Magee House owner prepared for court fight if city orders demolition

MacGee House during partial demolition on July 27, 2018. Photo: Wayne Cuddington / Postmedia

Thursday, November 15, 2018

OTTAWA CITIZEN, By Jon Willing

Ovidio Sbrissa is prepared to fight city hall if Ottawa’s chief building official orders the total destruction of his Magee House in Hintonburg.

“That building is not going to go down,” Sbrissa said in a phone interview Thursday. “It deserves to be saved. It’s probably one of the greatest monuments in Ottawa for the old masons and their craft. It’s unique.”

Earlier in the day, the city’s built-heritage subcommittee heard during a meeting that staff are asking the city’s engineering consultant, John Cooke, to see if the crumbled heritage building at 1119 Wellington St. W. poses a public safety risk. After the western wall of the building collapsed on July 24, the city hired Cooke to review the remaining structure and he recommended demolishing it by late November.

City council last month approved a demolition application for the 114-year-old building on the condition that it was to happen by Nov. 15. However, the ruins remain and the sidewalk in front of the property is still closed.

Sbrissa and the city are at odds about whether the structure does, in fact, need to be completely torn down. He has called the building his “castle in the city” and is now determined to save what’s left of his little urban palace, rather than following through with the demolition he requested in September.

Sbrissa continues to refute Cooke’s observation that the building collapsed because there was no mortar holding the stones together. Sbrissa believes ground vibrations, possibly from nearby construction work, led to the collapse and he’s angry that the city disassembled a corner of the building after responding to the collapse.

“You don’t go in there like yahoos like they did and destroy it even more,” Sbrissa said, although he said he accepts that the city was simply following the advice of the engineering consultant.

The city expected Cooke to complete another review within 48-72 hours of Thursday’s built-heritage meeting. The chief building official will consider the findings and will have the option to order the demolition if he determines there’s a risk to public safety or other properties.

Sbrissa said he would challenge any demolition order in court.

Cooke said in his July report that cold weather and heavy loads of snow could compromise the rest of the structure.

Meanwhile, a wintry storm was expected to hit Ottawa between Thursday and Friday, dumping up to 15 centimetres of snow, according to the Environment Canada forecast at noon Thursday.

Sbrissa, who’s an architect, said the architectural importance of the stone building is too important to allow full demolition.

“This is not hyperbole: the Magee structure is more sophisticated than the Parliament Building structure,” Sbrissa claimed. “From the engineering standpoint, Magee is most important.”

Kitchissippi Coun. Jeff Leiper said there has been a “significant detriment to our community” caused by the collapse, since the sidewalk is closed, the pedestrian retail traffic on the north side of the street has been reduced and people are walking into traffic to get around the closed-down sidewalk.

The Magee House is now at risk of becoming the new Somerset House, rotting while in restoration limbo.

Somerset House is the vacant heritage building at Somerset and Bank streets that partially collapsed in 2007. There has been no significant work done to open the building again and the city doesn’t want to force its demolition simply because the owner isn’t doing the work on a timely basis.

The city is giving the Somerset House owner until Dec. 7 to winter-proof the building. If he doesn’t, the city will use its authority to do the work and bill the owner. The city is also giving the Somerset House owner until April 30, 2019 to restore the heritage attributes. City staff and the building owner are scheduled to meet later this month.