Almonte national heritage award shortlist: The Old Post Office

by David J. Stephenson

The National Trust for Canada has recently advised the Almonte Heritage Redevelopment Group that five buildings that they rehabilitated have been shortlisted for an Ecclesiastical Insurance Cornerstone Award for Resilient Places.

 The article on page 18 of the September Humm gives more details about this national award and why it is so exciting that Almonte might be receiving it. In the meantime, we’re continuing to tell the stories of the individual buildings over the coming weeks.

If you were to ask someone to identify a heritage building in Almonte, they would most likely mention the Old Post Office.  This is borne out by the fact that it has been premiated (great word, eh, it means ‘awarded prizes’) by all three levels of our government: in 1978 it was designated by the Town of Mississippi Mills under Part IV of the Ontario Heritage Act; it was named a National Historic Site of Canada by the feds in 1983; and the exterior of the building and interior elements such as the main staircase and tin ceiling were protected by an Ontario Heritage Trust conservation easement in 1985.

Each of these designations is supported by careful text in the best bureaucratese, but really it just comes down to this: the Old Post Office is darn big and old and solid and beautiful, and it just can’t be ignored.

I mean, look at that thing – from all three of its visible sides it is a visual delight!  From Mill Street, we get to enjoy the balanced symmetry of two two-storey bays flanking a pedimented centre section that rises from the segmentally arched window of the main post office hall to a triangle of square stones surrounding a quietly assertive “VR,” almost like that eye on the top of the pyramid on the US $1 bill.  And just as apt, because when the building was built in 1890, Victoria Regina was an all-seeing queen who looked out over the globe-spanning British Empire.

Flanking this middle bay, those two storey parts look identical at first, but closer examination shows that the building has been designed to conform to its site.  The original post office entrance, to the right, is considerably higher up the wall than its sister on the left, which was the entrance to the offices on the upper floors of the building containing the customs and inland revenue services.  We know this, of course, because of the helpful signs above each entrance, the larger size of which help to conceal the dropping down the slope of the customs entrance.

Another subtle asymmetry of the Mill Street façade is that roof is different on each side of the central pediment. To the right, its hipped form slopes down to the scale of the adjoining buildings, but to the left it thrusts directly out to the top of the full-height end gable.  And when we round the corner to Little Bridge Street we see something familiar.  Yup – it is the centre bay of the Mill Street Side now as a stand-alone façade.  The only differences are that the segmental arch is now fully round and containing two smaller windows, and that crowning pediment now gives us the date on which VR was majestically pleased to have had the building erected.

And how about the conglomerative composition of forms cascading down to Little Bridge Street on the north side!

In some ways, the Romanesque Revival style of this building was perfect for the Victorian era, and perfect for a country that at this point was only 23 years old.  There is a reassuring solidity that speaks of permanence, backed up by the staggering arrogance of the Empire.  Using limestones and sandstones of almost identical colour that vary only in texture and pattern, the building looks more like it has been carved from one block rather than built up of pieces.

Even the addition of the more playful clock tower in 1912, while softening the starkness apparent in early photographs, does not undermine the building’s seriousness.  In some sense, in fact, the clock and its bell added to the building’s authority because, in addition to its civic importance and visual weight, it also now asserts itself over the town audibly.  (And aren’t we glad of that – during the periods the clock was silent, and the spirit of downtown was diminished by its absence.)

Civic architecture is about branding, of course.  And Thomas Fuller, Dominion Architect from 1881 to 1897, was a master of this on behalf of the federal government of the time.  The Gothic Revival style of the Parliament Buildings, while perfect for their evocation of the Mother of Parliaments, was too…insubstantial…for the federal presence in small towns across the new country.  That required something more serious, solid and stable. (Not that Fuller could not be whimsical: check out the Galt Post Office in this article on his work.)

In terms of the federal brand, it is very interesting to compare the Old Post Office to the current one.  In 1968, when the federal government sold the older building, its role in the nation was much clearer.  In our reluctant federation, the feds are not central to towns and cities as they are in the US, but just another provider of services.  And the image they wanted to project was one of popularism and frugality (regardless of the cost). Hence the new post office’s much smaller height, presence, and pretense, which is more like the gas station that used to be its neighbour than its monumental ancestor up the street.  (Even were a case to be made for the new building as a good example of soft Internationalism, its complete rejection of its urban context is unforgivable: Fuller must spin in his grave.)  And in the 50 years since its construction, the federal government, at least as represented by their postal mandate, has almost retreated entirely from the public realm and is now usually only be found in rented space in the back corner of drugstores.

But to the theme of our series: those old civic buildings that are a legacy of that era of nation-building are now solid – and highly desirable – buildings found across Canada.  Along with banks and town halls, post offices are frequent candidates for redevelopment.

Compared to other buildings in this series, the purchase and rehabilitation of the Old Post Office in 2000 by the Almonte Heritage Redevelopment Group is the project that has had the least impact on the public space of Almonte.  Unlike the other four, this project did not include elements like a restored commercial frontage, a recreated landmark balcony, or the layering of exciting contemporary elements onto a heritage building. True, the fire escape that leads down to Giusseppe Lund ’s charming gate on Mill Street, and the new landscaping that replaced the loading docks on Little Bridge Street were their work.  But mostly the efforts of Stephen Brathwaite, Dick and Lorraine Veenstra, and John Pattison, working with the architect Larry Gaines, were focussed on some very clever reworking of some interiors, including the repurposed attic shown in the photo, and meeting current building and fire code requirements.  They also built a mini-museum to the building in the upstairs hall, which includes a coin placed in a wall by a worker in 1912 and found almost a century later by another worker, silently communicating a pride in craftsmanship across the years.

In this sense, the Almonte Heritage Redevelopment Group was playing another key role in the preservation of heritage buildings: diligent stewardship.  Like many other owners along Mill Street, they held the building in a sort of trust, honouring the work of the past designers and builders and users of a building by keeping them around for future generations.

It is a truism of the heritage community that poverty is one of the best preservatives.  It prevents many an ill-conceived, if well-intentioned, modernization project.  On the other hand, without basic maintenance, it is also far too easy to eventually justify the destruction of a heritage building as being structurally unsound, a process known as demolition by neglect.  In Almonte, luckily, we are deeply fortunate to have many owners along Mill Street who manage to find the sweet spot between these extremes.  While they might not yet be restoring their historical storefronts or reconstructing their lost balconies, they are keeping the heat on and the roofs fixed so that the buildings do not decay and continue to have useful occupation.  And for that we are all profoundly grateful.

The Almonte Heritage Redevelopment Group no longer owns the Old Post Office, having sold it in 2014.  During their ownership, though, they played another important role of any building owner trying to build a community: finding the right tenants for their spaces.  In the case of the Old Post Office, the Almonte Heritage Redevelopment Group were right on the mark when they convinced Claire and Steve Falsetto to close their Ottawa restaurant and take a chance on downtown Almonte instead.  Having been masterfully feeding the body and spirit for over 8 years, the stability and success of Café Postino is another example of the great things that can happen when we all work together.