Heritage advisory committees, Ferguson oppose permit request
By Richard Leitner, News Staff
A Hamilton Conservation Authority plan to lower Ancaster’s crumbling Hermitage ruins is in city council’s hands after being opposed by two advisory committees and the area’s councillor.
The city’s municipal heritage committee dealt the plan its latest blow earlier this month, voting 9-2 against a city staff proposal to issue the necessary permit only after opponents are first given three months to raise money to restore the 19th-Century ruins.
The vote came after the heritage permit review subcommittee unanimously refused to support the permit in late June.
The authority estimates lowering the fire-destroyed stone mansion’s remnants will cost $144,000 to $194,000, while full restoration is pegged at $535,000 to $940,000.
The permit application will now go to council’s planning committee, which next meets on Aug. 12.
“I’m just very uncomfortable with something that’s that old, to simply remove down it to a height of three or four feet,” said Ancaster councillor Lloyd Ferguson, who helped defeat the staff recommendation at the heritage committee meeting.
“We’re very proud of our heritage culture in Ancaster and once they’re down, they’re gone. I’m not sure, first of all, if we shouldn’t just let nature take its course,” he said.
“I’m also not convinced why we can’t go in and brace the walls and support them so they won’t fall. It can’t cost much more to brace them than it does to demolish them.”
Built in 1855 as a summer home by George Leith, a wealthy Scottish immigrant, the Hermitage was destroyed by fire in 1934. The authority acquired the site in 1972 and successfully applied for a heritage designation in 1990.
Despite at least $100,000 in repairs since then, remnants of the Sulphur Springs Road mansion and two outbuildings have continued to deteriorate and are now fenced off from the public.
The authority plan would preserve the front façade’s distinctive, arched entrance but lower the rest to a height of 1.2 metres or less – down from up to 11 metres.
It would also cut the property’s grade by half a metre to expose the ruins’ brick foundation, which is being damaged from freezing and thawing because the ground is often saturated with water.
Authority chair Brian McHattie, who is also a heritage committee member and cast one of two dissenting votes, said he has no problem with the decision to reject the permit application but suspects it will be overturned by the planning committee.
He said the authority just doesn’t have the money to restore the ruins and their existing condition is a liability concern because trespassers are hopping the fence to climb on them.
McHattie said the authority did consider allowing the ruins to topple on their own, but believes the public should be able to access them “and get a feeling for the space.”
“By stabilizing it in the way that we’re suggesting, albeit bringing it down to an approximately four-foot level, that would work that way,” he said. “We thought it was the best option.”
Michael Adkins, chair of the heritage permit review subcommittee, said he and fellow members were uncomfortable with “the serious dismantling of the walls,” a plan they feared would make the ruins look “too clean.”
He said the Hermitage is “a fixture in Ancaster and a fixture in many people’s lives,” and he’d like the ruins stabilized and repaired where possible, and the existing “tacky” construction fence replaced with a nicer one.
“It looks derelict,” Adkins said, blaming the ruins’ deterioration on the use of wood rather than steel bracing to support the walls and cement in place of the original mortar during previous repairs.
A consultant found the cement repairs have failed and the upper portions of walls are more than half a metre out of alignment in some areas.
“Some of it’s going to have to come down because it’s just not safe,” Adkins said. “But other parts can be stabilized and sealed at the top in a heritage-preservation way without capping it and putting a lintel on it.”
Fergusonsaid he hasn’t received much public feedback on the authority’s plan, but the Hermitage “is very special to our community,” noting his daughter had her wedding photos taken there.
“I’m just using my own judgment on this and I’m elected to do that on a regular basis, to make decisions on behalf of my community.”