North Hatley’s Old Grist Mill – Demolition by Neglect?


Jean Drapeau’s Broken Pencil

It’s astounding that municipal administrations still feel the way about heritage buildings that Jean Drapeau did. The former mayor of Montreal would be asked by a journalist about a questionable demolition. Such events were legion in the 60s and 70s. His Honour would pull a pencil from his pocket saying how it was his pencil: he bought it, it was his to do with as he pleased. Then he would break the pencil in two and that was the end of the interview.

It doesn’t work that way with our architectural heritage. It’s taken a few decades but we’ve learned how to integrate the old with the new. There is no reason to knock down a building just because it’s old.

As a founding director of Héritage Montréal in the mid-70s and a major contributor to the Colby Curtis Museum’s recent exhibition on North Hatley architecture, one of my main interests are the old buildings and the architectural fabric of this beautiful village.

In the heart of North Hatley stands J. B. Reed’s Old Grist Mill, the history of which states, “With the coming of electricity, J.B. Reed moved his grist business from Reedville up on the Massawippi river to the village of North Hatley in 1904. He built a new mill near the railroad track where he and son, Ronald, operated it for thirty-five years. Then Ronald took over and carried on the business from 1942 to 1968. Standing on Mill Street, the architectural style of the mill is American Vernacular Gable.”

As acknowledged on the Townships Heritage page of the Quebec Anglophone Heritage Network’s website, “With electricity, the old grist mills became obsolete. Today very few remain in the Townships.”

In December, 2014, I wrote to the Mayor and Council asking assurance that the Old Grist Mill – previously home to two restaurants and now privately owned – would be restored and preserved into the future as one of the few landmark buildings in North Hatley and one of the very few remaining mill buildings in the region. Despite my re-sending that letter in July of 2015, no action seems to have been taken by Council.

Apparently without a principal tenant, the Old Grist Mill might be standing in the way of a proposed development in the core of North Hatley, and the easiest way to get rid of an unwanted building is to leave it to the ways of nature. It becomes classic example of ‘Demolition by Neglect’.

Search for the term ‘Demolition by Neglect’ on the web and one finds pages of entries. Here are but a few quotes and their sources :

“The exact opposite of preservation by maintenance; any building or site that is not taken care of on a regular basis is a potential candidate for the eventual disuse, disrepair, and ultimate need for demolition.”

“’Demolition by Neglect’ is the term used to describe a situation in which a property owner intentionally allows a historic property to suffer severe deterioration, potentially beyond the point of repair. Property owners may use this kind of long-term neglect to circumvent historic preservation regulations.”

“Demolition by neglect is a loophole that exists in many local jurisdictions that allows property owners to use nature to accomplish what they weren’t able to do through the court system.  When someone purchases a property with the intention of tearing down the existing structure to make room for a new home or commercial building–they must apply for a demolition permit from the local building department.  This is the point when the new property owners often discover that they might have a roadblock to their plans. If the structure is considered of historical significance to the area, local citizens and preservationists often work to prevent the demolition.”

“ .. There are also environmental and psychological impacts of preserving old buildings, since human beings are positively affected by their surroundings when they feel a ‘sense of place’.’When buildings in a historic district fall prey to ‘demolition by neglect,’ meaning that the owners allow their property to reach a state of deterioration, the entire sense of community can be lost.”

There are many uses for old industrial buildings. While coordinating the exhibits on industrial heritage and Montreal’s Old Port for Héritage Montréal in the early 80s, I toured post-industrial sites in southern Ontario and a number eastern U.S. cities and towns, photographing grain silos, mills, factories and warehouses that had found new vocations as a church, a hotel and in housing, light manufacturing and the burgeoning tech industry.

In this day and age, to allow a unique, historic post-and-beam industrial building in the heart of one of Quebec’s most beautiful villages to moulder into the ground is an unacceptable throwback to the dark days of Jean Drapeau.

The Old Grist Mill deserves better than this. Let’s not let it become the sad legacy of the current North Hatley administration, its own broken pencil. Strong civic leadership is the only solution.

Brian Merrett

(Originally published in Quebec Heritage News, Fall, 2015)