Further to the Record’s View on Preston Springs

Answers, please, on Preston Springs demolitionWaterloo Region Record editorial January 8, 2021. 

Yes, answers please. 

We need answers that can help lay the ground for developing ways and means to prevent the same pattern from repeating over and over again.

The “hard questions” that need to be addressed are not the concern of “irate heritage advocates” alone. 

“Who is to blame?” is not the question to ask, especially not if it means assigning blame among City of Cambridge elected officials and civil servants. 

These kinds of failures are systemic. 

The blame belongs to all of us.  

For the most part, the Christmas Eve demolition order and what has taken place since then at the site where the Preston landmark stood for 132 years are irrelevant.

We give a City’s Chief Building Official authority for the same reason we have a Medical Officer of Health at the Region: to protect lives, and deal with emergency situations.

The decisions we charge them with making are not up for public debate, not even by mayors, chairs or councillors. There is no alternative but to trust them to do the best they can when a crisis arises. Later, such decisions can be analyzed, like the decisions of commanders in historic battles can be studied and debated.  

There is no doubt that the building was a danger to public safety. The fact is, it started becoming a danger to the public the moment renovation efforts were abandoned and the site was left unattended to weather the elements, and to withstand the inevitable mischief that neglected property attracts.

The “hard questions” we’re left with now that the Preston Springs Hotel has been destroyed have been with us all along. We, the public, not just heritage advocates, should have been demanding “answers, please” for going on 20 years now.

As an informed public voice with a duty to speak out, the Record’s editorial staff has been especially negligent here. The paper’s investigating and reporting staff should long have been, and could still be, deployed to finding the facts and telling the story.

If we’re serious about finding answers, we should look at the whole picture: Demolition on order from a civic authority after years of abandonment has become an all too familiar pattern. 

The investigation should include the loss of the Forsyth Shirt factory complex, the Mayfair Hotel and the former Electrohome factory on Shanley Street in Kitchener. 

It might be good to include an examination of some comparable situations where there were happier results, like the Old Post Office in Galt, the former Goudies department store in Kitchener, or, going back farther to one of the luckiest breaks this generally unfotunate city has ever received, the resurrection of the Walper Hotel years after being boarded up.    

It is not clear what kind of investigation is most likely to yield productive results: journalistic, professional, scholarly, or some combination of these. Certainly not forensic. It is doubtful an established heritage consultant from another city would be able to produce the best result. But I’m also not sure all the resources required could be sourced locally.

Whatever the format, the broader the engagement, the better the chance for success. We have to come to terms with the reality that no leadership, political, professional or entrepreneurial, can fix this kind of problem for us. It will require all the wisdom, knowledge, confidence and will we can muster as a city, a region, a province and a country.

To break the pattern, we need to deepen our understanding of all the factors, and then set out to break new ground. The effort must be grounded in reality, current and past, here in our neck of the woods. To break through, courage, especially for imagining possibilities, will be more important than gathering all the facts and adding up all the numbers.       

The situation here is unique, but the call for “answers, please” is not a Cambridge, Kitchener or Greater Waterloo challenge alone. The Record editorial describes the lost landmark as “one of southern Ontario’s most historic buildings.” Consequently, it is not just the Cambridge chapter, but Architectural Conservancy Ontario as whole and other provincial, national and international agencies that can and should help lead the way towards preventing failures on such a colossal scale.

It is also a challenge to Canada. Because this is such a young nation state, everything built before 1950 has historic value, and everything that remains from before the end of the Victorian era is precious beyond measure because it is scarce, and irreplaceable. 

The self-evident fact that “the greenest building is the one that already exists” adds a new dimension to architectural conservancy. 

If the story so far has been one of unspeakable devastation to the land and to the peoples who lived on it before settlers from points south and east took possession of it, all the more reason to start changing our ways and means. For this reason alone, we should have shown more respect for those timbers and bricks that got trucked off to the landfill last week.

For Waterloo, North and South, especially Preston, Cambridge, we have just lost, through our own negligence and incapacity, an inheritance that was as valuable to this community as the Chateau Laurier is to the City of Ottawa — more so, in relative terms, because the nation’s capital is so much richer in such assets than we are.

We here in Waterloo Country have an opportunity here to lead the way towards a breakthrough in the appreciation, conservation, daily maintenance, practical use, and happy enjoyment of cultural heritage assets in towns, cities, provinces and territories from coast to coast to coast.

Let’s seize that opportunity, do it right, and not waste valuable attention, time and energy hounding local civil servants and elected representatives for answers, and looking for someone to blame.  

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