“IN LESS THAN 24 HOURS IT WAS GONE,” wrote reporter Debbie Lawes in the Kanata Standard on Wednesday, June 8, 1988, a week after a wrecking crew tore down Hodgins House at the corner of Hazeldean Road and Terry Fox, to make way for a shopping plaza.
It was an unexpected and bitter end to a two-year effort by local residents to save the historic building, a stone mansion built in 1881 by William T. Hodgins, a Member of Parliament from 1891-1900 and one of the most influential landowners in the area in his day.
Here’s the story of the house, and how the community tried – and failed – to save it.
“LEADING LIGHTS OF THE HAZELDEAN COMMUNITY and the source of money behind the founding of Carp,” is how historian Bruce Elliott described the Hodgins family in the Kanata Standard (June 11, 1987).
William Thomas Hodgins was a third-generation Canadian member of an Irish family originally from County Tipperary, Ireland. His grandfather (also named William), settled in the area in the early 19th century and amassed a huge collection of land in what’s now western Ottawa.
William T. Hodgins was born on February 27, 1857 in Goulbourn. He married Anna B. Watt (born 1856) and they established a home on Hazeldean Road. It’s not clear whether it was William T. or his father John who built the stone house. A datestone on the house said 1881, and the land was bequeathed from father to son in 1883. The 1891 census recorded that William lived there with Anna, a labourer, and a female servant in the 10-room stone house.
Hodgins was known for his support of agricultural societies in the area, and was a director of the Central Canada Exhibition. He helped to organize the Monk Rural Telephone Company, one of the early phone services in the area.
As far as we know, William and Anna lived at the house for their entire lives. William died in 1909 at age 52, and Anna died two years later. They had no children.
The house was inherited by Hodgins’ brother and sisters, who sold it to William P. Hand in 1912. Hand sold to Howard Richardson in 1920, then in 1946 it was purchased by Lt-Col. J.D. Macbeth, an officer in the Canadian Signal Corps. (He won the Croix de Guerre in World War II and served as executive assistant to the Minister of Veterans Affairs after the war.) Macbeth died in 1951 and his widow sold the home to Mr. and Mrs. Wilmer D. Kirby later that year. The Kerbys sold it to Burris and Barbara Bullman in 1959, who sold it to Carson Unsworth in 1963. (Source: Kanata Standard, June 18, 1987.)
ARCHITECTURALLY, HODGINS HOUSE WAS AN EXAMPLE of the Italianate style in the Picturesque tradition. It was notable for its craftsmanship and its large size — it would have been one of the biggest homes in the area. Here’s how historian Joanna Doherty described it in the Kanata Standard (May 14, 1987):
“William T. Hodgins and his wife Anna brought to Hazeldean a residential design that had a degree of sophistication which reflected their knowledge and love of the English Picturesque landscape tradition… The pale, reflective surface of the stone was said to accentuate the effects of light and shadow created by the foliage surrounding the building and the projecting elements in its design. This allowed the house to be a harmonious part of the overall scenic composition…
“The light grey stone composing the Hodgins’ house was finely dressed and hand tooled and hand textured…. expertly laid by craftsmen who demonstrated a knowledge of the finer elements of architectural style… perhaps the finest architectural feature of the house is its bay window. The window is not only beautiful in itself due to its fine stonework, but it reflects the height of Picturesque… it was important for the occupant to have a commanding view of his environment.”
“It seems unbelievable that this city is one of the very few to consciously resist acknowledging the value of its tangible roots with the past, while allowing developers de facto carte blanche to erect neighbourhoods that won’t last a fraction as long as structure such as Glen Cairn’s Unsworth home.”
(Kanata Standard editorial, March 1987)
BY THE LATE 1980s, much of the land surrounding the house to the south and east had been developed for housing. The three remaining acres had been purchased by Taylor Developments. (You still see Brent Taylor’s signs all over the city — in fact he’s selling another 19th century home right now on Stittsville Main Street.)
The Taylor plan was to bulldoze the house to build a 35,000 square foot shopping plaza. The land was reported as being worth about $600,000 at the time.
When local heritage advocates got wind of Taylor’s proposal, they started looking for a way to stop the demolition.
The house should have easily qualified for heritage designation under the Ontario Heritage Act, passed in 1975, which could have held off demolition for at least a few months. But Kanata City Council at the time was looking towards the future, and was not known as being enthusiastic about heritage.
In January 1987, Kanata councillors rejected a proposal to establish a Local Architectural Conservation Advisory Committee (LACAC), a committee that was established in many other municipalities to advise councils on heritage issues. (In the amalgamated City of Ottawa today, the Heritage Committee – composed of councillors, architects and heritage experts – plays a similar role.)
“Council’s decision not to have a LACAC group is embarrassing. Kanata is the only city in Ontario without one,” Joanna Doherty told the Kanata Standard at the time.
Doherty, a Glen Cairn resident and architectural historian with Parks Canada, became the driving force behind a group that would try to save Hodgins House from the wrecking ball. In March 1987, she was part of the group of residents that formed the Kanata Architectural Conservation Society (KACS).
The group went to City Council and asked them to stop the demolition, but were denied because council didn’t want to spend money to purchase or renovate the building. In the previous five years the city had spent nearly $320,000 to help restore several heritage buildings including the mansion at Pinhey’s Point, and the Old Town Hall on March Road.
“Just don’t ask us to buy more buildings. We need a new leisure pool, an extra ice surface and more sidewalks in Kanata. Don’t force a lifetime of poverty on the owner of the residence,” said Alderman Bill Berry at the time.
The thing is, heritage designation didn’t have to cost the city anything. Designation would not have necessarily tied the city to buy or maintain a building. Under the Heritage Act at that time, designation would have opened a 180-day window where the City could have negotiated with the property’s owner – in this case Taylor Developments – to conserve it and incorporate it into their plans. Doherty and the KACS group came up with a plan for that too.
In mid-April, Doherty presented council with an alternate concept plan drawn up by architects George Nichols and Debra Smilski. The stone house was incorporated into the corner strip mall, where it could have been used for a restaurant or professional offices.
The developer said the only way they’d support heritage designation was if residents were prepared to move the house somewhere else. Council ended up approving the strip mall as we know it today.
“It just didn’t fit. We’re not made of stone. We’re sympathetic. The previous council zoned the property commercial,” said Len Koffman, a lawyer for Taylor. He suggested donating the stones to the community or putting up a monument in a nearby park.
Reaction from the community was mixed.
“In its callous, short-sighted attitude to rush ahead with yet another ugly strip mall, council has shown that is [sic] has no sense of history, no concern for the total environment of our city and no commitment to good planning,” wrote Fred Boyd in a letter to the editor. “With a little imagination the historic house could have been saved and there could have been intelligent development of the land. The incredibly myopic stance of council and the insensitive attitude of the developer are inexcusable.”
“Funny, no one has asked myself and a lot of others who think that our taxes can be spent more wisely,” wrote Mark Boyer. “Old houses are very expensive to purchase, renovate and maintain. If they can save the Unsworth house what do they plan on doing with it? Move in? I hardly think so. How do they plan on funding the operation of this and other old houses?”
FAST FORWARD TO JANUARY 1988. The house is still standing, but the date with the wreckers is just weeks away. The Standard reports that the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada is set to recognize Hodgins House for its historical and architectural significance, in a report to be released in about six weeks. Would it be soon enough to make a difference?
Kanata Mayor Des Adam tells the Standard that the city’s hands are tied, because when the developer purchased the land, it was already zoned commercial, so they don’t need permission to tear down the house. (Although had Adam and his council decided to add heritage designation to the house, they could delayed and possibly stopped its demolition.)
MARCH 1988. A plan is hatched to save the house by moving it to nearby Walter Baker Park, being developed across the street. City Council has offered a site in the park for the house.
The community continues to debate heritage and development in the letters page of the Standard.
“It should not be forgotten that the so called ‘ugliest development known to modern civilization’ the strip plaza provides essential goods and services to the surrounding community not to mention jobs. We should welcome commercial development and take strip plazas with a grain of salt. After all, they’re really not that unpleasant to look at,” writes Joel Walker.
“The presence of such landmarks… were swaying factors in my decision to move to Kanata. Their unique contribution helps to break the monotony of acre upon acre of sterile housing development,” writes Julie Joyce.
EARLY APRIL, 1988. “Hodgins house eludes date with wrecker’s ball,” says the headline in the Standard. Provincial cabinet minister Richard Patten has joined the fight.
“I’m optimistic we can save the house. I will be speaking to other (cabinet) ministers this week about the issue, and I should know something concrete within a couple of weeks after I’ve looked into the funding possibilities,” says the Ottawa Centre MPP.
The province would contribute 25% of the estimated $150,000 needed to move the 500-ton house. The City of Kanata would have to commit $75,000 and the community would fundraise the rest.
But although City Council was originally on board with the relocation plan, they’ve also issued a demolition permit. Mayor Adam says he’ll talk to Taylor to try to persuade him to hold off demolishing the house as long as possible.
MID-APRIL, 1988. “New developments spark hope for Hodgins House,” headlines the Standard. The City, the developer, and KACS are now working together again to come up with a plan to move the house to the new location. “After discussing the situation with mayor Des Adam, developer Brent Taylor, who wants to clear the site to make way for a strip plaza, agreed to delay demolition for at least one month,” says architect and KACS member George Nichols.
If the house is saved, it will likely become a centre for local arts groups.
Marianne Wilkinson, who served as mayor of Kanata from 1978-1985 (and in 2016 is an Ottawa city councillor in Kanata North), writes a letter to the editor, calling Hodgins House “one of the finest buildings in the City of Kanata”.
“It’s long term value to the city, both historically and practically, is significant enough to warrant the city contributing its share of funds to move the house and place it on a foundation. Long term restoration is not needed now and can be funded in future years when a permanent use for the property, which could help in its funding, is determined.
“It is unfortunate that council did not initially insist that the house be incorporated in the site plan. Although I am aware that, in a narrow legal sense, this could not have been required, council has the ability to negotiate, cajole, encourage and otherwise ensure that the house was maintained and used without the necessity of any funds – that was the first lost opportunity.
“The second opportunity – to use the house as a fine feature of Walter Baker Park – is still available. Council should show foresight and sensitivity to this project by providing its share of the funds necessary for the relocation, new foundation and utility connections…
“A quality community remembers and protects its heritage. I recall the opposition to buying the Pinhey property but what a great long term asset we have there. The Hodgins house is architecturally superior to the Pinhey house and will be more accessible because of the location. Let’s not lose the second opportunity. Urge your members of council to demonstrate its leadership abilities and create a historical oasis in Walter Baker Park.”
MAY 1988. City council meets in-camera and decides not to fund the relocation of Hodgins House after all, citing ballooning costs (now estimated at $500,000, not $150,000).
“If those figures are legitimate, then there’s no point in continuing these discussions. We simply can’t afford it. It’s out of our league,” says Adam.
Adam also argues that he’s not convinced there’s enough public support. He says that during the last few weeks residents have come to him complaining “if the city has money for an old house, then why not for other more important projects.”
With the city pulling out, that puts the provincial funding in jeopardy, and catches MPP Patten by surprise.
“I didn’t realize the situation had changed,” said Patten. “I spoke to the mayor a month ago, and I thought we had an agreement all worked out. The funding for this project is a three-way arrangement and we (the provincial government) need an assurance from the city that it will accept responsibility for the building — that includes helping to fund the move.”
The community has come up with $7,000 in pledges to date.
On the same night, council grants the final site plan approval to Taylor Developments.
“The developer has said construction is expected to begin in about a month,” reports the Standard.
MAY 31, 1988. Demolition begins.
“The news of the demolition reached the Kanata Standard’s office almost simultaneously with word from the Minister of Government Services office that $37,500 in provincial funding could be obtained to pay for the relocation of the house.”
Members of KACS are shocked, and mount a protest. Work is temporarily halted over an alleged improper city permit. The Kanata OPP, the president of the wrecking company and the Kanata’s building inspector meet on the site to resolve the issue . The following morning, what’s left Hodgins home is levelled.
HODGINS HOUSE WAS DEMOLISHED, but it’s not all gone.
First, there are the trees. That big line of pine trees that separates the houses on Glenmoriston Avenue in Glen Cairn from the shopping plaza are the same trees that lined the east edge of the property, and that the people who lived in the house would have seen from their windows.
What’s beneath the trees is even more interesting. I took a walk there last fall, and I’m almost certain some of the old stones are still there, nearly 30 years after it was demolished.
Other than that, there’s no sign of the mansion that stood there for over 100 years. The footprint of Hodgins House is roughly in the corner of the plaza where the Mattress Mart sits now. The landscaped garden in front of the home is now a parking lot and a McDonald’s.
I TRIED, UNSUCCESSFULLY, to reach Joanna Doherty, the leader of the KACS group. One of her colleagues thought she moved to a job in the United States, frustrated with the lack of interest and concern for history in Canada. George Nichols, the architect who drew up the alternate plans presented to Kanata Council, died of a heart attack while playing golf a few years back. Mayor Des Adam still lives in Kanata but he didn’t return my calls or emails.
I did talk to Marianne Wilkinson about what she remembered from the time. She recalled a separate development proposal that came a few years before Taylor Developments.
“There was a proposal to put up a housing development on that corner, townhouses and things, and save the house. The people living around there complained bitterly. They didn’t want that there. I said ‘if you don’t do this, you could get something worse’ and they sure did,” she said.
“I was opposed to strip mall developments along Hazeldean Road. We had a few already but I said we had enough. Des Adam said ‘if they own the land and want to do it, they can do it’.”
“They could have designed a development there that maintained the house,” she said. “It was a big enough house they could have turned it into something. It was like Cabotto’s.”
“It’s nice to have some understanding of where you come from as well as where you’re going. Buildings give you a sense of that history a little bit. You don’t have to preserve them all, and you don’t want to reserve only the beautiful ones. [Hodgins House] was a beautiful one.”
As far as protecting community heritage, I believe we’ve come a long way since 1988 but not far enough. Ontario’s heritage legislation has been strengthened since then, and if a building like Hodgins House was threatened by development in today, it would almost certainly qualify and receive protection from the wrecking ball through the heritage designation process.
But as we saw earlier this year with council’s decision to allow the de-designation of Bradley-Craig Farm, that protection isn’t always as air tight as it should be. Ultimately, heritage protection depends on how strongly our councillors are committed to upholding it.
Kanata’s civic leaders clearly missed an opportunity to save an incredible building. The community would have been far richer today with Hodgins House still standing.
The chronology of events and much of the research for this piece comes from the pages of the Kanata Standard community newspaper. An archive of the paper is available at the Beaverbrook Library in Kanata.)
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