No, you can't come inside Century Manor, province says

The province is refusing a request from Hamilton heritage advocates to get a look inside Century Manor, a historic building that was once the Hamilton Asylum for the Insane.

Heritage advocate worries the province might be committing 'demolition by neglect'

The province is refusing a request from Hamilton heritage advocates to get a look inside Century Manor, a historic building that was once the Hamilton Asylum for the Insane.

Some members fear the province is committing "demolition by neglect" — ignoring the building until the only option is to tear it down.

The city’s municipal heritage committee penned a letter to Infrastructure Ontario (IO) in August asking for a look inside the grand three-storey mansion, which is located near St. Joseph’s Healthcare’s West 5th Campus. 

But IO won't let the committee inside, wrote Lindsey Gerrish, project manager of development planning, in a letter to the heritage committee.

“Tours of vacant government owned buildings are only provided as part of the sales and marketing of the property and with specific consideration to the current conditions of the building,” Gerrish wrote.

She cited “potential health and safety” as the reason, including the “suspected presence” of mould, asbestos and flaking lead paint.

That frustrates Patricia Saunders, a local heritage advocate who’s been trying to see inside the building all year. She was in it as recently as 2009, when about 700 people toured it as part of Doors Open Hamilton.

It looked fine, said Saunders, a retired psychiatric social worker. And now the province says it’s structurally unsafe.

Saunders fears the province is committing “demolition by neglect,” and isn’t surprised by Gerrish’s letter. She wants to reboot an early 1990s task force to advocate for the mansion, which sits atop the escarpment brow.

The province is paying a company to mind the building, and provide minimal heat during winter months.

“How much have we spent to have a property management company look after a building that’s falling apart in front of us?” she said.

Saunders recently noticed a broken window and filed a complaint with the city under its demolition by neglect bylaw. The city ordered the province to fix the window, Saunders said, and it did.

She fears that IO is letting a perfectly good historic building crumble. She knows a professional engineer who wants to assess the building too.

For sale? Not too soon

Even if the letter from IO mentioned that tours are provided for "sales and marketing", Saunders said she doesn't believe the building and the land it sits on would be put up for sale any time soon.

“The wheels of the government just don’t move that fast,” she said. “[The government] will always test the water in terms of 'Can we dump it,' meaning to sell it."

However, if the building's ownership does change hands through a sale, it is very likely the new buyers would demolish it, Saunders added.

"They will make a case for how costly it would be to restore it," she told CBC Hamilton. "It’s not the sale of it that’s of concern. It’s the demolition of it that’s of concern."

Century Manor is one of Hamilton’s oldest buildings and an example of Victorian Gothic architecture. Once called the East House, it was home to a treatment program for alcoholics, a forensic psychiatry program and a school and treatment program for adolescents before it closed in 1995.

The province has declared it a heritage building.

Other buildings have been demolished on what is now the West 5th campus site. Barton Building was the first, followed by Grove Hall and the Gate Building, which have either been demolished or are in the works.

IO staff also declined a request to meet with the heritage committee, which will discuss the letter at a meeting on Nov. 20.

Saunders said anyone who wants to help with the newly revived Century Manor task force can email her at p.saunders@rogers.com.

With files from CBC's Sunnie Huang