An Opinion Piece by Ruby Truax
There are 12 designated heritage properties in Huntsville, including Proudfoot House, Howland House, the band shell, St. Andrew’s church and the railway station. But our best known and most beloved designated heritage property is Hart House. For generations this stately Queen Anne-style home has stood as our finest example of master builder William Proudfoot’s architecture, attracting countless visitors to King Street to view and photograph it. It’s a beautiful, iconic, historically important building.
Or it was.
When a property is designated as having heritage value, specific features of the property are protected by municipal bylaw and require a heritage permit before any changes are made. But recently, the Town approved some renovations to Hart House that actually contravene the guidelines applied to the property, guidelines which the Town is charged to enforce. Permission was given to replace the wooden veranda, which was a protected feature of the home, with stone veneer. More renovations followed, some of which were done without the Town’s approval, and these changes are gradually but inexorably obscuring the original building.
18 multi-paned coloured glass windows, which are specifically protected by the property’s Heritage Designation and were an integral part of Hart House’s heritage value, were removed without permission and replaced with new heritage-style windows. Without approval, the same stone veneer that’s on the newly built garage and the modern addition on the back of the house was added to parts of the original building, which is not historically appropriate and not at all in keeping with the design of that beautiful wood clapboard Victorian house. And without approval, the lot was clear cut all the way down to the river.
At the last meeting of the Municipal Heritage Committee, Teri Souter, manager of Arts, Culture and Heritage, addressed these unapproved renovations by presenting the property owner’s perspective: excuses for not applying for a heritage permit and justification for the renovations.
But Ms. Souter didn’t provide any photos of the recent changes to Hart House, photos which, I believe, would have broken the heart of any committee member passionate about preserving our Town’s heritage, and particularly this beautiful building. And she discouraged committee members from heading up there on their own for a look because the owner was complaining about trespassing.
Ms. Souter said she’d made a verbal agreement with the owner that the original multi-paned coloured windows would be hung indoors behind the new windows, and then recommended that the original building permit for Hart House be amended to include permission for a stone veneer. In other words, just let it go.
I fear we’re on a slippery slope with Hart House, and believe that letting these unapproved changes stand will set a precedent.
The owner doesn’t seem to have any interest in preserving the heritage of this lovely old home. When she first bought the property in 2013, she intended to attach an 8,000-square-foot office building to the front of the house. And even worse, the Town, which is charged with enforcing Hart House’s Heritage Designation, initially approved the plan, until an independent planner was hired and pointed out numerous things that contravened the Town’s own zoning and building bylaws for a waterfront property in a residential neighbourhood.
So in the case of Hart House, the Town has made a few mistakes, too often siding with private ownership over enforcing the Heritage Designation. I understand that the owner has rights regarding her private property, but she also has responsibilities, of which she was made aware when she purchased a designated heritage property.
But it’s not too late to stop sliding down that slippery slope.
On Tuesday (December 20th), our Municipal Heritage Committee will meet to decide what to do about the unapproved changes made to Hart House over the summer: the removal of the original stained glass windows and the addition of the stone veneer (the issue of the clear cutting will be addressed by the planning department).
I’d like to ask your readers to join me in emailing members of the Heritage Committee to let them know that we care about Hart House, that we’re concerned about the changes being made to this Heritage building that they’re charged to protect, and to ask that if the Town chooses not to order any restorative action or levy any fines, that they at least stop any further changes to the historical integrity of this property and enforce the Heritage Designation from here on.
Please take a few minutes to send an email to your Town Councillor or to our Deputy Mayor before their meeting on Tuesday. Members of our Municipal Heritage Committee are Councillors Nancy Alcock, Jason FitzGerald, Bob Stone and Jonathan Wiebe, as well as Deputy Mayor Karin Terziano. You can email them by going to www.huntsville.ca/en/townHall/MeetYourCouncillors.asp