Patricia Saunders was at St. Joseph’s Healthcare's West 5th Campus recently when she noticed a photo that got her blood boiling.

It was a photo of Century Manor, the only significant part of the original Hamilton Asylum for the Insane still standing. Built in 1884, the grand three-storey mansion sits on the escarpment brow, one of Canada’s finest examples of Victorian Gothic architecture.

The photo caption described Century Manor as derelict, a slum and haunted.

That rankled Saunders, a retired psychiatric social worker-turned-advocate for heritage buildings. Now she’s enlisting local MPP Ted McMeekin and the city’s heritage committee to help her get a look inside the building, with the goal of ensuring the prized heritage asset is protected or put to a good use.

“It could be one of the grandest buildings in Hamilton,” she said. “My concern is that nobody seems to care.”

Owned by Infrastructure Ontario (IO), Century Manor is one of Hamilton’s oldest buildings. It used to be called the East House because it was located east of the grand and now-demolished Barton Building. Two other remaining buildings, Grove Hall and the Gate View, will soon be demolished too.

Over the years, Century Manor was home to the treatment program for alcoholics, the forensic psychiatry program, and on the third floor, the treatment program and school for adolescents, Saunders said. The building closed in 1995, the same year she retired. The province has declared it a heritage building.

'We’re now getting to the point where I’m asking the minister responsible for it to justify why they won’t let someone go in there.' - MPP Ted McMeekin

The manor was last open to the public in 2009, when Saunders cleaned it for Doors Open Hamilton and about 700 people toured it.

“It certainly wasn’t structurally unsafe,” she said.

But despite requests, she hasn’t been inside it in years.

The photo caption has renewed Saunders’ fear that the province is committing “demolition by neglect.” So she and fellow members of the Hamilton Mountain Heritage Society want to see inside.

McMeekin asked IO staff for access, and they told him it wasn’t available for tours. He has since written to Glen Murray, Minister of Infrastructure, and Michael Chan, Minister of Tourism, Culture and Sport. Murray’s chief of staff told him four days ago that she would look into it.

Buildings need to be lived in

“We’re now getting to the point where I’m asking the minister responsible for it to justify why they won’t let someone go in there,” said McMeekin, who is also the Minister of Community and Social Services.

Meanwhile, Robin McKee, president of the heritage society, has written to the city’s municipal heritage committee. He wants the committee to pen a formal letter to the province asking to see inside.

“It’s a fabulous building in the sense of its grandeur,” McKee said.

His fear, he said, is that the province won’t maintain it properly and then say it’s too expensive to fix.

“Buildings need to be reused,” he said. “They need to be lived in.”

'Just being allowed to sit there'

Coun. Brian McHattie of Ward 1, a member of the heritage committee, has the same concern.

“There’s a lot of history to that building,” he said. And “it’s just being allowed to sit there with nothing in it.”

The structure is in overall good condition, and the province is taking care of it, said Ian McConachie, spokesperson for Infrastructure Ontario, in an email.

The province is doing capital repairs and maintaining “minimal heat” to the building to “prevent damage to the structure.” IO spends $15,000 to $45,000 per year on the building, he said.

The province doesn’t know how it might use the building in the future.

“At present, IO is undertaking due diligence on the entire western portion of the Hamilton Provincial Psychiatric Hospital site, which includes Century Manor,” he wrote.

Province will 'evaluate the future potential' 

“IO will continue to evaluate the future potential for Century Manor throughout this process.”

The building is a favourite for local ghost hunters, hence the “haunted” claim. The Hamilton Paranormal website describes it as spooky and outlines some of the harsh treatments patients received in the building’s early years.

That reputation doesn’t bother Saunders, who has never spotted a spectre herself.

But seeing it described as derelict made her sick to her stomach, she said. And she hates to look at its deteriorating condition.

“My fantasy is that there is someone who cares enough, and who has access to enough money, to use the building for something purposeful.”