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Photo by Richard Leitner

Photo by Richard Leitner

The Hermitage ruins as they look today.

Money finally runs out on ‘semi-interesting’ Hermitage ruins

HCA directors seek cheapest way to lower crumbling walls

By Richard Leitner, News Staff

Already leaning so precariously they’re fenced off from the public, Ancaster’s Hermitage ruins appear destined to come tumbling down one way or another.

Hamilton Conservation Authority directors last week gave staff the go-ahead to seek a city heritage permit to lower the remnants of the stone mansion to a safe height, but only after making it clear they want to spend as little money as possible.

Vice-chair Jim Howlett said he doesn’t want to see the Sulphur Springs Road ruins “sponge from this generation anymore” because they are of little real historical significance despite their colourful past.

Built in 1855 as a summer home and hobby farm by George Leith, a wealthy Scottish immigrant, the Hermitage was later owned by his eccentric daughter, Alma, who let barnyard animals wander inside the mansion.

After it was destroyed by fire in 1934, she lived in a one-room cabin built inside the ruins’ walls until her death in 1942. The authority acquired the site 30 years later and successfully applied to have it designated as a heritage property in 1990.

“It’s sort of got a history of soaking up other people’s money,” Howlett said, calling the original cost of construction “a small fortune” in its day.  “The world got nothing out of it other than a fire and a semi-interesting tourist stop.”

Tony Horvat, director of land management, said a plan to be submitted to the city’s heritage permit review committee will preserve the ruins’ distinctive arched entranceway but reduce other sections to a height of 1.2 metres or less.

The plan also calls for the removal of 350 cubic metres of earth to lower the property’s grade by half a metre and “air out” the underground brick foundation, damaged from freezing and thawing because it’s often saturated with groundwater.

Estimated at $144,000 to $194,000, the project is scheduled to begin in early August if the necessary city and Niagara Escarpment Commission approvals are in hand.

Horvat said staff can do up to $40,000 of the work, but the rest requires outside expertise, including the lowering of the walls, which presently rise to about 11 metres.

Director Dan Bowman, manager of fleet and facilities for the Hamilton police, said he believes the estimates are high and would prefer a bill in the $125,000-range.

But he said he supports the plan despite seeing value in the ruins, a popular spot for ghost walks because legend has it that they are haunted by Alma and a coachman for a previous owner who hanged himself after he was forced to part with his true love.

“It is an important part of the heritage and history of the Ancaster and Hamilton area. I’m all for trying to save that piece so I can continue to walk out and find a ghost and feel good about that ghost,” Bowman said.

“This is a special place and I think it is for most people in that part of the city.”

Chief administrative officer Chris Firth-Eagland said although members of the city’s heritage permit review committee have visited the ruins and been apprised of the plan, they’ve given no indication if they will issue a permit.

He said a masonry expert who joined the visit estimated full restoration would cost $1 million because the bricks’ mortar “is like sand” in many places from exposure to the elements over the past 80 years.

Firth-Eagland said staff will report back to directors once the committee makes a decision, but the authority has to act because an earth tremour or downblast of air could topple the walls, which are braced by wooden beams.

“Safety is a very pressing concern,” he said. “We’re actually getting a lot of people climbing the site, shinnying up the angled beams and putting themselves on YouTube and the Web because it has a romance about ghosts and things.”

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