Have you seen this building?

The Sir Aemilius Irving House, Hamilton

Photo: The Sir Aemilius Irving House, Hamilton


Sean Fraser

Buildings and architecture

Published Date: Feb 14, 2008

In November 2007, the Sir Aemilius Irving House in Hamilton was demolished by its owner to make way for a new building. Unfortunately, local heritage advocates were unable to convince the owner to alter plans – or the municipality to intervene – to prevent the destruction of this unique and significant 150-year-old stone building. The loss was unfortunate and contrary to the principles of sustainability and architectural conservation. Surprisingly, this is not an isolated or rare occurrence.

The media, most property owners and the general public assume that all heritage properties have already been identified and are protected. Unfortunately, this is far from true. New heritage properties are discovered in Ontario almost every day, and usually only after they have become threatened. Some municipal heritage inventories have existed since the 1970s; these lists, however, are not comprehensive. They are lists of opportunity, influenced by the authors, the age, methodology of the survey and available resources. Most often, a threatened property has simply never been evaluated for its heritage value.

So, what can Ontario’s citizens do to prevent the loss of heritage properties?

  • Identification – encourage your municipality to maintain a municipal register that includes both designated and non-designated properties
  • Protection – seek the protection of heritage properties through Ontario Heritage Act designation before they are threatened
  • Preparation – assemble a well-documented, logical argument for the heritage significance, preservation and adaptive re-use of the property in question
  • Professionalism – behave courteously, communicate clearly and state your case in writing
  • Networking – seek the assistance and advice of heritage organizations at the local, provincial and national levels
  • Awareness – understand the unique heritage planning infrastructure in your community and engage in current events and issues
  • Communication – engage in a dialogue with municipal staff, your Municipal Heritage Advisory Committee, various non-governmental organizations, owners, neighbours and ratepayers
  • Presentation – engage the media and ensure that they receive accurate and timely information, and that you communicate your key messages
  • Advocacy – communicate with your municipal councillors both in writing and in person; make the conservation solution the norm in decision-making in your municipality

The support of your municipal council is the most important factor in the preservation of any heritage property. Municipalities, through powers granted under the Ontario Heritage Act and the Provincial Policy Statement of the Planning Act, possess the tools necessary to identify, designate and prevent the demolition of any property that they determine has cultural heritage value. Moreover, these powers can be legally utilized with or without consent of the owner. The means by which a municipality can protect its heritage are outlined in the Ministry of Culture’s Heritage Toolkit.

When we lose a cultural heritage property, we lose it forever. In our globalizing modern world, today’s architecture and planning tend to blur local identity and sense of place. Ontario’s heritage, built up incrementally over time, has created thousands of diverse, interesting and unique communities. It is our responsibility to enhance – rather than destroy – this non-renewable legacy.