Not bashful about combining the old with the new in Elgin County courthouse

Restoration of the Elgin County courthouse would prove cheaper than construction of a new consolidated court facility in St. Thomas.
That was the guarantee from London developer Shmuel Farhi to a capacity gathering Thursday at the St. Thomas Public Library on hand to hear his proposal to fully retrofit and add on to the Wellington Street facility that pre-dates Canada.

The room crackled, fueled by a supercharged blend of passion and frustration, as Farhi and architect Paul Sapounzi from the Ventin Group offered up one example after another of heritage buildings throughout the province that have been upgraded to continue to serve in their original capacities as places of business, seats of justice or community centres and not museums.
Queen’s Park in Toronto; Simcoe’s city hall, a multi-purpose building in Shelburne (near Orangeville) that serves as a police station, town hall and theatre; Castle Kilbride in Baden; the Toronto headquarters of the Law Society of Upper Canada (local lawyers take note); and our own city hall here were just a few of the examples of what can be accomplished with heritage edifices.
“We’re not bashful about combining the old with the new and making a building useful,” stressed Sapounzi in reference to Farhi’s plan to build on to the Wellington Street courthouse to meet the province’s requirements for a new, consolidated facility.
Farhi’s proposal has been given the cold shoulder by the Elgin Law Association which is of the opinion “it would be unreasonable to expect that the heritage value and basic character of the present structure and the surrounding neighbourhood could be meaningfully preserved and maintained if a consolidated facility were to be constructed at that site.”
Two months ago in the corner we printed excerpts from the association’s letter to Ontario Realty Corporation which acknowledged area lawyers are of the firm belief “any proposal to convert the Wellington Street building to a consolidated facility sufficient to satisfy the current and future needs of this community makes neither practical nor economic sense.”
Not one lawyer was in attendance Thursday, prompting city resident Bud Lorch to observe, “I’ve heard nothing but negativity from them.”
In a similar vein Farhi addressed several doubters in attendance with the challenge, “I’m talking a glass that is half full and you’re talking half empty.”
When asked to substantiate claims restoration and additions would prove less expensive than a new purpose-built building, Sapounzi calmly replied, “How do I know it’s cheaper? I’ve got 37 years’ experience on more than two dozen heritage renovations.”
However the biggest outpouring of emotion was reserved for Ald. Gord Campbell, the only municipal politician in attendance, who stressed, “We are adamant that building remain a courthouse. Brought up to proper standards, that’s the way to go.”
The outburst of applause that greeted Campbell’s comment should be all the evidence the law association requires to make the right decision and get on board with Farhi’s ambitious project to maintain this community heirloom as the seat of justice for St. Thomas and Elgin.

The Helsinki model … it’s not the latest diet fad, a new line of imported, piece-it-together-yourself furniture, nor is it a futuristic eco-friendly vehicle.
According to an interview conducted earlier this month for the Chamber of Commerce, Mayor Cliff Barwick explained his political philosophy is based on the Helsinki model from the capital city of Finland.
Without a doubt that revelation had every member of council scratching their head and scrambling to understand the relevancy of far-flung Finland and where in the mayor’s campaign brochure can you find more information?
After all, someone unfamiliar with the Helsinki model might be left with the impression its main drawback is the inability to attract upper level infrastructure funding, since neighbouring communities like Aylmer and Bayham, whose mayors don’t subscribe to this philosophy, don’t seem to be saddled with this frustration.
City Scope chose to research the Helsinki model further and found under this system the mayor is not currently elected directly by the electorate but instead by the municipal council.
Hmm, Mayor Barwick seems to have overlooked this rather important component of the model.
So, is he willing to forego his duties and accept council’s majority vote as to who should wear the chain of office as per the Helsinki model?
It’s a gamble — you lose, you’re Finnish-ed.

In that same interview, Mayor Barwick was asked if the relationship has improved with the Downtown Development Board.
What is the relationship with the president of the Downtown Development Board is the real question, he responded.
“I do not have a problem with the board at all,” reiterated Barwick.
Speaking of Helsinki, it sounds like our mayor has yet to Finnish mending fences with DDB head Mark Cosens.

“We don’t have Steve here, but we have his mother and I’m sure she has a lot of influence.”
Don Houghton, who convened Thursday’s Elgin County courthouse public forum featuring Shmuel Farhi, on the absence of MPP Steve Peters but his mom, Joan Peters was in attendance.
City Scope appears every Saturday in the Times-Journal. Questions and comments may be e-mailed to:


2 thoughts on “Not bashful about combining the old with the new in Elgin County courthouse

  1. It has become apparent that many MPP’s at Queen’s Park have become distant from the communities they represent.When we were in the midst of trying to save Alma College,MPP Steve Peters did not step in until the eleventh hour,Mr.Peters should have been at Queen’s Park demanding culture minister Aileen Carroll get her act together and designate the college a heritage building,the college sat neglected for the better part of 10 years,and the end result was arson,because the building had no government protection.The property and 2 remaining buildings at 96 Moore Street still sit neglected today.MPP’s should always be in attendance at such important meetings,there is no excuse why MPP Steve Peters could not have travelled to attend this meeting,after all this is why he was elected,to be the voice of Elgin-Middlesex-London.Our elected officials have become bogged down,seemingly oblivious to whats going on beyond the walls of Queen’s Park.I’m not a resident of St.Thomas,but I’ve visited on several occasions and fell in love with the small town atmosphere,and if our elected officials dont protect the built heritage in beautiful city’s like St.Thomas,our history will disappear one building at a time,leaving us with nothing but photographs,which is very sad indeed.

    Bob Foster

  2. Bob: The point stressed over and over again at this meeting was the cost of restoration and adding on to the courthouse would be 25 to 30 per cent cheaper than a new, purpose-built structure. And 70 per cent of the resources would involve labour which is what we need with so many skilled tradespeople available in this area. And in these environmentally-conscious times the greenest brick is the one that is already in place. All perfectly sound reasons for placing a priority on built heritage.

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