Another One Bites The Dust: Alma College Burns Down


Images from St. Thomas Times Journal

I sometimes wonder how people like Catherine Nasmith keep going. She is the President of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario, fighting to preserve buildings around the province. Next week she is holding a conference on Heritage Preservation and Environmental Sustainability;(which we will be covering) on the agenda was the fight to save Alma Ladies College. Owners wanted to knock it down, the City was spineless, the Ontario Municipal Board approved its demolition, but Catherine kept fighting, writing articles, going after the Minister of Culture to intervene, getting Members to speak in the House, getting petitions signed to save one of the most important historic buildings in Ontario. As NDP Culture Critic Peter Tabuns said in the House, "if this building is not worth preserving, which building in Ontario is worth preserving?

Today, in one of those great coincidences that happen so often to buildings that people are trying to save, it burned to the ground.

I serve on the Board of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario, and recently wrote the article copied below for its magazine, The Acorn, on why old buildings are green, and why it is so important to save them. I never realized until joining the ACO what a lost cause it was, fighting rapacious developers and stupid politicians.


Heritage is the New Green

Everything new is old again. The greenest buildings are designed to use a lot less energy; in a world where we are running out of oil and where burning fuel creates greenhouse gas, architects are looking at thicker walls for thermal mass, opening windows for fresh air, high ceilings to let light deeper into buildings, and attractive stairways to minimize elevator use. Coincidentally, those are the attributes of so many heritage buildings, which were designed when lighting and heat was very expensive, and air conditioning did not exist.

Green buildings are also healthy buildings; designers try to eliminate formaldehyde, volatile organic compounds, suspended ceilings and carpet, often using terrazzo floors and plaster ceilings, all naturally ventilated. They use simple, healthy, natural materials rather than caulks, resins and glues. Again, typical attributes of heritage buildings.

Even better than designing new buildings to work like old ones is to keep the ones we have.

It takes a lot of energy to make things, so the greenest clothing is the stuff you already wear, the greenest car is the one that you already drive (as long as it isn't a Hummer or an Escalade) and the greenest building is the one that is already standing. The cement industry alone contributes 5% of greenhouse gases, the production of vinyl is a big consumer of fossil fuels and demolition is a major filler of landfills, so every new building has a huge carbon footprint before its doors are even opened.

Old buildings do not only embody history; they embody energy and carbon. The most boring old background brick box with no architectural interest has a component of carbon in the firing of its bricks and the wood is sequestering greenhouse gases as long as it is in the building. There are very few that cannot be restored and reused, and in this era of green consciousness, often are in greater demand than newer buildings.

A good example is the Joseph Vance Building in Seattle. The Jonathan Rose Corporation paid 23 million for it and renovated it to LEED standards, restoring double hung windows, removing dropped ceilings and carpeting to reveal terrazzo floors and bright new high ceilings. They installed fans and cooler lighting to eliminate the need for air conditioning. Tenants are lining up for its green features and lower operating costs. Imagine if someone had the vision to do this to the Lister Block in Hamilton, a structure with the same bones in a city with a very different attitude.

The horror stinker Silent Hill was filmed in Alma College; see production stills here.

UPDATE: Press Release from the Architectural Conservancy

Alma College Fire a Preventable Tragedy

Catherine Nasmith, President of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario is outraged at today's loss of Alma College.

"Today's tragic fire at Alma College was preventable. The foot-dragging by the Minister of Culture and Ministry staff with regard to protection for this magnificent building led directly to its loss. This was one of the province's most important buildings and could and should have been preserved."

The owners the Zubick family of London left the building inadequately secured. The owners have been trying to get permission to demolish the building for several years. The building had been stripped of windows and eavestroughs. Security on the property was completely inadequate. Vandals were frequently in the building. It was a matter of time before disaster struck.

"I have never seen such a case of willful demolition by neglect" said Catherine Nasmith. "This case is so much more tragic because Alma College was irreplaceable."

The Architectural Conservancy of Ontario has written three times in the last four years to Ontario Ministers of Culture asking for protection for Alma College. We met recently with the Minister to ask her to designate the property. The property is on both the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario and Heritage Canada's most endangered lists. There have been petitions in the legislature asking the Minister to protect Alma College. Both Culture Critics have asked her to protect the building.

Since 2005 the Minister of Culture has had the power to designate provincially significant property but it has never been exercised. During that time Alma College went from being possible to repair to a state of extreme dereliction. But even in that state it could have been saved.

Tags: Ban Demolition | Demolition By Neglect

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