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Toronto Star, January 25, 2001

The Old Mill really isn't

Reno destroys city landmark

Toronto Star

In the future, Toronto could become a city without a past.
      The zeal with which we destroy all traces of what came before is not only scary, it's unseemly.
      Recent events at the Old Mill are a wonderful example of how truly bizarre, ironic and destructive our relationship with history has become.
      Here's what happened: In 1991, George and Michael Calmar bought the west-end restaurant and reception venue and found business was great. So great they decided to expand. Where to expand? How about on the foundations of the actual old mill for which the place is named?
      The result is that most of what remained has been taken down to make way for a pair of overly large buildings that will form a hotel/retail complex. Yes, sections of the 19th-century walls have been incorporated into the new project, but you'd have to look twice to notice.
      Another case of loving something to death.
      Heritage seems to have that effect on people. It's so popular that every one wants in. But once the crowds start to appear, they must be accommodated. That's when the very buildings that attracted visitors in the first place suddenly find themselves in the way, or in need of change.
      These ruins, located by the Humber River where it meets Bloor St., date from 1881, when a fire ravaged the mill, the last of several to stand on the site.
      The Calmars may have vandalized their own property but, in their defence, the former city of Etobicoke approved the scheme despite opposition from the heritage community.
      "These people made a commitment to save all the ruins, and they didn't," says Jane Beecroft, chair of the Society of Heritage Associations. "The site has major historical significance. It's scandalous."
      Like many in the heritage movement, Beecroft claims weak provincial legislation is responsible. But she doesn't stop at Queen's Park.
      "I blame the city," she declares, "because it doesn't use the tools it has at its disposal. I blame the city cultural office, which blocks everything. And I blame the Ontario Heritage Act, which can only delay developers by 180 days.
      "The minute you put stuff like this in private hands, you're asking for trouble. Heritage is in the public interest, but governments are not looking after the public interest.
      The 19th-century English critic John Ruskin went further: "We have no right to touch them," he wrote of historic buildings. "They are not ours. They belong partly to those who built them and partly to the generations of mankind who follow us."
      He was right, of course, though most would simply laugh at such an assertion. For many, it's enough to save a facade here, part of a wall there.
      Out at the Old Mill, all that remains is the name, now little more than a bad joke.
      No surprise Toronto has such a lousy reputation for heritage. In the United States, tax incentives are used to encourage conservation; in Europe, the laws are tough enough to have an effect.
      Here, we have no choice but to rely upon the kindness of strangers and developers. So far, it hasn't worked.

Christopher Hume is The Star's urban issues reporter. He can be reached at
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