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Western Ontario’s tallest towers get a Victorian touch

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by Ron Stang

London, Ont.’s new residential towers, the tallest west of Toronto, will be a juxtaposition of old and new and are one example of a way to incorporate historical properties into new contemporary structures.
Starting this spring, a $300 million residential tower development will begin to take shape in London, Ont. The project will see three buildings, one 38 storeys on the south side, the other 29 storeys on the north side and a nine-storey building in the centre. The development at the corner of Talbot Street and Dufferin Avenue has faced challenges by heritage activists who wanted to preserve part of a historic row of 19th century Victorian townhouses known as Camden Terrace. Part of the historic townhouse facade will be incorporated in the lobby of the new development’s centre building.
Starting this spring, a $300 million residential tower development will begin to take shape in London, Ont. The project will see three buildings, one 38 storeys on the south side, the other 29 storeys on the north side and a nine-storey building in the centre. The development at the corner of Talbot Street and Dufferin Avenue has faced challenges by heritage activists who wanted to preserve part of a historic row of 19th century Victorian townhouses known as Camden Terrace. Part of the historic townhouse facade will be incorporated in the lobby of the new development’s centre building. - Photo: PHOTO COURTESY OF RYGAR PROPERTIES

Starting early this spring, the massive $300 million unnamed project will see three buildings, one 38 storeys on the south side, the other 29 storeys on the north side and a nine-storey building in the centre, along with some retail components.

The development at the corner of Talbot Street and Dufferin Avenue has been protracted, having faced challenges by heritage activists. Finally, a compromise was reached with city hall and London's heritage advisory committee to preserve part of a historic row of 19th century Victorian townhouses, as well as a couple of standalone houses on the project's northwest corner.

Camden Terrace, as the historic site is known, was not officially a heritage structure though the city had it on its watch list. Developer John Rodgers, who has been in business in the London area for about 30 years with his Rygar Properties, spent a year negotiating with city authorities on how to incorporate those properties into the new development.

Repurposing part of Camden Terrace and the corner properties "was a condition of getting our approvals," he said.

While activists may have wanted more of the townhouse structure to be part of the towers, the developer told the city it simply wasn't possible.

"That's what the heritage community wanted but it was not possible to do that because Camden Terrace is a brownfield site so we had to clean it up," he said. "There were no footings or foundation work."

So what he and architect Sal Vitiello, of Toronto's E.I. Richmond Architects, came up with might not have saved the entire buildings but will arguably enhance their look for generations to come.

Camden Terrace, or at least part of its facade, will be incorporated in the lobby of the new development's centre building, framed by floor to ceiling windows that will allow it to be highly visible from passersby on the street, creating a kind of showroom effect.

"We felt that the best design of the building was to have Camden Terrace rebuilt inside the lobby," Rodgers said.

He added he's not sure if he convinced the heritage committee of the soundness of this creative reuse "but we convinced council that this was the best thing."
And he has nothing but praise for London city administration during the process.

"We worked very hard with city planners to come up with a compromise that everyone could live with," he said. "Planning staff were very reasonable to work with."

While only the facade of Camden Terrace was saved, two 19th century houses at 93-95 Dufferin on the far corner — interrupted by more contemporary buildings infilled over the years — will be included in the exterior of the north tower, looking like a 3-D puzzle block glued to the new structure.

"We have to keep the facade standing on the north side and on a portion of the west side," Rodgers said. "And then we have to shore that on either side. Then we will essentially take the centre of the building out and excavate down about four levels and then build back up and then retie the facades into the new building."

The demolition permit was issued Oct. 21 and work began immediately.

Ace Wrecking of London, with a 50-year track record, was hired for the job, which was completed by December, using both technology and old fashioned labour. But the demolition process wasn't all that difficult, Rodgers explained.

An excavator took out the rotted roof and gently pushed over the brick walls into the centre. Crews removed the lintels and individually separated and stacked the bricks on pallets. Only 10,000 bricks were needed for the reconstruction but Rodgers saved 20,000 "just to be safe."

The bricks aren't particularly special. They're known as London clay bricks, pale yellow in colour and almost iconic of older London buildings, but not a really high quality brick, the developer said.

Other than bricks, cornerstones and lintels, other parts of Camden Terrace couldn't be used.

"The dormers were in very poor shape and some had been rebuilt so they weren't really technically original to the building," Rodgers said. "Then the front stoops, they had been replaced with precast concrete and poured concrete so they weren't retained."

The rebuild will see the brick facade go into the back wall of the lobby.

"The bricks, when they're incorporated, they're not going to be structural, so it shouldn't be a problem," he said.

As a nod to Camden Terrace's significance, the developer will draw the public's attention through some plaques and a description of the history of the older buildings as well as provide details about the demolition process and the rebuild.

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