Almonte national heritage award shortlist: 65 Mill Street

EDITOR’S NOTE: I have been profoundly remiss in not giving a byline to the author of this excellent series of articles—he modestly omitted that from the text of his submissions, and  I only noticed recently. I’d like to introduce David J. Stephenson to readers.

by David J. Stephenson

When the National Trust for Canada advised the Almonte Heritage Redevelopment Group that five buildings that they rehabilitated had been shortlisted for an Ecclesiastical Insurance Cornerstone Award for Resilient Places, we launched a series of articles on the buildings.

We conclude the series with a look 65 Mill Street, Almonte. 

Previous articles have focussed mostly on the buildings and their histories. For that I am going to just direct you to William Chapman’s excellent article in the Millstone seven years ago. Instead, to conclude this series, I’d like to focus on the people who make these rehabilitations happen in order that we can all enjoy the benefits of their work.

Every article has mentioned Stephen Brathwaite, of course, the sparkplug behind the Almonte Heritage Redevelopment Group.  And in the case of this project, he initially partnered with Peter Egan and Mark Lefebvre to transform three adjoining buildings (65 Mill, and 73 and 75 Little Bridge Streets) into a single block containing ground floor retail, and upper level commercial and residential space.  Fairly early in the project Egan bowed out to work on another initiative and Brathwaite and Lefebvre continued going as best they could.

They managed to complete the transformation of the storefront of the former Stedman’s store into a recreation of its historical original.  Then, with help from the ever-resourceful Dick Veenstra, they worked similar magic on the long-lost upper balcony which is so prominent in so many old photographs.  And they advanced the planning on the interior changes and a rear addition inspired by the example of the Fountain campus of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, which ties 19 original buildings together.  Such a strategy benefits from economy of scale, whereby a single $150,000 elevator, can service many buildings, and less total space is required for fire exiting and services like plumbing and ventilation.

But then came the work on the roof, when the project almost went bust.

Just as many an elderly person will never recover from a broken hip, many an old building will never recover from damage to its roof.  Once water starts entering a structure from the top, the rest is history.

I was reminded of this during a recent conversation with Bob McKay, the saviour of the 65 Mill Street project.  It is especially true of flat roofs, he patiently explained to me, which are generally out of sight and often forgotten on maintenance budgets.  It seems counterintuitive, but roofing asphalt will eventually break down in water, which happens if a roofis undermaintained and has started having areas of ponding.  Once that happens, it leads to water penetration into the next layer, the construction paper, which ripples and bubbles.  This in turn cracks or breaks, particularly with the freezing and thawing cycles of our climate, and then water can freely travel into the building, first to the decking, and eventually to the structure.  And the hip is broken.

Luckily, McKay was able to prevent this from happening just in time on 65 Mill Street.  As McKay Roofing, he had worked on other projects of the Almonte Heritage Redevelopment Group, but by the time that work was starting on 65 Mill, he had been retired for _6_ years.  So, Brathwaite turned to him for some professional advice when he received several eye-wateringly high estimates for the work on the roof.  McKay gave him that advice for free, and then proceeded to do the work at cost, and then, in a moment that his friends thought him insane, stayed around to be a partner in the rest of the project, lending his experience, intelligence and capital to the rehabilitation.

I’m focussing on Bob McKay because he’s a rather remarkable guy in the world of construction: he is someone who was prepared to step out from behind the wall of risk protection provided by clients and prime contractors to become one of those people absorbing the risk himself.

But his friends were not wrong to doubt his sanity.  Because the world of heritage rehabilitation is full of risk.  An old building, especially one as gently dilapidated as 65 Mill has monsters lurking behind every surface.  Pigeons that think they own the place, abandoned chimney shafts, brick facades sagging onto undersized supports in the 1960’s retail frontage: it’s like playing Russian roulette.  But with the cost of a few F-150 XLT SuperCabs on the line.

So why do they do it?  Why do the McKays, and the Hills, and the Kettleses, and the Lefebvres, and the Millses, and the Pattisons, and the Potvins, and the Smiths, and all the Veenstras, and the Brathwaites do it?

I think it has to do with a combination of things.

In the case of McKay, part of the answer has to do with giving back in ways big and small.  Yes, he used to be County Warden, which is big-time giving back, but he is also the sort of guy who will reach out to give advice and guidance to a young fellow just starting in the roofing business.  He is proud of his roots in Middleville but recognizes that we all benefit from shared successes, and the attention paid to Almonte now might lead to people soon being compelled to explore Middleville.  So, giving back and paying forward is part of it.

Then I think there is a sense of fun, adventure and hands-on problem solving that these people all share.  Sure, there is a risk in opening up that wall, but when you do and find the largest hive of bees in Creation, you then have the happy challenge of figuring out how to get them to move on.  And you have a campfire story for the rest of your life.

Finally, I think heritage work appeals to those of us who are older, who have seen a lot of stuff thrown out in our lives and might be feeling a bit redundant ourselves.  Hey, maybe if I value this building in its old age, someone may return the favour for me.

Regardless of the reason, though, we all benefit from their energy and enthusiasm.  And in terms of the Almonte Heritage Redevelopment Group, they certainly are not prepared to hang up their carpenter’s belts any time soon.  On 65 Mill Street, for example, there is still a final retail façade to be rebuilt (although the removal of a secondary entrance and interior stair has already given Baker Bob a bit more elbowroom).  And the rear addition to be constructed: just imagine how it will start to transform the space between the backs of the Mill Street buildings and the river!

And after that?  Well, Brathwaite does own the site of the former Petersen’s Ice Cream factory beside the Victoria Woolen Mill and has had some preliminary ideas explored for that.  So, who knows what cool new shops, creative businesses and exciting residences we might have in downtown Almonte in the near future?

As for the award for which they were shortlisted, did they win it?  Well…the National Trust for Canada will be in Almonte next Wednesday, September 25, 2019, for an announcement at 11:00 AM in the main lobby of the Thoburn Mill at 83 Little Bridge Street.  In addition to the Trust, the following people have indicated that they plan to attend: Crista Lowry Mayor of the Municipality of Mississippi Mills; Scott Reid, MP; Randy Hillier, MPP; and Richard Kidd, Warden of Lanark County.  It seems highly unlikely that all these people will be coming together to learn that the award has not been won!  If you’re in downtown Almonte on Wednesday, therefore, please come out and show your support for the conservation of our heritage by some amazing people!