Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Talking and wishing not enough

According to the BIZ monday (sic) headline, when it comes to saving heritage properties "Talking and wishing not enough." BIZ monday is a weekly insert produced by The London Free Press in London, Ontario.

No one would argue with that sentiment. A lot of talk surrounded Alma College in St. Thomas and scores of people wished to see the elegant, heritage building saved. Today nothing remains of the century plus college. It was destroyed by fire, in a senseless act of vandalism.

Contrasted with the sad loss of Alma College is the ". . . painstaking restoration of London's old Capitol Theatre and the neighbouring Bowles Building on downtown Dundas St. . . "

The picture at the left shows the "painstaking restoration" of the theatre. If you think this compares rather than contrasts with the Alma College destruction, it is understandable. This parking lot is where the actual auditorium of the Capitol Theatre stood before its sale to the gentleman who saved part of the front facade.

When discussing the fate of the Capitol Theatre, article after article in The London Free Press glosses over the fact that the theatre is gone, demolished, destroyed, flattened and trucked away. My guess is that it was a wise business decision to demolish the old movie hall. I know for a fact that at least one reporter who has covered this story believes the destruction of the theatre was for the best.

There was a London group that wanted to save the theatre, making it into a performing arts centre. The reporter assured me that they were only good for talking and wishing. "They would never have gotten the funding." The reporter argued that Farhi was the theatre's best hope.

Now, you might think that Farhi is a rather rich but naive fellow from some of the stuff written in The Free Press. The paper quotes the influential developer as saying: "You never know what's behind the wall." There could be unexpected problems uncovered that will increase costs. All very true but . . .

As an example of the unexpected encountered while working at the Capitol Theatre and Bowles heritage sites, the paper tells us, "His crews had to deal with brick walls three courses thick." So? This is not unexpected.

Old brick walls are thick, as opposed to modern brick veneer walls. The brick is structurally significant in this older type of construction. The single course of brick used today is just a veneer; It is not load bearing. According to Farhi Holdings Corp. (FHC), "Every . . . renovation or space expansion project is managed by a strong team of professionals who are thoroughly knowledgeable in all aspects of construction . . . " The people working at FHC are not surprised when they encounter a variation of traditional brick wall construction.

The paper also tells us, "That handsome facade visible from Dundas St. had to be bolted to the main structure," as if this was a surprise and an added expense encountered by FHC. I find that very doubtful. Shmuel Farhi is said to be a lover of heritage. He and his team would know that terra cotta is attached to the building with anchors, hangers, bolts, clips, rods, and pins. Anchor failure is very common.

The way the paper tells the story, a reader would think that terra cotta is gone: A building material from the last century, no longer in use. Not true. Architects around the world are re-discovering the advantages of terra cotta for a building finish.

"Nobody's making heritage buildings these days. And every year, the number of survivors is whittled down . . . " Farhi says, "Once they're gone (heritage buildings), they're gone forever."

One could argue with this statement and with a little blogging discover a heritage building or two being rebuilt but I think all would agree that the Capitol Theatre auditorium is gone for good, demolished to make way for a parking lot; That theatre auditorium will never rise from the ashes, or asphalt. It was the Capitol, not the Phoenix, Theatre.

Yet the facade of the Bowles Building did comeback from the dead and it was Farhi himself who performed the magic. According to an earlier story in The Free Press, "The Bowles used to have a terra cotta front, but 80 percent of the 400 tiles were damaged. The decision was made to change all of it to stone that was meticulously carved."

Think carefully about this. If a heritage building is nothing more than a facade, and a new one at that, then a heritage streetscape can be reclaimed. Let's be honest: Nothing apparently remains of the Bowles Building. It's gone --- replaced by new stone mimicking old terra cotta.

Approached this way, one realizes there really is hope for the old downtown --- even the old downtown that is gone, dead and buried. Hmmm. Maybe there is even hope for the Capitol Theatre.

With the right attitude, maybe there is even hope for Alma College.

A few years ago my wife and I visited an ancient Eastern European castle, badly damaged by time, neglect, and the Second World War. The castle was being "restored" but I think "resurrected" would be a more accurate word. Where the walls were originally several feet thick, they were being rebuilt as hollow but but with the original look and proportions. These walls would gain their strength from modern steel beams and modern engineering and not brute size.

When the castle restoration is complete the beams will be hidden and no one will be the wiser unless there is an earthquake; Unlike other old buildings in the area, this castle will remain standing as it is now earthquake resistant thanks to a strong, modern, well-engineered heart.


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