By Dr. Diane Dent
Many regard Sandyford Place as the foremost surviving stone terrace in Canada. Today, it stands majestic and fully functional at the corner of Duke Street and MacNab Street South in Hamilton’s historic Durand neighbourhood. It’s become a risen phoenix that’s ours to appreciate.
Yet the building’s story – which spans more than 150 years and includes episodes of splendor and neglect – reminds us of the need for collective action to realize effective heritage conservation and community renewal. It’s what saved Sandyford Place from the wrecking ball and it remains our best tool to conserve what’s left of Hamilton’s heritage.
Built by Freemasons in the late 1850s using local limestone, Sandyford Place is an example of terrace row housing. It features four attached dwellings, each with a separate entrance and stairway. This type of urban townhouse is common in Scotland yet rare in Canada aside from the Maritime Provinces.
Through to the mid-20th century, Sandyford Place, like many other residential properties in the Durand neighbourhood, was home to affluent merchants and professionals. This changed in the years following World War II – an era of aggressive urban renewal that saw wide swaths of our city’s core leveled to make room for concrete towers, parking lots and shopping malls.
In the early 1970s, the Canadian government compiled a list of pre-1880 buildings in Hamilton. At the rate they were being demolished at the time, eighty percent would be gone within a decade. Demolition permits could be issued instantly and their records were inaccessible to the public. The Durand neighbourhood looked like a war zone. The magnificent Birks Building on the Gore was gone.
Dr. Grant Head, founder of Heritage Hamilton, started thinking about establishing a corporation with both business and social goals. Important pieces of heritage architecture could be purchased, rehabilitated with attention to heritage elements, then rented or resold. Monies realized on one building could be rolled to another. The corporation could compete with the high rise developers in buying the houses because they were selling at land value only. It was determined that this concept could work in Hamilton and be sustainable.
In August 1973, Fincup Ltd. and LaJolla Holdings Ltd. – then owners of Sandyford Place – announced plans to demolish the buildings in order to construct high rise apartments. This triggered a campaign, led by Dr. Head, his wife Brenda and other members of Heritage Hamilton Inc., to purchase and save Sandyford Place. It raised more than $90,000, largely from Heritage Hamilton shareholders, and resulted in a formal offer to purchase. The owner rejected the offer. Evidently, it would take larger sums of money combined with delicate political manoeuvring to finally seal the deal.
The City of Hamilton Board of Control used a bylaw to delay the demolition of Sandyford Place. The bylaw required property owners wishing to demolish a building to submit documentation detailing future development plans. The Fincup/LaJolla team were not ready and/or willing to comply. This gave the local heritage community and its supporters more time to organize.
Meanwhile, in December 1974, Alderman William McCulloch, chair of the City’s Planning and Development Committee, reported that there was legislation before the provincial government to help promote the preservation of historic buildings and archaeological sites across Ontario. He was referring to the Ontario Heritage Act that came into force in 1975 with the assistance of Hamilton West MPP Jack McNie, Mayor Victor Copps, Controller Anne Jones, and many others.
Bert Lawrence – a provincial cabinet minister under Premier William Davis who would come to chair the newly-created Ontario Heritage Foundation – gave Sandyford Place top priority for preservation funds. At the invitation of local Aldermen Bob Morrow and William McCulloch, Minister Lawrence sat down to negotiate.
Fincup/LaJolla offered to sell Sandyford Place for $446,000 ($20/square foot). Alderman Morrow called the asking price “ridiculous” and requested an independent appraisal. Minister Lawrence favoured a partnership model that would involve the City and the two upper tiers of government.
This activity coincided with a closed meeting between the building owners and the Board of Control that generated little tangible progress other than further recognition of the property’s national significance.
April 1976 was a turning point when City Council agreed to spend approximately $360,000 to buy Sandyford Place and when the Ontario Heritage Foundation promised $200,000 toward its purchase and restoration. Also in April, Sandyford Place received designation under the Ontario Heritage Act (the first in the province) and was declared a National Historic Site by the Government of Canada.
The sale of Sandyford Place to the City of Hamilton closed on April 30, 1976. Soon after, Filer Consultants of Ancaster was hired to undertake the restoration. Monies and support from Heritage Hamilton Inc. helped make this work possible.
Then in May 1977 the unthinkable happened: A fire gutted the upper floors of one corner of the building. It caused $11,000 in damage and reignited fears of demolition.
Yet public support for restoration was significant, fuelled in part by The Hamilton Spectator, that wrote:
“So much of what gave Hamilton its distinctive character has fallen to the wrecker’s hammer and been replaced by concrete rent machines and the harsh lines of utilitarianism that what remains of the unique should be jealously cared for. If for no other reason than its historic charm, the City should not be in too great a hurry to ‘spin off’ Sandyford Place. Its restoration is almost as important as its purchase and should be done under the authority and supervision of the City. Its future can be decided after its restoration.”
In time, through partnership and hard work, Sandyford Place was fully restored. Today the dwellings are all privately owned, occupied and maintained.
Many people will recall the special ceremony in 1978 when Sandyford Place officially became a National Historic Site. Royal Mounties, in their distinctive uniforms set off by scarlet tunics – stood guard as the program unfolded. The Honourable Lincoln Alexander – future Lieutenant Governor of Ontario and future chair of the Ontario Heritage Foundation – officiated at the event and made us all proud.
Just as the mythological phoenix obtains new life by rising from the ashes of its predecessor, the present day Sandyford Place looks as it did during the reign of Queen Victoria. It stands as a tribute to the many people who over the course of time contributed to its design, construction and ongoing evolution. Most important, it remains a unique and protected feature of our city.
Sandyford Place at a Glance
Lesson Learned in Heritage Conservation
This article was commissioned by urbanicity as part of an ongoing series devoted to the history and future of the heritage conservation movement in Hamilton. A special thanks to Richard Allen of The Renew Hamilton Project for his editorial support.