Heritage designation could protect pre-Confederation schoolhouse from demolition

Centre Wellington councillors are moving to protect a pre-Confederation stone school house in Belwood from demolition.

After the school closed to the public in 1966, modifications were made to the building over time to accommodate a weaving school with accommodations and then a restaurant, until it closed its doors permanently in 2001. It has stood vacant ever since.

In recent years, the property was purchased by Kevin Trudeau.

On April 18, Centre Wellington councillors stated their intention to designate the former Belwood schoolhouse, located at 24 North Broadway St., to be of cultural heritage value and/or interest under the Ontario Heritage Act.

Council also authorized staff to proceed with notice requirements outlined in the act.

The property is currently listed on the township’s municipal heritage register. Township planner Mariana Iglesias said the request for designation is in response to a “notice of intent to demolish” the structure received by the township on Feb. 22.

She said the property owner stated the site is contaminated due to the former auto service station site immediately north of the subject property.

The owner would like to remove the building to facilitate the  eventual remediation of the contamination, Iglesias said.

The property is also the subject of a citizens’ request for heritage designation, which was referred to Heritage Centre Wellington for consideration.

In addition, the township received a property standards complaint that several doors to the building were unsecured and that there were holes in the roof and the building was suffering water damage through these openings.

Iglesias stressed that designating the building “is the only means by which a property may be protected from demolition or inappropriate alterations indefinitely.”

On March 21, Heritage Centre Wellington recommended that council proceed with a heritage designation.

Iglesias said  the property meets each of the three criteria for determining heritage value – design, historical and contextual values.

Reports indicated the property is an early example of a pre-Confederation schoolhouse, circa 1861 (later addition 1873), and a rare example of the evolution of stone schoolhouse architecture in Centre Wellington.

Iglesias stated the building has contextual cultural heritage value because it is important in defining, maintaining and supporting the character of Belwood; and it is physically, functionally, visually and historically linked to its surroundings, as it once was part of a thriving village alongside a church, post office and other buildings.

Iglesias stated designation would halt the demolition and “protect the property from future demolition or alterations.”

She added that without the designation, in 60 days the chief building official would be obligated to issue the permit as required by the Ontario Building Code Act.

“While the physical condition of the property and the costs associated with maintaining the building may be a factor in the owner’s decision-making process, and can be part of council’s consideration, such concerns are generally beyond the scope of an evaluation of heritage value,” Iglesias stated in her report.

“It is understood that virtually any structural element can be repaired, restored or stabilized, provided the appropriate resources are available …

“Further, it is staff’s understanding that generally speaking, contaminated sites can be remediated without necessitating demolition of the structures on the property.”

Iglesias  stated heritage conservation is not about protecting every structure from demolition, but “protecting the best and most significant examples within a community will help provide information about its evolution to future generations.”

Councillor Stephen Kitras asked if there was still evidence of contamination on the site.

Iglesias stated there are some reports on file – but nothing current she is aware of.

Centre Wellington resident Carol Williams also made an impassioned plea to designate the structure. She said many of those who have lived in the area for more than 20 years “are very upset about the state of the schoolhouse.”

So she decided to generate interest in having the building designated and spoke to a number of people involved in heritage and building preservation.

She stated there are a number of people willing to act as heritage advisors and willing to form a group to organize restoration of the building.

“I was assured by the township that you are committed to tourism,” Williams said, adding restoration of the schoolhouse would boost tourism in both Belwood and Centre Wellington.

She suggested the restaurant could be rebuilt and the weaving studio reestablished or another artisan enterprise brought in.

Williams said even the idea of a micro-brewery could succeed and enhance the cultural and heritage arts in the community.

As to the soil tests, Williams contended her information indicated there were “no significant issues.”

While there was a site cleanup by Shell Canada (the former owner), the most recent soil tests were in 2014.

Because the building is near the top of the hill, she contended anything noxious would have flowed downhill and into the lake over the years.

Williams asked the owner to consider working with the designation, as “this has to be one of the finest schoolhouses in this part of the country.”

Kitras said the pre-Confederation building was already designated on the township heritage register.

“For a small town, there are very few buildings like this. Belwood is part of our community and I feel very strongly that we should designate this,” Kitras said.

Council passed a motion to proceed with the heritage designation under the Heritage Act.