The limits of heritage status

(A widow's walk adorns the top of the house known as the Fairview.)

There are times when heritage designation actually hinders the cause of preserving a heritage building.

Brockville city council seems to have caught on to this reality with the unfortunate case of a decaying gem in its east end.

The Crawford Street property that may soon be divested of its heritage designation is ensconced in a small time warp.

At least, that's the impression you get when you find it, disguised, to the casual driver, as some sort of back lot to the regular Crawford Street houses.

When you take a walk behind and stand amid these majestic properties, you almost feel as if a bit of quiet concentration might transport you back to the days of St. Alban's School, with the Fairview on one end, the Somerset on the other and the rambunctious sons of Upper Canada's Victorian elite running through the snow between them.

A time warp is an interesting way of looking at it, actually, because the property at 40 Crawford Street, and the difficulties requiring the lifting of its heritage status, are symptomatic of the times.

In the Victorian era the building, also known as the Wm. Wilson-Page House and the Fairview, was the home of the gentry, with some of the nation's finest families sending their children there.

Two of those finest were local graduates: George T. Fulford and Tom Cossitt.

Times changed, as they always do, St. Alban's School closed and by the middle of the 20th century the red brick house was home to a different Canadian archetype: the Italian immigrant whose blood and sweat maintained the house and helped his children live better lives.

And now, well, times have changed again. Those children now find themselves unable to afford keeping and maintaining the house, and they cannot sell it while it has its heritage designation.

I recall a former editor's comment to me, more than a decade ago, when I first started at the Recorder and Times.

The days of those large mansions on King Street East are over, he said.

Indeed they are. Of course, there are people around who own sprawling mansions, but the era of the millionaire industrialist making his fortune in Brockville and living here in a brownstone mansion is gone forever.

Now, our ever-transitioning economy being what it is, even maintaining a former boarding school residence and selling it are challenges.

So, is heritage designation a futile attempt to freeze these majestic structures in time?

Not exactly. We are rightly proud of our architectural heritage and should not let it go to waste. Future generations are entitled to similar trips in time.

There is, however, a balance to be struck, a balance that acknowledges these properties are in private hands, and private hands these days are not filled with an aristocratic supply of money.

If city council and Heritage Brockville truly value the Fairview, perhaps their best course of action is to remove the designation, allowing the property to be sold, then provide its new owners with incentives to maintain it in its current form.

As I stood there on the former boarding school grounds, the thought did come to me that, had I enough money to own such a place, I would not want to change much of it.