Guelph, Ontario: Saving a Slice of Downtown

Guelph, Ontario: Saving a Slice of Downtown

How do you save a landmark without news trucks? We traveled to Guelph, Ontario to find out. __

When rain lashes the damaged exterior of the Petrie Building in Guelph, the four-story tower takes on a gloomy look. Partially shuttered for nearly a century, rotting green boards on the upper-floor windows do little to hold back the storm. But despite the building's condition, there's still something grand about it. At night, absent the warmth of any light from inside, the Petrie looms like a specter over spillover crowds from the nearby bars — Boo Radley's house on the downtown drag. Pause to look too long and a local might comment on the Petrie's potential, if only someone could salvage it.

David J. Knight, a 47-year-old archaeologist, is busy laying that groundwork over breakfast. On a morning in early June, Knight sips a refill in the back of the Apollo Eleven diner on the Petrie Building's ground floor and plots a rare trip to the building's upper levels, typically off-limits to all but the building's owners. "Because we've had coffees, there is a way of getting up there and that's to go to the loo," Knight says, flashing an impish grin. "So I'm going to go pee upstairs."

Knight used this trick before and learned little from it; the restroom dates back only a few decades and is utterly unremarkable, even as bathrooms go. But this loophole is a way of spending a few minutes examining the secrets he's sure this building hides, thumbing his nose at the bureaucracy and its apathy for the cause.

If Guelph (pronounced gwelf) were a larger city or the Petrie a larger building, there might be cable news stories, op-eds in national newspapers, picketing community groups decrying the Petrie's condition in front of its cast-iron facade. But the Petrie isn't getting any of that attention — not yet, at least, and it probably never will. It just has Knight's Facebook group, "Save the Petrie Building," and the few hundred members who share his passion for preserving this piece of Guelph's collective memory.

Built as a drugstore in 1882, the Petrie Building was the capstone to the career of A.B. Petrie, a local druggist, industrialist, inventor and Mason. Petrie sold the building shortly before his death in 1921. Since then, it has passed through a series of owners, all of whom lacked either the motivation or resources to maintain any more than the building's ground floor. The building's current owners, Cathy and Chris Agelakos, purchased the Petrie building in 1976 and opened the Apollo Eleven diner. Cathy Agelakos looks weary when she's asked about the state of the building. Back-of-the-envelope estimates for the restoration approach $3 million dollars — money the Agelakoses have said they don't have, especially since restorations would increase their property tax burden even further.

If Guelph were a larger city or the Petrie a larger building, there might be cable news stories, op-eds in national newspapers, picketing community groups decrying the Petrie's condition in front of its cast-iron facade.

Though the Apollo 11 still serves a steady stream of customers, Knight says the danger to the Petrie comes from a something called "demolition by neglect." If a building inspector were to examine the structure and find it in a hazardous condition, they could slap on the designation and order the building destroyed. Group member Tanya Korigan says it's been the undoing of other historic properties around town, particularly during Guelph's recent population boom.

"We just coasted a little too long," she says. "We thought there would be more discussion before these things changed."

The group, then, is a way of drawing a line in the sand. By organizing a community around the importance of one building, Knight says he hopes he can create a model that can eventually be used to rally support for others. The group contains local press clippings from the building's 80-plus-year history, personal photographs that show the gradual effects of neglect and decay and early plans to hold an exhibition in support of the Petrie this fall. It's even attracted relatives and connections of A.B. Petrie himself. Petrie's great-great-granddaughter, Shannon Christie, is one of the most ardent members, and a distillery founded inside the old manor house of Petrie's in the Bahamas is sending a case of rum north for sampling as a symbol of solidarity.

"It really enriches your sense of every little piece of the puzzle," Korigan says. "You hear from these people that you'd never meet — that you'd never even think to reach out to."

The individual contributions are a good workaround to another problem the group has faced: Many of the archival documents about the Petrie Building's early life are housed by the city, and Knight has been stymied in getting permission to copy, or even see, many of the originals. "It's all kind of sewn up," he says. And while the local museum and historical society have been supportive of the cause, they lack Knight's single-minded focus. The group has, so far, resisted the occasional entreaty to roll up into any larger organization.

"This group is doing really well as an autonomous Facebook piece," Knight says. "We're actually building a foundation of networking, that come the chance, come the opportunity, everything's in place. It's a better kind of social group than having to join a society for $5 and being a line on their agenda."


Want to learn more about the Petrie building? Check out Save the Petrie Building 15 Wyndham Street North on Facebook.

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