Sometimes we cry

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There are two wonderful books parodying traditional history texts. One is “1066 and All That”, and the other is “The Comic History of Ireland”. They both contain very funny “exam questions”, one of which seems to fit North Grenville perfectly: “We learn from history that we learn nothing from history. Discuss.” I wonder how well members of successive municipal councils would be able to answer that question? There is a very sad and bad record around here of knocking down buildings of real heritage value.

If you talk to some of the people who were on Council at the time, you will hear statements of regret that they allowed the old Post Office on Prescott Street to be demolished. The Post Office was designed by David Ewart, who was Chief Dominion Architect from 1896 to 1914. But it was demolished in 1970 and replaced by the present Post Office – not an improvement. The mill which gave Oxford Mills its name was demolished in 1961. But we don’t just demolish heritage and historic buildings, sometimes we just sell them.

Let me remind people, once again, that the only perfectly preserved one-room schoolhouse, complete with desks, bell, wood stove, outhouses, locks and original interior woodwork, was sold by a previous Council. The Acton’s Corners school site was sold off to make some money: around $100,000 for a 2-acre historic site. Councillor Tobin, the only member of that Council still in office, told me, as a member of the Municipal Heritage Committee, that it was not the role of that Committee to comment on the sale, and that Council, not the Committee, made the decisions in this municipality. It is good to know who to blame. Driving by Acton’s Corners School and seeing the American flag flying over it brings home to me, at least, how much we sell our heritage.

Why is this an issue now? Because the municipality is at it again. Late last year, staff recommended to Council that, within the next five years, the old Kemptville Town Hall be sold to a developer (which means it would be demolished). This is probably the most historic building in North Grenville (see last week’s Doors Open article), the location of municipal government for almost 130 years, the place where trials, inquests, public hearings and so many other events took place.

The staff report recommends that the current tenants, including the Ontario Courts and the Probation Service, be moved out. Yet, in another staff report, back in 2010, it was stated that the loss of the courts would have a serious negative impact on North Grenville, specifically on municipal staff, by-law officers and the OPP. There is no other location in North Grenville suitable for use by the courts, which would most likely move to Brockville. This would require staff and OPP to travel there on a regular basis to conduct essential business, thereby costing more in time and productivity.

The staff’s recommendation at the time was “that the Municipality retain the Court House Building”. Back in 2010, the Municipality was actually making a profit from the building: admittedly only about $1,500 a year. It was expected that the building would require a maximum of $327,000 over the next decade or so, although $150,000 of that was to install a new elevator, and $50,000 for a new roof in “10 to 15 years”.

This recent staff report was presented to Council before any consultation had been made with either the Courts or the other tenants of the building, the North Grenville Historical Society, which operates the Archives on the upper floor of the old Town Hall. Following representations, these consultations finally took place this week with the person hired by the Municipality to advise on the future of a number of heritage buildings owned by the Municipality. It is hard to understand why any Council would even consider disposing of this most important part of our built heritage and our common history. We can only hope that they listen to the arguments for retaining it, and not add another loss to our unfortunate list of historic buildings we once had.

Many of these were lost through fire, accidents, or because of age and natural decay. It seems unnecessary to lose more through wilful decisions based on short-sighted financial opportunities. The current Council, however, has a few members who have demonstrated a commitment to our heritage and, although there might be disagreements about what precisely will be done about our built heritage in future, there is at least an awareness of the importance of history, and the need to retain as much of it as we can in the face of rapid change in our population and character as a community. We need to keep those things which link us to our past. It is too late to grieve over mistakes after the damage is done.

Previous Councils have made bad decisions when it came to the disposition of our heritage. It is to be hoped, most sincerely, that this present Council learn from the past.
We learn from history that we learn nothing from history. Discuss.

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