.

Beyond the time coincidence and sheer dollar value, what shifts these fires from the usual run of petty arsons is a third interesting coincidence: both areas are of high interest to building developers, and both places which went up in flames have been proving obstacles to future development.

It has been said of Alma College that

... if this building is not worth preserving, which building in Ontario is worth preserving?

- Peter Tabuns, NDP Culture Critic

Established in 1878 "for the Higher Education of Young Women" (the cornerstone laid on May 24, ironically enough), Alma College had been vacant since the 1980s. Since then, it has been the constant battleground between those who wished to have it declared a heritage building and its new owners, most recently the Zubick family, who wished to raze it and develop the land. During the one-sided battle, the building had been gradually gutted, and security steadily cut back. At the same time, it quickly became apparent that although the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario and every other major historical society recognised the building's value, the politicians involved, both municipal and federal, had no interest in protecting the building.

It burned down within minutes of a noon-hour demonstration on May 27, 2008. Every heating device, electrical wire, and other structural ignition possibility had long since been removed.

It makes a curious footnote that the Ontario Minister of Culture has had the power to designate provincially significant property since 2005, but has never once exercised it.

Versteegh Bros. Ltd, winners of the Golden Apple Award, has been in business since 1965. At the time, the south-west area in which this family-owned business was located lay half a mile from residential London, was in fact outside the city lines, and future city development was looking north and east, and that at a much, much slower pace than is the case today. It employs twenty-three people full-time, another five part-time, and at least five seasonal workers.

What Versteegh Bros. could not have predicted was that in the last ten years they would become almost the lone holdout between a burgeoning Westmount/Southdale commercial big box area (Walmart to come) and a Byron/Southdale burgeoning residential area. Several farms and orchards along Southdale Road have already been swallowed up by the development from both sides, with street names such as Cherry Grove being all that remains of them.

The previous 'urban renewal' tactic in the region has been 'demolition by neglect', where historical buildings have been allowed to deteriorate to the point where they are declared unsafe and have to be torn down. In fact, this process was well underway with Alma College.

What comes of the Alma College and Versteegh Bros. fires will determine the precedent for future removal of obstacles to development.


At Fri May 30, 07:54:00 AM, Blogger Carol Van Rooy said...

Because I live down the street from this monumental site, the landscape has certainly become deserted.

Ironic how many people came to witness the fire and yet the province didn't see the significance to perserve the heritage this site afforded to the community and surrounding areas.

It's a very tragic end to the long battle she's had to endure.


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