Heritage activists fear for historic building hit by suspicious fire

Members of a local heritage preservation group are concerned about the future of a historic building near the London courthouse, after the structure was severely damaged in a Monday morning fire that police deem suspicious.

“We are saddened to learn of the fire that took place this morning, especially since the damage seems to be rather extensive,” said Jennifer Grainger, president of the London branch of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario (ACO).

“A lot of people have worked very hard and a lot of money has been spent to preserve this building (and) it would be a shame if it finally comes to an end.”

Firefighters arrived at the building at 435 Ridout St. N. shortly before 5 a.m., after being alerted by a passerby who noticed heavy smoke coming out of the structure.

Built in the mid-1800s in the Georgian style, the structure is one of the oldest buildings in the city and is part of London’s first commercial and financial district.

Damage costs had not been estimated by Monday afternoon, but assistant deputy fire Chief Shawn Fitzgerald said the structure suffered “heavy smoke, heat and fire damage from the basement to the attic.”

Firefighters were forced to break windows to ventilate the structure and allow the heavy smoke to escape before it was safe to enter the building, Fitzgerald said.

London police have taken over the investigation into the cause of the fire, and will be working with the fire department and the Ontario Fire Marshal.

Now home to a number of law offices, the building was originally home of the first Bank of Upper Canada branch in the city.

After the establishment of the head offices of five banks in the area, the street came to be known as “bankers’ row.”

Grainger said the damage to the building is particularly painful to the local ACO branch, given the group was created in part to save the building.

“Our ACO branch was formed in 1966 partly as a response to these buildings being in danger of demolition,” she said. “It’s a building we associate with our history and it was part of our reason for coming into existence.”

While the group has been vocal about the need to do more to protect heritage buildings in the city – many of which they say are simply left to deteriorate – Grainger said the damaged building was a great example of how to bring life to historically significant structures.

Earlier this summer, the Cedars, a once-stately building on the banks of the Thames River built in the 1880s, was destroyed by a fire.The building was home to a boating club and several generations of a London family but had been vacant for the last five years.

“Some buildings in London have burnt because they were sitting empty, (but) this is, in fact, a good example of what we call ‘adaptive re-use,’ ” Grainger said, noting the multiple uses for to the building, including a school, and the current law offices.

“We assume the building is insured, but now it is a question of whether it can be properly restored to look as it did,” she added. “Is it going to be possible to save some of the heritage features or is the inside going to have to be completely modernized in order for it to continue to be usable?

“At this point is just too early to tell.”

Anyone with information on the fire is asked to call police at 519-661-5670 or Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-8477 (TIPS).

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