Buildings are not the only historic things needing to be saved

First published: January 28, 2007

When a major daily newspaper raised concerns about the lack of a proper museum to showcase the various historic artifacts collected by archaeologists recently, the same question applies locally.

Certainly, Barnum House, the county’s museum, is held out as a readily available example. And, those volunteers who commit their time and energy to its maintenance and programs must be commended. Surely, no one would argue it could be so much more. At one point, in the early 1990s, the county council provided funds and applied for provincial grants to staff the facility. Programs were developed and important community outreach took place. Slowly, its profile began to rise and a general awareness of the museum took hold. However, with the arrival of the Mike Harris government and the massive budget cuts introduced during that government’s first term in office, funds evaporated. Also, county council, under former warden Ian Angus, unceremoniously handed back the operation to community volunteers, leaving them to find money and resources.

Barnum House is not alone on the sidelines of cultural life in West Northumberland. The Firefighters Museum, Dorothy’s House and the Barracks in Cobourg are three more examples of museums struggling to survive. But, the problem is not only financial. It is the level of importance the community places on these institutions that is also in ruins. It appears history is not very important in the minds of politicians or for the public.

The only time when history does seem to give rise to public discussion is around our architecture. Cobourg, Port Hope and Hamilton Township all have active committees, known as LACACs (local architecture conservation advisory committees) with the mandate of advising politicians regarding building preservation. Each municipality also has bylaws to regulate development, renovations and preservation of designated buildings. But these paper tigers provide little if any protection, let alone advocate for preservation of this aspect of our local history.

Cobourg seems to be the grossest offender recently. The renovation of the former Plaza Hotel, across from Victoria Hall, raises serious credibility issues as the committee allowed the developer to use window and door treatments that are completely unsympathetic to the architecture or the history of the building. Just as in the case of the Mr. Sub building and the Shopper’s Drug Mart on King Street, further west, LACAC failed miserably to save the integrity of the downtown architecture and it may be decades before the damage can be repaired.

But, if blame is to be laid anywhere, it is at the feet of council. Mayor Peter Delanty seems to work overtime to destroy the heritage of Cobourg. Once, before he became mayor, Cobourg was promoted as a heritage destination. Politicians and citizens embraced our history and used it, not only as a point of pride, but also as a tool to support the local economy. Council after council has turned its back, allowing the destruction of the Chateau Hotel, St. Michael’s Rectory, and the Lydia Pinkham building. Just recently, Mr. Sub, Shopper’s Drug Mart and now the Plaza Hotel, serve as examples of the way Delanty, a former high-profile member of the Cobourg and District Historical Society, disregard the issue of preservation of the downtown heritage district. Council is equally to blame. Notably, it was the two new members of council who sought to stem this tide, only to be spat on by the old boys club.

And while Port Hope does a lot around its mainstreet to develop civic pride and boost its tourism, it also has a poor record of preserving places like the Wesleyville United Church and the old school house adjacent to it or the Bethel Canada Methodist Church on Bethel Grove Road, which was recently torn down after years of abandonment. (Even Brighton is about to tear down a historic Presbyterian Church).

But, history is more than buildings. The Cobourg archives located inside the C. Gordon King Centre, across the hall from the library, holds many significant artifacts. Again, limited by the tireless work of volunteers, it does an incredible job. Sadly, there is only a cabinet to display a few items and one needs to make an appointment to view anything. The same is true for Port Hope and Hamilton Township. Our heritage sits basements, attics and rarely opened closets full of local history: letters, pictures, diaries, chairs, tables and a host of other significant material.

If politicians cannot find the will to protect the most obvious examples of our heritage, it may be too much to get them to think about preserving the less sexy items. Municipalities are more than roads, sewers, parks and subdivisions. Culture needs to get more support. Politicians need to show more respect for members of the community who want to find ways to preserve our past, both building and artifacts. If we can hire planners, waste managers, economic development officer, then surely we can hire a curator to co-ordinate all the activities, develop programs and fundraise to create museums to display our history. It may also mean greater support for Barnum House, Dorothy House and the Barrack’s project. To invest in our cultural life is good business, smart politics and builds our community.

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