The history of a house – why it matters

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Nine years ago I purchased my first home.

I feel very lucky. Looking back on all the other places I could have selected, I realize now that this house, this neighborhood and I were meant to be together.

Buying this house put me back in touch with a city I had left for several years. It also awakened my love of photography and local history which I hadn’t invested time in since high school.

It inspired me to research the history of the house and the neighborhood, and lead me and my spouse to research and write about the Eldon House ghost story which has sent us on an incredible adventure (and is still going today). It also lead me to start this blog and now I am actively involved in volunteering for both Eldon House and the London and Middlesex Historical Society.

blackfriarsI knew when we moved into this neighborhood nine years ago that my spouse and I would be close to the river and trails, walking distance to downtown London, Ontario where I work, and not far from several other direct routes to various parts of the city.

What I did not anticipate was that after just a few years of this neighborhood showing signs of revitalization that is often needed in older areas, a developer would come along and try to knock down several single family homes and replace them with multi-unit duplexes.

I have nothing against a few duplexes here and there, especially when it means re-purposing an otherwise abandoned over-sized home. I also have nothing against homeowners who purchase an old home and realizing they’ve just saddled themselves with a money pit, decide that it’d be more economical to rebuild than renovate. All of these things can be done with consideration and respect for the density and aesthetics of a historic neighborhood. And realistically, municipal by-laws exist to manage exactly that.

But it seems in this sometimes sleepy town of London Canada, our neighborhood once referred to over a century ago as a bedroom village named Petersville and now lovingly referred to as Blackfriars for the historic bridge up the road, is now threatened by the perceived precedent set by previous rezoning in the area. For some reason, since there are duplexes that were allowed to be built around the corner and down the street more than a decade ago, that somehow means that a small single family home with obvious early Ontario architectural styling can be knocked down, and in it’s place can go a 10-unit rental property, which is an appropriate replacement according to the city by-law. To me this doesn’t make a lot of sense, and not just because I think the house that’s there now looks perfectly fine, but because when I look at the houses beside and across the street, I can easily see how a 10-unit rental is going to stick out like a sore thumb.

Now perhaps the builder is expected by the city to put something in its place that fits with the neighborhood much like they did in Wortley Village when condos went in. Perhaps this duplex will not look like all the other ones that are springing up all over our city that look cheaply built and prove to be such after a few years when they start looking run-down. But unless the city decides to inform our neighborhood on developments in advance that affect density I won’t know until it’s already too late. And that’s sad, because if that happens that means the city has ignored previous studies which indicated the historical significance of Petersville/Blackfriars and suggested that it should be designated or at least considered as a heritage district.

IMG_1183bPersonally I don’t know why it isn’t a heritage district already, given the history of the nearby Fork of the Thames where John Graves Simcoe tramped around with his posse in 1793 looking for Canada’s next top capital. Then there’s historic Blackfriars Bridge alone and the fact that many of the properties along the river were owned by key founding members of London’s community during the 1800s, not to mention a mill which also sat near the bridge for several years. Eldon House is right up the road as well. Then in the 20th century this neighborhood received notoriety for the devastating effects of at least 2 major floods. Once the Springbank dam and breakwaters were built this neighborhood was able to properly re-establish itself and despite the usual ups and downs has become an ideal neighborhood thanks to the mix of cottage style homes, Victorian inspired gems and dead-end streets that afford a quaint and quieter lifestyle including easy access to pathways and nature.

As a first time home buyer starting with very little capital, I was excited to have the opportunity to purchase one of these Ontario style cottages. Were it not for this small starter home, my spouse and I may have rented for at least another five years and wouldn’t have had the sense of ownership and the satisfaction that owning a home can bring. Not only did it fit our budget and lifestyle, but I’m proud of our conservative decision in light of economic challenges and the rising cost of utilities. Closet-less as it may be, just like Herman Goodden’s, there’s a quaintness about our little home that makes me feel a part of something special. And what that feeling or that special thing is, is history. It’s so strong here in my neighborhood that you can’t walk or drive far without seeing it. When you buy home in a location like this you’re reminded of its history with every renovation or even when digging in your garden.

Just last summer I found shards of what looked like 1940’s dinnerware in my garden. And when we first bought this house and peeled back five layers of wallpaper and opened up the odd wall, want to know what we found? History!!! Everywhere!

stamps family tickets1

In the basement it was a charm with a family photo, some bus schedules from 1977 and tickets from who knows when. In the attic it was some very old iron square nails as well as a mummified rat (ok, ew!). In between the baseboard of the spare bedroom I found old collectors stamps and inside a wall we found a neat little glass pill bottle. Under the wallpaper it was the signatures and dates of several generations of the one and only family who lived here before us since approximately 1930. Really!!

wall I had the pleasure of meeting one of the family members when we bought our house. One of the things she was most concerned about when selling her deceased mother’s home was that we were going to love and care for it as much as her family had. She’s since learned that she needn’t worry, we continue to lovingly restore this home as needed and welcome her in to see the improvements anytime she’s stopped by. Her memories of this house are near and dear to her heart and I’m excited to keep such an important piece of someone’s history alive, even if its a new chapter. She too walked over the bridge to work. She and her many brother’s and sisters somehow fit into this tiny house along with their parents. The house itself was evidence of her grandfather’s profession and legacy as a homebuilder in the area…the home was built for his daughter when she married and in the lot beside us a home was also built for her sister when she married. It was said by the family that our home was  previously located a street over on a corner lot. Why was it moved? Well, it just happened to be one of the houses that was apparently washed right off it’s foundation during the flood in April 1937. So this house, this little, one story, square cottage style home, has a lot more history than one would think when driving by. Local journalist Scott Lightfoot can relate, a piece of his family’s history is in this neighborhood too, however sadly, his family home is scheduled to be torn down for a 10-unit rental property as I mentioned above.

When we first viewed this house I knew immediately that it was the house for us. Sure, the crown molding took my breath away and the front ‘parlour’ gave me visions of sipping tea with my pinkie raised, but it was the story of the house that really drew me in as well as the history of the neighborhood that made me feel like it all just fit together in a way that made sense; that felt right; that was home.

In the wake of the recent threat to my neighborhood and during previous community concerns, it has been encouraging to see that there are many other residents and homeowners who feel the same way about Blackfriars/Petersville or whatever they may call it depending on what side of Blackfriars, Wilson Street, Riverside, Oxford or Wharncliffe that they live on. We all care about this neighborhood and the quality of life that the residents and stewards enjoy and appreciate.

We’re concerned about houses being torn down. We’re concerned about inappropriate developments being plunked into the middle of a street of single story, single family homes. We’re concerned about the already excessive number of rental properties that are often left either poorly maintained or vacant due to landlords that don’t live in the city, province or even the country. We’re concerned about traffic (flow and parking), garbage and noise issues, all which play a factor in reasons why a 10-bedroom (or unit) rental is inappropriate on Wilson Street, or even Leslie and Albion Streets.

It’s my hope that an upcoming city planning committee meeting this Tuesday, April 23rd at 4pm, where the Blackfriars community concerns are slated for discussion at approximately 6pm, will provide an opportunity for our voices to be heard and for city council to reconsider some of the decisions that will negatively affect this historic community. The meeting takes place at City Hall on the 3rd floor.

It’s our goal to have the city reconsider the demolition of 108 Wilson Street and see similar concerns with Leslie and Albion Streets addressed before it’s too late. At the very least the size of duplexes allowed should be reconsidered.

I will be there, because I don’t want this opportunity to help preserve an important part of London’s heritage to pass by. We’re not just concerned about saving old buildings, we’re concerned with sustaining the character and culture of a city with history.

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Posted on April 22, 2013, in Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. I hope the meeting goes well. We’re far too quick in this country to take the wrecking ball to anything old. We could take a cue from Europe on this and celebrate our history instead of bulldozing it.

  2. Thank you for expressing exactly how I feel about my little cottage. My house was built in the 1880s for a child who married too, and the original homestead still stands beside me. Sadly the other family cottage, 96 Albion, may be demolished, and with it destroying a piece of our neighbourhood’s history. The places all survivied the floods, and I hope they can survive this.

    See you at city hall!

  3. Thank you Mel! This is exactly the reason why this neighborhood needs to stay preserved as much as possible, how many other neighborhoods these days still have those kinds of stories and connections?!

  4. Quick update on Blackfriars topic – Meeting at City Hall this past Tuesday was a great opportunity for the community to be visually recognized and brought the issue under the spotlight. Multiple options are being investigated by city staff right away. An upcoming meeting should provide the opportunity for our community delegate to speak on behalf of the neighborhood. We were so happy to see so many people attend, 2 overflow rooms were needed to fit us all in!

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