Posted by: Paul Jenkins | April 15, 2008

Our Alma – What Would You Do? – Part IV

I recently received an e-mail from Ontario’s Minister of Culture, Aileen Carroll – more specifically, from her Orwellian titled, “Correspondence Unit.”

Apparently, “Minister Carroll would be pleased to respond to [me] in writing.” I received this message 12 days ago and am still waiting for her letter to arrive in the mail. I bet her penmanship is stunning.

The tardiness of her response, however, has convinced me that her request for my address was just a way for big brother to better track my agitating actions. When her words arrive, rest assured, they’ll be posted.

As I am still intent on saving Alma College and the readers of my blog, for the most part, are in PR, I was hoping I could ask for you advice.

You see, the preservation of Alma College is in the interest of all Canadians – it’s just that most of us don’t know that. The only way to reach an audience this diverse is through mainstream media.

My question is, how would you go about getting the needed media attention?

I know you’ll all now rush to read my previous posts on the topic to inform your own comments, but a fresh perspective is always helpful. As such, I’m pasting an article below by Catherine Nasmith from Built Heritage News. You can also check out the Alma College articles I tagged on del.icio.us.

I have my own ideas on how to proceed, but I want to hear from you.

Years of Failed Heritage Policy Come Home to Roost at Alma College

Readers of Built Heritage News are aware of the ongoing attrition of Canada’s architectural heritage. Even with the vastly improved Ontario Heritage Act that gives municipalities the power to stop demolition, fires, development pressure, and weak municipal councils continue to chip away at the stock.

The case that most clearly illustrates the impact of 30 years of failed Ontario heritage policy is the impending demolition of Alma College in St. Thomas. Even with the will to save the building, which the municipality clearly had, without some kind of funding to assist with restoration costs, the project is not viable for the private owner.

Ontario and Canada have failed miserably in providing the kind of routine support for property owners that is normal in the United States, Britain and other parts of Europe. Ongoing property maintenance keeps heritage buildings from becoming casualties. Maintenance money is not very sexy, but simple things like making sure the windows are painted, the masonry is pointed, eavestroughs are in place and the roof doesn’t leak will keep 19th century buildings in use indefinitely. They were built to last.

Even in a state of relative dereliction Alma College is spectacularly beautiful, rivaling University College or the Connaught Laboratory building at the head of Spadina Avenue in Toronto. If Alma College was in a larger urban centre it would be getting front-page coverage in all the major media outlets, but in St. Thomas it is off the national media radar screen.

Designed in 1877 by Hamilton architect James Balfour and opened in 1881 the building has suffered demolition by neglect since it was sold by the College. St. Thomas Council stood by helpless pre-2005 unable to force the owner to keep the building in a good state of repair. If they had attempted to use their powers, the counter move by the property owner would have been to apply for a demolition permit and the building would have been lost after six months. One developer stripped the property of its interior, intending to redevelop for housing. The project didn’t go forward, but not before massive damage had occurred. The next owners, the Zubick family did not take even the most basic preventative measures. What was repairable has become very expensive to reverse. Yet this is not a building that can be lost.

For the last couple of years the Zubick family and St. Thomas Council have been fighting it out in court with the town trying to use new powers to force repairs, the owners overturning in court the local heritage maintenance bylaw. The province sent in members of the Ontario Heritage Trust to try to mediate, but put no money on the table. Finally, in a behind closed door decision on the eve of the final Ontario Municipal Board hearing, the Town and the owners agreed to demolish all but the front entrance, possibly including the tower. Without a party to offer any expert testimony in favour of saving the building, (The Alma College Foundation was denied party status by the OMB) the OMB had little option but to accept the agreement put forward by the parties before it, the Town of St. Thomas and the property owners.

Alma College IS front and centre for heritage preservation groups. It is on both Heritage Canada’s and the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario’s most endangered lists. Both organizations have written to the Minister of Culture to intervene to save it following the recent OMB decision that accepted the deal struck by the property owner and the municipality to permit demolition.

The last hope to save the building sits with the current Minister of Culture, Aileen Carroll. Because she has the power to intervene, if she fails to act the anger will be focused on the province. The Minister of Culture, Ailleen Carroll indicated that she would not comment or act until such time as the OMB appeal period has expired. It is discouraging that the standard response from the Minister of Culture to letters from the public pressing for action has been “I respect the Ontario Municipal Board’s judicial process and the challenges faced in issuing a decision on Alma College” as well as ” Staff from the Ministry of Culture and staff from the Ontario Heritage Trust worked with the owners, the City of St. Thomas, and other heritage stakeholders, including the Heritage Central Elgin committee to encourage dialogue to find solutions that would save Alma College and integrate the building into any new development”.

Talk will not be enough to save this building.

The most important request to Minister Carroll came from Steve Peters, MPP following a meeting with resident Dawn Doty, Dr. Robert Burns and Lara Leitch of the Alma College Foundation. In his letter to the Minister, he said “As a result of this meeting, and the many email messages, letters and telephone calls my constituent office and other MPP offices across the province have received on this issue, I felt compelled to write this letter.” He goes on to request the Minister to issue a 60 day stop order should a demolition permit be issued, and to request an evaluation by the Ontario Heritage Trust of “whether or not Alma College may be eligible for provincial designation”.

The Mayor of St. Thomas, Cliff Berwick in a letter to constituent Bob Foster cuts to the heart of the matter. “In all my correspondence with the province and private individual, including the Zubicks no one has offered any money……municipalities can not afford to be the sole financial supporter to maintain heritage.”

Dawn Doty, the neighbour of Alma who has gathered 3000 signatures on a petition to save Alma can’t get a meeting with the Minister of Culture. She reports that in conversation with the Zubick family, the Zubicks would love to save the building but can’t afford to do so. She doesn’t understand why the province pledged 7M to save the Lister Block in Hamilton yet offers nothing for Alma, or why the province got involved in the Moore farmhouse in Sparta, but ignores pleas to intervene in Alma. Good questions.

The province’s respect for municipal or OMB process looks more like abdication of responsibility. It is not realistic for the province to expect a small municipality like St. Thomas to be able to deal with such a legal and financial challenge. The building’s value is clear to anyone, yet the province has hung back far beyond the 11th hour.

I am still dreaming of a press event on the lawn of Alma College, with the premier and the Minister of Culture declaring never again, Alma College will be saved, the time has come to end demolition by neglect–the 30 year period of mismanagement of our heritage resources is over. Instead we may get the nightmare of watching this fine building reduced to rubble.

Keep those cards and letters flowing.

Editor’s Note: I am also the President of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario.

As such, media relations takes the stage. There has been some discussion of holding a protest at Queen’s Park, but I don’t think that hook alone will be enough to generate and sustain the necessary interest to save this piece of our country’s heritage.

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Responses

  1. There’s been higher profile protests at Queen’s Park these days anyhow.

    You need to educate the average Ontarian about this piece of architechture using more than written word. You need to get more emotion into it.
    I had an idea – Call out for people to make video clips about what Alma College means to them, have them post on YouTube and piece the clips together into a sort of mini-documentary.

    What do you think?

  2. You have to give people a reason to care. I have never been to St Thomas, never seen or even heard about Alma until your blog posts on it, and quite frankly, I can’t really say I care much whether they rip it down or not. But if you could relate Alma College to something I do care about then I (and others like me) would take notice.

    Maybe you could use Rick’s video clip idea but create something showing how Alma would be just the first in recurring series of events that will lead to the destruction of more popular historical buildings. Fear is always an excellent motivator for action

  3. Paul, what you need to make sure is that the people of St. Thomas see this and other posts. I know you’ve written letters to the editors of the St. Thomas paper and I would continue to do so. Also, facebook is a good network. I have half of St. Thomas on my facebook and like me, many of them still have strong ties to the community. Is there a facebook page? If not, it’s something to consider.

  4. Rick, your YouTube video idea is great. I’ve got a digital camera already packed for my visit to St. Thomas this weekend. (In the meantime, you can see my first YouTube effort on my Twitter post).

    Jodi, there is one active Facebook group with nearly 500 members. I’ve used it to promote some of my previous posts. Check it out and join yourself: http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=11895020209.
    This group is officiated by Bob Foster and Dawn Doty – two Alma College preservation stalwarts.

    Rhonda, I watched an episode of Family Ties yesterday in which Elyse and the rest of the Keaton crew were bent on protesting the demolition of her first building – she was an architect.

    The building in question was 20 years old. A developer wanted to tear it down and build a strip mall. Alma, on the other hand, is 120 years old and no one wants to develop it.

    The Family Ties episode did, however, convey two key points:
    1 – It is fair and legitimate to develop an emotional attachment to a physical building.
    2 – Good, old fashioned protesting, although not always exciting, is still a powerful response to injustices.

    Sadly, despise the earnest efforts of the Keaton family, the building was demolished and the strip mall was built. Thankfully, the building was fictional.

    Alma College is as non-fiction as any non-fiction building tends to be. Why does this matter to you?
    1 – It’s the most significant endangered heritage building in Canada.
    2 – It’s a test case for every heritage protection law in the country.
    3 – Its fate is symptomatic of the esteem Canadians hold towards their history.

    A few days after I published this post, I purchased a copy of the Globe and Mail. In it, was a copy of Doors Open Ontario, 2008 – an event organized by the Ontario Heritage Trust to allow people to explore “heritage sites throughout the province, learning about local history and architecture.”

    Alma College, hell any of St. Thomas’ many heritage buildings, was conspicuously absent from Doors Open Ontario, 2008’s calendar of events. Quelle surprise?!

    I did learn this:

    “Here are some ideas to help you get involved in saving your community’s heritage:
    – Research things that are closest to you – your home, an heirloom, your family history
    – Look at and appreciate the special places in your community every day
    – Join a historical society or the local chapter of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario
    – Offer your skills as a volunteer at a museum
    – Support your community’s Doors Open committee
    – Get to know the municipal planning and heritage staff and the members of the Municipal Heritage Committee (formerly LACAC)
    – Serve on the Municipal Heritage Committee
    – Find out if your community has a heritage inventory; if not, ask for one to be created or help create one
    – If a building is treasured, don’t assume it is protected – find out
    – Encourage the designation of significant sites
    Help to raise money or donate funds to a local heritage group
    Find out about the tools available to protect and preserve heritage buildings
    – Pause to read provincial plaques and local markers
    – Keep an eye on what’s happening in your community – watch for site development signs or vacant older buildings
    – Identify special places that matter to you, and help to ensure that they are planned for and protected

    Legislation to protect heritage in Ontario encourages conservation at the community level. As a result, every citizen’s voice is important. “How can I make a difference? I’m just one person.” We hear this argument every day. The reality is that a single person can and does make a difference. The actions of individuals – advocates, volunteers, professionals, donors, etc. – heritage organizations and local residents have the potential to awaken a community to its heritage. And by working together, groups of citizens can exercise an even stronger, more effective voice in promoting and preserving Ontario’s heritage.”

    If only it were that easy.

  5. There are so many videos/pictures of Alma as it is now – in its derelict state, I can’t help but wonder if many people (including the Minister of Culture & OMB) find it difficult to appreciate the architect, history, beauty and extreme heritage value of this building. It is too bad someone isn’t able to do a video of pictures(for TV news, internet etc.) taken in Alma’s glory days, – with all its windows, ivy on the walls, manicured grounds, fantastic circular staircase, the chaple in its glory, and of course the amphitheatre, all of which could be put to good use if brought back to order. For some people, seeing the positive side of Alma may help them appreciate the great value more. The Elgin Museum have may pictures that could be used. Just a thought
    Marcia Schram Alma grad ’62

  6. Spent 3 years at Alma …graduated in 1963.
    Here we go again,ball spinning in the air and no one wants to take the responsibility to catch it !!
    Please would someone with the authority to do so,step up to the plate and solve this very important situation.Save this building that has given so many pupils their education throughout the years.

  7. Marcia, on June 1, the St. Thomas-Elgin Public Art Centre is hosting Alma College – A Visual Journey. It’s described as a “visual tour of the artwork, educators and students of Alma College.” Click here for more details.

    Another way to encourage the preservation of Alma College is simply by contacting Elgin-London-Middlesex MPP Steve Peters and Ontario’s Culture Minister Aileen Carroll and telling both of them you want provincial government support for your former school. In fact, your voices have never been more important, they have never been needed as much as they are now.

  8. Hi there,

    I have been reading your blog and today was a very bad day for residents and past alumini of Alma College. Alma College burned to the ground around 12:30 today (MAY 28th, 2008).. So Sad
    http://lfpress.ca/newsstand/2008/05/28/5696456.html


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