Letters & Opinion

Guest Editorial: Does heritage designation matter?

In the latest assault on our built heritage, the Ugandan High Commission has proposed to demolish and replace their Chancery building at 231 Cobourg Street. They say that the foundation of the building has been compromised and that it cannot be repaired. Following this discovery in 2014, they abandoned the building and have left it vacant, unheated, and unmaintained since, compounding the problems. The current plight of 231 Cobourg is a classic example of demolition by neglect.

While the current building at 231 Cobourg Street is no architectural marvel, it is of immeasurable cultural heritage value. This building is designated under the Ontario Heritage Act as part of the Wilbrod/Laurier Heritage Conservation District. It is also identified as important to maintaining the overall character of that District. Further, the City’s plan for the District says that demolition of such buildings will not normally be supported. In other words, this building is supposed to be protected.

The cultural heritage value of this District lies in its association with the development of Sandy Hill as an upper-middle class neighbourhood that was home to many politicians and senior civil servants; in particular, several Prime Ministers including Sir John A. Macdonald, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, William Lyon Mackenzie King and Lester B. Pearson lived there.

The duplex at 231 Cobourg Street was purchased by Lester B. Pearson’s wife, Maryon, in 1954 and was possibly the only home they owned in Ottawa. The Pearsons moved there from 243 Augusta Street and lived there until Pearson became Leader of the Official Opposition in 1959, when they moved to Stornoway. It is also worth noting that Pearson won the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1957 while he was living at 231 Cobourg. It remains the only Nobel Prize for Peace won by a Canadian.

Other noteworthy residents of 231 Cobourg include the famous Canadian artist Mary Alexandra Bell Eastlake, whose work is included in the collections of the National Gallery of Canada, and Denis Coolican, Reeve of the village of Rockcliffe Park from 1956 until 1966 and the first Chair of the Regional Municipality of Ottawa-Carleton from 1968 until 1978.

The staff argument in favour of demolition boils down to the following three points. 1) The initial structural damage to the building was a result of unstable soil conditions that caused differential settling that rendered the building unsafe. 2) Its association with former Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson was short and there is no indication that the house was critical in the decision-making process that lead to the development of the UN’s peacekeeping force, his major foreign affairs accomplishment at the time. 3) The existing structure at 231 Cobourg is a marginal building within the Wilbrod/Laurier HCD that makes limited contribution to the Cultural Heritage Value of the District.

Every building in Sandy Hill is built on unstable soil, so every foundation is at risk. Countless property owners in Sandy Hill have spent vast sums of money repairing their foundations when problems have occurred. The Ugandan High Commission has patched the foundation many times during the 30 years they’ve owned the building. From first hand inspection these “band-aid” repairs didn’t have a chance of working.

Pearson lived here while developing the UN’s peacekeeping force. It is inevitable that his home played some role in his work and his decision-making; to say otherwise is intentionally obtuse.

The existing building at 231 Cobourg Street is a contributing building in a designated heritage conservation district meaning that it is supposed to be protected. Despite this, City staff have dismissed the building as being of marginal importance and recommended that City Council approve its demolition and replacement. This poses a serious threat to all of our heritage conservation districts. This makes it clear that even when a heritage property is supposed to be protected, we cannot count on this to be the case.

Despite the staff recommendation, on February 8, the City’s Built Heritage Sub-Committee, which is composed of four councillors and three heritage experts, voted to refer the application to demolish 231 Cobourg back to staff for further study. They also directed staff to engage a structural engineer with heritage experience to conduct an independent assessment. If the whole building cannot be saved, the Sub-Committee would still like to see if part of it can be salvaged and incorporated into a new building. Several Sub-Committee members expressed their concern that the property had appeared to deteriorate through neglect and spoke strongly about the need for building owners to maintain their property.

Thus, the answer to the question, “Does heritage designation matter?” would seem to be unclear. Apparently in Ottawa heritage designation doesn’t guarantee protection unless concerned residents take up the cause.

Chad Rollins

President, Action Sandy Hill