Wednesday January 5, 2011
When it first opened in 1889, the Empress Hotel was considered one of Toronto’s finest. But this year it took a six-alarm fire to draw attention to the historic building in city’s downtown core.
That’s hardly a surprise as the city tends to take our historic structures for granted until they are in grave danger of disappearing, as with the burned-out building at Yonge and Gould Sts.
We don’t have many commercial buildings of this era left, and even fewer with such an illustrious past and prominent location. Yet the city didn’t move to give this building any protection at all by designating it a heritage building until last year after if was in such a state of disrepair its brick façade started falling down.
It used to be that municipalities could cite weak preservation laws and blame the provincial government for the loss of heritage properties. But no more. In 2005, the province beefed up the Ontario Heritage Act to prevent a designated heritage building from being demolished.
But it still takes political will and bureaucratic energy to make sure important buildings get designated in the first place. And other bylaws, such as property standards, have to be deployed to ensure heritage buildings with indifferent owners are still well maintained.
Without such steps, we get what we have seen far too often in our city: demolition by neglect. Our city is the poorer for it.
Demolished historic buildings cannot be replaced. As Catherine Nasmith, a preservation architect, says of the old Empress Hotel: “No one will ever build a building like it again.” Those who built it are gone and, increasingly, so are those who even know those techniques.
Some owners and developers work hard to preserve heritage properties, but others figure they can get away with keeping just a wall, or perhaps even less, in their bid to extract value from a site.
City council must change that perception and take greater steps to preserve what we have left. That means proactively identifying important historic buildings and working with owners to facilitate the reuse of heritage properties; improved grants and tax rebates to provide financial incentives; and increased enforcement of bylaws for owners who may be skirting the law by allowing their buildings to fall into such disrepair there is little choice but to demolish them.
Without such actions, many of our important historic buildings will soon be found only in history books.
CHRISTOPHER HUME’S video analysis: