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Problems with work done on Oro-Medonte’s Black community church

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In Council Watch
Nov 23rd, 2018
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By Gary E. French Springwater News November 1 2018

In the years 2016 and 2017 the Township of Oro-Medonte undertook a “restoration” of the Oro Black church, resulting in a sad and inappropriate result after spending a large sum of public and donated money. The kindest term that could be used is “renovation” and the result certainly can not be termed a “restoration”. The best description I have heard is that the church is now a “Walt Disney version” of an historic church.

This church is a national historic site, and for good reason. As a log church dating from perhaps the 1840s, it is a rare survival. Log churches, schools and fraternal lodges once existed in the province in the thousands, but only a few log churches (perhaps as few as three) survive in Ontario. This alone would give it significant importance. It has long been a significant tourist attraction as well as a place of worship.

But this building has an added importance because it was built by and for an important community of black settlers, some free black refugees, some escaped slaves and a few of them veterans of the War of 1812. It may be the oldest structure in Ontario with significant connections to the black settlers.

Township response

Neither the township of Oro-Medonte nor the Province of Ontario, despite requests, has yet designated this building as a significant historic landmark. This, and the fact that Oro-Medonte has a deplorable record in the area of heritage planning and does not even own the church, made the township a poor choice to undertake a restoration.

It is not clear when the church was built, as no contemporary record of its construction has been found. The site was set aside for a churchyard and cemetery by 1846 and was conveyed to trustees in 1849, but construction could have taken place on either of those date or at a date between, before or after. The farm on which it was built was granted to the Morris family, free black settlers who had lived in the abolitionist community of Ferrisburg, Vermont, in 1829. Noah Morris was a native of Connecticut and his wife Margaret was born in Vermont. Church sites had often been cemetery sites for years before a building was built, so the present church might have been built before 1846. There is good reason to suspect, without proof, that the church was built about 1845-7 during the pastorship of the Rev. Sorrick.

The church was used for decades but regular use ceased about 1920 and it has had occasional use since. It was in deteriorated condition and needed care. The survival of the building, itself a small miracle, can be credited to the local residents, especially the local Women’s Institute but with occasional assistance from the county. The maintenance work was not always to restoration standard, but in general did very little harm and, most important, ensured that the building survived.

The warning signs of problems with the intentions of Oro-Medonte, the council of which was led by Harry Hughes and John Crawford, came early. A committee was established by council, with Hughes and Crawford the dominant members, without any representation by anyone with restoration experience or detailed knowledge of the building. An advisory committee was also established, but it soon became clear that the advisory committee was being simply ignored. The township had been provided with a detailed study of the building, indicating its original form and setting out a proper restoration plan, but from the beginning Mayor Hughes’s and Deputy Mayor Crawford’s committee ignored the evidence and proceeded with a different plan (if indeed they had a proper plan) and the wrong details.

A project of this sort, especially when it addresses a building of this importance, needs two objectives: to ensure the integrity and survival of the building and to maintain the essential features and appearance of the building. Hughes’s and Crawford’s committee achieved neither.

The condition of the building, apart from simple age, was a result of it having been built on poorly drained land and with an inadequate foundation (or on a foundation which failed over time). These early log buildings were often built with the thought that they were merely temporary, until a better structure could be afforded. The township was advised repeatedly that an important protection was to ditch the adjoining roads (one County and one Township) to stop the turning of water and snow melt into the cemetery and the church building. This has not been done. The township was also warned that the addition of a basement and footings was important, but would entail a need for ventilation of the basement. This was also not done. A weak point in any wooden building is where the wood meets the masonry wall. This is where the church had the greatest deterioration. The building code requires a plastic barrier or gasket to prevent moisture damage to the wood sills. This was omitted. The building code also requires that the wooden parts of a building be a minimum distance above the level of the surrounding soil. This was also ignored. The cumulative result is that the “restored” church remains subject to many of the same perils that caused its deterioration up to the present.

The committee announced that its plan was to restore the church to its appearance at the last period of regular use (about 1920) and this made sense. Unfortunately, this intention was then ignored. The list of problems is long, but the important errors are easy to see. The church roof had, over the years, had two types of wooden shingles. Examples of both were found in the church. The proper shingles for the 1920 period were the usual sawn cedar shingles of that time, still easily obtained. But Hughes and Crawford chose heavy and crude “cedar shakes” that resemble nothing that was ever on the church (and indeed nothing that was used in Ontario in the 19th century.)

The church was a log building, but covered with clapboards in the 19th century. An odd and interesting feature was the original double front door design. But this double door existed only before the clapboard was added and not after the clapboard was added. The restoration has the double front door with clapboard, which never existed in the historic period.

The church had a frame vestibule, as almost all churches, schools and lodges in Ontario had. The committee was urged to include this as an essential part of the historic structure (and also as a very practical feature, in the 21st century as in the 19th century). Hughes’s and Crawford’s committee refused to add this, giving the church an appearance much different than it had during the period of use.

The committee was advised again and again that it needed to assess and order the material for restoration. This type of material is easily obtained, but needed to be custom cut and then cured, as it could not be purchased off the shelf. This advice was ignored and the committee then used material of the wrong dimension and often of poor quality.

It is difficult to understand what was done about the replacement of wall sills. This is almost always required for log buildings, but this committee chose a very strange plan of omitting the wall sills and resting the floor joists on a metal angle iron bolted to new concrete (and therefor not actually attached to the wall itself). Was this just a remedy for a planning goof? The result is that the exterior appearance of the building is shorter than the appearance of the building when it was built. The committee also drastically changed the elevation of the building with respect to the surrounding cemetery, a serious restoration error. In the course of this they poured a new basement too small for the building and did not adequately arrange for the secure mounting of the building on the basement.

There are a multitude of smaller errors, all of which work against the appearance of an historic building: the use of Robertson screws, hanging the front door from the door frame rather than the casing (so the doors now will not open completely), laying the floor with the wrong pattern, replacing the ceiling with a silly imitation of the original, adding a baseboard where there was none, adding exterior shutters where there were none, adding even more plaques to the site (none of them accurate), omitting to make any representation of the original stone footings, the use of crude reproduction rose-head nails – all amateur errors.

Early in the process, the township received a proposal from a restoration expert, to cover almost all of the work. After all, this church was a single room structure, about 20′ x 30′, without plumbing, heating or electricity. Hughes and Crawford refused this and put the management of the project into the hands of Shaun Binns director of operations and community services for Oro-Medonte, with no experience in historic restoration and, judging by the result, no significant commitment to getting it right.

The advisory committee, as it soon became obvious that their advice was being ignored, mostly fell away and the project was completed without the advice of anyone knowledgeable about historic restoration. That shows in the sad result. Based on invoices provided under Freedom of Information legislation (it took an appeal to get proper release) the total cost may have been at least $455,959.06 and may well have been higher (this does not account for donated services and material). That is about $760.00 per square foot. Of this, at least $37,677.18 was paid to engineers and architects, a fact that would surely have astonished the original builders.

Part of the cost was paid by the federal Minister of the Environment and part by the provincial Minister of Tourism, Culture and Sport, neither of which exercised the necessary diligence to protect the building and ensure that public money was well used. The provincial ministry was so anxious to fund the project that they broke their own funding rules to do so, disguising this under a claim that a “children’s book” was also being funded. The book  has not been heard of since.

These were not issues of “difficult choices between two equally valid options” nor is it a case of “you can’t please everyone”. This was a project incompetently done and there was no lack of information available or funds available for it to have been done properly. This church deserved better. The people of Oro-Medonte deserved better. The people of Canada deserved better.

Gary French is a retired lawyer, the author of Men of Colour – An Historical Account of the Black Settlement on Wilberforce Street and in Oro Township, Simcoe County, Ontario 1819-1949 (Kaste Books 1979), former chairperson of the Huronia Museum and former provincial director of the Ontario Genealogical Society.

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