A community-based preservation initiative
Thank you for inviting me last night- speaking about heritage is my passion…. this was my speech
In 1936 in an Ottawa Citizen column called Ramblin Reflections wrote that the historic old landmarks that reminded succeeding generations of what once was in our communities are disappearing and will soon be numbered among the forgotten things.
The razing of the century-old home of the once picturesque Laird o’ McNab in Renfrew county a few days ago shocked a goodly number of people into a realization that these treasure places of historic lore are crumbling back to mingle with the earth, whence they came.
That old stone structure on the north shore of White Lake should have or could have been retained and maintained by civic, county or government agencies had not most people been content to sit idly twiddling their thumbs while others with a keener appreciation of the worth of these things wrote, spoke and kept the topic alive.
The fast disintegrating fur trading post at L’Orignal, the famous old windmill on the St. Lawrence, the ivy-covered “auld kirk” atop the hill at Pakenham, the “Red House” at Perth, these and a goodly number more in this district are places venerated by the toil and sacrifice of those who laid well the foundation stones of the communities and it does seem a little like desecration to permit their walls where once was heard the vibrant voices of the idealistic community effort pass Into a state of complete neglect, dry rot and oblivion.
Pretty soon there will not be one of those places of piquant historical charm to remind generations who come after what they owe to those that came before them.
That was written in April of 1936.
To quote a million people or so in 2022 they feel the same way as in 1936. It’s a shame how little value is placed on local ageing buildings and how they only become prominent when the bulldozer is at the door.
This past year and a half I have witnessed four demolitions by neglect and I am sure that next year could see another one.. What is demolition by neglect? That’s when the owner becomes negligent in upholding his duty to maintain the property. I know how expensive it is to maintain an older home, but demolition by neglect may also be used by some property owners or developers who either don’t care about the building’s condition or wish to raze a protected historic structure but can’t get permission to do so.
One of the biggest stumbling blocks is always the same – the private ownership of the property. Now, you can usually get permission to tear down any historic landmark simply by sitting on it and watching it fall to pieces. It happens in every town and city, and is an all too common occurrence that historic preservationists seem to be helpless to fight now.
The Kitten Mill property was first developed by Clyde Woolen mills in the 1850’s. It housed the Bank of Ottawa from 1899 to 1947. It was Dave Markle of Glenayr Knit who bought it then and turned it into the renowned Glenayr Kitten mill which produced woollen knits and in the 70s and 80s. It was a huge tourist attraction for the village of Lanark.
My life began in Cowansville, Quebec, an Eastern Townships mill town similar to most places in rural Lanark County. The last time I personally saw or spoke with any of my old friends was years ago, but we still remember Bruck Mills and Albany Felt. Bruck Mills was the first silk mill in Canada, and it employed a lot of folks in my town. Bruck Mills also founded an Arts Centre that was very much appreciated by the local community and it was important. But just like everywhere else, the mills closed. When you lose a building, you not only lose a physical building but you lose the memories. An old building is like a show. You smell the soul of a building. And the building should also tell you how to redo it.
In 2017 I had the chance to meet the heart and soul of the Kitten Mill at their reunion. I’ve never gone to a reunion before; not even high school, because honestly I’m always afraid that there’s going to be some incident similar to the film Carrie that I won’t be able to deal with.
I was honoured to be part of that former Glenayr Knitting mill employees reunion. Some at the reunion on August 7th at the Lanark & District Museum still had their original tools of the trade (scissors etc) from their former jobs whether it was knitting, dyeing fabric or sewing.
Was the reunion a sense of nostalgia, or just reminders of what had transpired years ago? No matter how wonderful and interesting the lives of the former employees from Tatlock, Watson’s Corners, McDonald’s Corners and even Carleton Place have been, there was just something endearing about this work reunion of the staff that most went home with a pay cheque of just 45 cents an hour.
In 1953 the mill was the backbone of Lanark, and some still called it the Clyde Woollen Mill. David Markle made lots of improvements in the old grist mill, with new machinery initially making men’s woollen socks, blankets, and motor rugs. In 1945 the Markle brothers bought the large two storey stone building on the main street by the Clyde River and used it as a store. The Kitten Factory at one time had a payroll of over $200,000 that turned over three times in local businesses before it left the village in the year 2000.
In 2017 Feryn Donaldson was still Miss Kitten of Glenayr Knitting that day with her original 60s sash. She was voted in by her fellow employees and got an outfit to wear for special events as long as it was back by 5.
When asked if she became the “belle of the ball” of Lanark Village after she won her crown she laughed and said she was already married with two children at that point.
These women still remembered the muffins brought by some to work, perms that were given in the washrooms, and the fact that a few actually met their future spouses at that plant. As one woman said:
” I moved to Lanark in 1947 and most of the people that worked in the mill became my friends. I lived here, my family lived here, and when the time comes I will die here.”
For most of the 20th century, Lanark and its Glenayr Kitten Mill was a hub for textile production in Ontario. Since its closure in 1997, the mill has sat abandoned. The Kitten Mill had an impressively no-nonsense integrity: no frills; no fuss; just good, sturdy value at a fair price. Just like the people and just like the sturdy no frills no fuss building that once proudly stood there in one piece.
So what do we do? There is no doubt it is difficult when it is on private lands. But, the most popular way to get rid of an older building now is Demolition by Neglect: which I call a Loophole in Preservation. It’s what happens when a building is neglected so badly that it falls down on its own, or becomes a public menace that has to be removed.
Currently in Ontario, the only buildings requiring notice of a demolition application are on properties listed or designated under the Ontario Heritage Act. For heritage property, if a property is listed the owner must give the municipality 60 days notice of an application to demolish, in order to give the municipality time to consider and process a designation.
If a property is designated, either individually or as part of a Heritage Conservation District, an application to demolish is decided by the municipal council. If the demolition application is refused, the owner has the right of appeal to the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal (LPAT). Of course, many or most historic structures are neither listed nor designated.
Other than the above exceptions, demolition permits are pretty much granted on the spot. It’s not like people wake up one morning and say, “I think I’ll tear down my building tomorrow.” Such projects are planned well in advance. And it would be nice if the notice requirements included posting a notice at the property to alert the broader community.
If a town or city suspects that a building is subjected to demolition by neglect, then in addition to not allowing a demo permit, they also should ensure that a permit for new infill construction on that property will not be allowed. They would only be issued a permit for the repair and restoration of the building and perhaps that repair permit would be free of charge.
Why not provide property tax incentives for improvements made to historic properties? Or allow small grants to homeowners wishing to do the right thing? A bylaw to adopt the Heritage Grant policy was passed by Carleton Place council on May 31. This the first time the municipality has had such a policy. It means if someone is spending $10,000 on improving their heritage property, they could be eligible for a $5,000 grant from the town to help offset the cost. What are we saying when we put a huge tower over a building of historic significance?
For those trying to conserve heritage property, it’s a game of whack-a-mole — no sooner have we jumped up and down to say stop, this one is important, then another crisis appears.We have to stop enabling bad behaviour before the buildings of our past disappear in front of us.
Across the province most heritage advocates are volunteers, charged with finding and advocating for the province’s heritage. We are up against a well-financed building and development industry who may not agree and who have the ear of government. But I keep talking and fighting– you keep talking and fighting– because this is our history. It is the only one that we have.
Just remember old places have soul. Just like the folks that worked at the Kitten Factory here in Lanark Village. Wherever a beautiful soul has been in people, in buildings— there is a trail of beautiful memories.