Skip to main content

Ward 21 City Councillor Joe Mihevc stands outside 7 Austin Terrace in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

Its century-old sash windows have been stripped down. The distinguished portico gone.

Boarded up, with a hornets' nest tucked into a window corner, 7 Austin Terrace is a glum looking home stripped of its former glory. If anything of value is left inside, you couldn't tell by looking through the wired mesh gate preventing entry.

The heritage building - and home of John Maclean, founder of Canada's political weekly Maclean's magazine - is rotting away, and property owner 1626829 Ontario Ltd. has applied to demolish it and build a new three-storey, eight-unit townhouse complex attached to another three-storey rental building with six units.

The battle over Maclean House - local residents and heritage preservationists are fighting its demolition - represents the classic struggle between individual private property rights and communal heritage interests. As the law now stands, individual property rights rank higher.

"It's demolition by neglect," said Toronto Councillor Joe Mihevc. "And there's not really much we can do about that."

Mr. Mihevc has joined heritage groups and the Casa Loma Residents Association in their fight to have the 1910 Georgian Revival property saved. Designed by Canadian architect John Lyle, the mastermind behind Union Station and the Royal Alexandra Theatre, Maclean House was already on a list of potential heritage properties when its present owner bought it for $2.3-million in October, 2008.

The following year, contractors tore out the window sashes and the portico above the front door, which were key heritage features.

"It was definitely targeted. They deliberately took out elements that made the building … valuable," said Dyan Kirshenbaum, vice-president of Casa Loma Residents Association.

When she saw the contractors stripping down parts of the building, Ms. Kirshenbaum called the police. But the razing continued in spite of the angry protest of the residents association as the owner was within his legal rights to do so.

"We were absolutely powerless to stop them and the police instead of helping us, just watched and stood there," she said.

The municipal government had limited ability to stop the contractors, so it appealed to the province. MPP Aileen Carroll, then Minister of Culture, issued the stop order - only the second time the province has intervened this way since the Ontario Heritage Act was enhanced in 2005 to give the province and municipalities the power to protect properties that may have heritage significance.

This January, Maclean House was finally granted heritage designation, and the case has gone before the Ontario Municipal Board with an appeal from the developer.

And that's where the situation has stagnated.

"With the heritage designation, we have a lot of ammunition and the OMB will likely rule in our favour," Mr. Mihevc said. "The bad news is that OMB cannot force the property owner to sell Maclean House or restore it. In all likelihood, all they can do is insist the property owner maintain the house to the standard it was on the day it got designated."

In other words, no portico and no sash windows.

Mr. Mihevc and the Casa Loma Residents Association are looking for a loophole that will force the property owner to restore Maclean House to its former magnificence. John Todd, president of 1626829 Ontario Ltd., had not agreed to a telephone interview with The Globe and Mail as of press time.

But Rebecca Carson, spokeswoman for Heritage Toronto, said some good has come out of the controversy of Maclean House.

"Finally, heritage is on the radar," Ms. Carson said.

She said the fall of the wall of the old Empress Hotel on Yonge and Gould streets in conjunction with the Maclean House have been "a real turning point in the way people feel about heritage."

"There is an assumption made about Toronto … that it is such a young city and has nothing worthwhile preserving," she said. "That seems to be changing."

A short walk around Casa Loma is proof enough. Three historic homes have been designated for their significance to Toronto's past: Spadina House, the historic home to three generations of the Austin family, including James Austin, founder of the Dominion Bank; home of Toronto architect E.J. Lennox of Casa Loma and Old City Hall fame, and, of course, the city landmark Casa Loma, home to well-known financier Sir Henry Mill Pellatt.

Ms. Carson said part of the problem is that Heritage Preservation Services is underfinanced: Councillor Mihevc agrees.

"It's has been reactive and not proactive," he said, adding the contractor's "methods angered the public and got them paying attention to heritage issues."

A hearing date has not been set by the OMB yet. For now, Maclean House's future remains uncertain.