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'Pitiful and sad': Century-old Cross house in Gatineau Park in shambles

The historic Cross house in western Quebec was once expropriated to make way for a zoo, then left vacant for years, and its current state could be beyond repair, according to the builder's descendants and the Gatineau Valley Historical Society.

Built in 1915, Cross house was known as one of the stateliest homes in the Meech Creek Valley

Cross family descendant laments state of historic farmhouse in Chelsea, Que.

4 days ago
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Jon Cross, whose grandfather built the Chelsea, Que. farmhouse in 1915, says the structure is slowly sliding into ruin despite assurances from the National Capital Commission that they plan to restore it. The Société d'aménagement de l'Outaouais expropriated the property in the 1970s to make way for a zoo, which was ultimately never built. 0:53

Descendents of those who lived in a landmark farmhouse in Chelsea, Que., say the structure is in danger of crumbling.

In about 1915, Jason Cross built the dignified, two-storey red brick house with a grand, wraparound veranda in the Meech Creek Valley, which is near what is now parking lot P16 in Gatineau Park.

Just over a century later, the roof over the veranda has begun to collapse. The National Capital Commission (NCC) has boarded up the house, but vandals have still made their way inside.

Fearing it might soon be gone, the builder's grandson, 78-year-old Jon Cross, made a trip from Belleville, Ont., last week to witness what remains of the home where his father was raised.

"I think it's pitiful and sad," said Cross, whose father often told him simple stories of farm life in the Meech Creek Valley during the 1920s.

"It's a crying shame, and it's probably beyond recovery."

The Cross house includes six bedrooms and was once a refuge for city dwellers anxious to escape the risk of the polio virus. (Stu Mills/CBC)

Respite during polio

The house, which now needs urgent care, once offered respite to hundreds of vacationers and city-dwellers.

When polio raged in the 20s and 30s, Shirley Brown said her grandmother, May Ditchfield, would take in boarders and their children who were anxious to be clear of the city heat and the risk of infection.

The Ditchfields themselves fled Ottawa in 1926 after Frank Ditchfield, suffering from emphysema after a career spent building pianos in a ByWard Market factory, was advised by his doctor to take in the country air.

Now a member of the Gatineau Valley Historical Society, Brown says her mother's sagging childhood home is the last example of a way of life that vanished when expropriation began.

"It's bothered me for years, and it's a shame," said Brown, flipping through a yellowed photo album passed along to her by her mother.

Shirley Brown looks through the scrapbooks kept by her mother and grandmother from their years living in the brick house at 108 Chemin Pine. (Stu Mills/CBC)

'Makes me despondent'

In the 1970s, the home was set to become a zoological garden until the now defunct Société d'aménagement de l'Outaouais (SAO) took over ownership. The group emptied and razed about a dozen farms in the valley, which "displaced a lot of people," according to Brown.

"The whole of what happened in the Meech Creek Valley makes me despondent. ... It was a total waste of money," she said.

Then in 1993, the SAO folded and the NCC took over ownership of the house, which remains vacant. Restoration could easily cost half-a-million dollars, experts have told CBC News.

Photos of the Ditchfield children at the Cross house show the signature veranda as it was in the 1950s. (Submitted, Shirley Brown)

Needs someone with deep pockets

The NCC says it does plan to restore 108 Chemin Pine, but first needs to find a partner and a function for the building, which has been the longstanding obstacle, according to David Maitland. 

The former manager of NCC properties in Gatineau Park, Maitland says the house should be preserved as part of the NCC's cultural mandate. But finding an organization or group with pockets deep enough to justify an expensive renovation has been a tall task.

"It would be a pity to see it go the way so many have," said Maitland.

Chelsea Mayor Caryl Green wrote in an email she believes the NCC's real plan is to permit the Cross house to collapse. 

"Just like the other former residential properties on Cross Loop, their objective is to demolish it eventually and bring the lot back to its natural state," wrote Green, whose municipality has been locked in a tax dispute with the federal agency for several years.

The historical society and others in the area say the old house deserves better, and if the NCC doesn't act soon, it will be lost forever.

A photograph of Jason Cross taken in about 1910. (Gatineau Valley Historical Society)

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