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Province to demolish historic homes, despite offer to save them

Liz Driver photographed the Hyatt House, (left) and MacDonald House on Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021 fearing the front yards are plowed, in preparation for demolition.

By Sue Capon
Prince Edward County residents, and members of municipality’s Heritage Advisory Committee are on demolition watch while they scramble for an 11th hour solution to save two cultural historic homes at Sandbanks Provincial Park.

It’s not a last-minute effort. Letters, plans and suggestions to the Ontario government have been ongoing for more than a year.

Snow fall this week has been cleared in front of the two long abandoned homes at the provincial park. Prince Edward County Heritage Advisory Committee (PEHAC) member Liz Driver is concerned that means demolition is imminent.

On Feb. 4, PEHAC members learned an offer from a renown heritage architect who offered a path forward for the revitalization of the Hyatt and MacDonald houses at Sandbanks, has been dismissed by the Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks.

Last October, Phillip Evans, of ERA Architects, wrote to the ministry as a private individual, leading a group of potential investors who wish to conserve the two valuable heritage assets.

He sought a three-month due diligence period, and demolition paused, to define the scope of work and feasibility and following, proposed a lease agreement with the province to rehabilitate the buildings and maintain them, including a commitment to protect their heritage value and make them operational within two to three years.

Evans, in 2015, played a significant role in the restoration and rehabilitation of the Drake Hotel property in Wellington. ERA also has completed several well-known heritage adaptive re-use projects including Evergreen Brick Works, once an abandoned brick factory and quarry in Toronto; an historic train station which is now the Coboconk Wellness Centre and The Basins Project partnership targeting best practices for cultural assets in sensitive flood plains, among several other projects under way.

Evans told the ministry, as an owner of ERA Architects, a Toronto firm of about 100 professionals with a commitment to conserving heritage buildings across Canada, “I understand the needs of these buildings and the alternative economic models that will allow them to flourish… with innovative approaches to raise funds privately through grants, public-private partnerships, and operation leasing.

“I understand further that the MECP is unable at this time to make the financial commitment in these properties and that there is a need for a significant injection of capital to repair and operate them. It is for these reasons that I am proposing to enter into an agreement to lease the buildings and to identify appropriate new uses for them.”

Four months of silence was followed by a letter from the ministry declining his offer.

In the Sandbanks Provincial Park Management Plan of 1993, the government commits to preserving the MacDonald (1869) and Hyatt (aka Gray) (1878) houses. In 2012, an engineering report found both buildings stable, except for one wing.

The plan stated: “With respect to the MacDonald and Hyatt (Gray) houses in particular, the Plan’s stated policy at Section 5.2.2 includes: ‘… the preservation of the MacDonald House and the barns, as well as the MacDonald / Hyatt wharf site and the site of the Lakeland Hotel. Any deterioration will be arrested, and potential for restoration, adaptive reuse and interpretation of the structures will be examined as part of the cultural resources management plan … The Gray (Hyatt) House operated as the Lakeview Lodge soon after its construction in 1869 by the Hyatt family. The house is in good condition and it will not be allowed to deteriorate further.’

PEHAC stated last year that in the over 25 years since the commitment to preserve was made, there was still no cultural resources management plan in place, and due to lack of maintenance and attention, the houses are now in an advanced, but not irreversible state of disrepair.

On Dec. 6, 2019 a posting appeared on the Environmental Registry of Ontario by the Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks to change the park’s management plan to allow for the demolition of the houses “to help ensure the health and safety of park visitors.”

That week, the Prince Edward County Heritage Advisory Committee sprung into action, meeting with the park superintendent for on-site visits to the two houses.

PEHAC submitted letters to the ERO with recommendations, including direction that Ontario Parks seek the creation of a joint public/private partnership to restore and repurpose the properties as commercially viable accommodations for park visitors.

A letter supporting PEHAC’s position was also sent by the County’s mayor asking that any amendment to the parks plan be postponed until further study, public consultation and alternative options to demolition evaluated.

The Hyatt and MacDonald Houses at Sandbanks Provincial Park, March 2020. – Sue Capon photos

Last February, County resident Edwin Rowse, a heritage architect, wrote to the Ministry of Heritage Sports and Culture Industries expressing concern.

Rowse made site visits, then submitted a detailed condition assessment finding the Ontario Parks’ “heritage planner provided no credible basis for her recommendation to demolish”. He also supported third-party involvement for the houses which “would necessarily involve a… study for their retention, rehabilitation, and repurposing, including the development of a financial analysis and business case.”

Driver notes there was silence from Ontario Parks until September 2020 when the ‘Notice of Completion of Category B Project Evaluation’ was posted stating the houses had “come into disrepair (therefore) demolition… commemoration” and that “the majority of concerns expressed were in regard to the loss of the buildings… and the cultural heritage they possess”. It also stated “comments submitted regarding the potential to invest in the restoration of the buildings… buildings are of no use to the park, restoring… not recommended” and opportunity to submit additional written comments… by Oct. 15, 2020″.

And following, Driver notes, there was silence until Feb. 4, 2021 until “Ontario Parks declined the offer of a feasibility study and offer to lease.”

“We feel there is now an imminent threat of demolition,” said Driver.

At this week’s PEHAC meeting, the committee recommended council direct the mayor to again urgently contact Ontario Parks and the Ministry of the Environment to pause the demolition, allowing a heritage architect a reasonable amount of time to prepare a feasibility study for the rehabilitation and adaptive re-use of the houses that would ensure the conservation of their cultural heritage value and would address Ontario Parks’ concerns regarding health and safety. It also asks that the municipality reject commemoration as an acceptable mitigation for demolishing the historic farmhouses.


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  1. kb says:

    Although sold long ago, one has to wonder what the views of the surviving families are? And, how does one show support to retain these heritage sites? Is it too late for an open discussion with community members, representatives and former owners? After all, if they agreed to a sale on certain terms, which the province is now refusing to adhere to, shouldn’t they be allowed to comment? Is this fair to taxpayors?

  2. Gary says:

    The government can use our County playground for the Sandbanks Park but have no respect for our call to protect what is our heritage. The almighty dollar wins again.

  3. Lynne Grist says:

    Please please halt the demolition plans and consider the proposals for the rehabilitation and reuse of these 2 heritage homes. History is a strong focus and an invaluable resource for Prince Edward County. Once they are gone they are lost forever!

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