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Is tearing down old buildings ‘an act of violence?’ Stratford’s first hospital at centre of debate | CBC News

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Preservationists are drawing a line in the sand in defence of Stratford’s historic first hospital, demanding a reprieve for the yellow-brick Victorian building hospital administrators want to flatten to make way for new development. 

Built in 1891, the building was designed by George Durand, the London, Ont., architect credited as the mind behind some of southwestern Ontario’s most iconic Victorian buildings, including the Aolean Hall and Waverly Manor in London, as well as dozens of churches and town halls across the peninsula, from Petrolia, to Mitchell, to Lobo.

Preservationists argue the old Stratford hospital is architecturally significant, not just for the fact it was the community’s first, but because the old building includes the latest technological innovation of the time — ventilation spires to allow fresh air to flow directly to patients at a time when germ theory wasn’t the dominant medical dogma.

Retired architect Robert Lemon, who is also a board member of the Stratford chapter of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario, said the vacant building with its peeling paint and an exposed roof has “tremendous potential” if rehabilitated as a clinic, hospice, or hotel — for families visiting sick relatives at their bedside. 


Is tearing down buildings an ‘act of violence?’

“People quite often come for day treatments and need a place to stay. In London, you go to Ronald McDonald House when you need treatments for kids. Something like that could work with this building.” 

Stratford, Ont.,’s first hospital, seen here, is slated to be demolished. Preservationists say the building, built in 1891, is worth preserving. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

Lemon is also part of a growing international movement of architects who believe demolition is bad for the planet, an idea explored in the latest edition of Canadian Architect Magazine that argues upgrading old buildings emits less carbon than knocking them down and building a new one.

“We should not be tearing down buildings at all. It’s an act of violence because it’s a waste of history, it’s a waste of materials, it’s a waste of energy.”

But in a small city already crammed with historic buildings — is one old hospital worth preserving? The Huron Perth Health Alliance argues, no.

“The costs are unfortunately completely out of the realm of anyone being in the interest to touch it,” said Andrew Williams, the CEO of the Huron Perth Health Alliance, the hospital network that owns the building.

“We think the best decision for the community is the building’s removal.” 

Hospital rehabilitation would cost $24M, says CEO

Williams said hospital administrators have already met with heritage groups, consultants and architects to look for ways to save the old building, but unfortunately, it would cost too much to bring the building up to code.

A copy of the original architectural drawings of the hospital, designed by London, Ont., architect George Durand, who drafted a long list of commercial, residential and institutional buildings across southwestern Ontario. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

“It was $24 million,” he said. “As you can imagine, that’s not a very attractive option for developers.”

The demolition, as of Wednesday, is still up for tender.

“We think the way we’re going is the responsible one for this community,” he said, noting the building contains asbestos, has an odd footprint thanks to countless renovations in its 132-year history and has little in the way of HVAC infrastructure. It also isn’t accessible to people with disabilities, and just fixing the roof would cost a million dollars alone.

An old hospital
Stratford’s first hospital at 86 John Street South. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

“If you’ve seen the facility, we actually have it wrapped in a blue tarp to prevent leaks,” he said. “There’s an immediate need to invest in the building, money that we don’t have, and money we shouldn’t be putting into a building that’s empty.”

As for the green argument, Williams said the hospital network conducted its own carbon audit on the structure a few years ago to weigh whether saving the drafty old building was more environmentally responsible than knocking it down.

“You’re going to have more carbon emissions maintaining the building than you are taking it down,” he said.

Preservationists are still holding out hope, however, that Stratford city hall refuses to issue a demolition permit. Lemon and others are currently circulating a petition and putting pressure on city council to consider preserving the historic structure. There’s no indication yet of whether they’re considering an eleventh-hour reprieve. 

A request for comment from CBC News to Mayor Marin Ritsma’s office was not returned before publication time Wednesday.

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