Absence of mortar caused Magee House’s partial collapse, engineer says

Work to stabilize the partially collapsed Magee House in Hintonburg and reopen the sidewalk in front of it will begin "in a matter of days," City of Ottawa staff said on Tuesday. The exact start date, however, depends on how the weather holds up. John G. Cooke & Associated Ltd

An absence of mortar caused the stone wall collapse at the historic Magee House in Hintonburg last week, according to an engineer hired by the City of Ottawa to investigate.

Although what’s left of the nearly 140-year-old building is unsafe, John Cooke assured members of the built heritage sub-committee Thursday that the remaining structure is stable for now and will survive further review by the city.

But Cooke “strongly recommended” city staff move fast to complete the work and tear down the heritage home at 1119 Wellington St. W. before the snow falls.

“No two stones were held together by mortar,” Cooke told committee members. “It’s basically a house of cards, this building right now.”

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The western wall of the Magee House collapsed the evening of July 24 and the city hired Cooke’s engineering consulting firm the next day to assess what happened.

In response to an early recommendation from Cooke, the city issued an emergency order to partially demolish the building, which began July 27. The collapse and subsequent crew work shut down Wellington Street West between Sherbrooke and Carruthers avenues for about a week. (The road has now re-opened.)

Questions have been swirling since about the fate the remaining structure. Cooke said Thursday he thinks there’s “no way” for masons to “safely restore” Magee House “without taking it down.”

The wood roof is also completely rotten and not safe to walk on, he added.

While Cooke’s team concluded the cause of the wall’s collapse was inadequate masonry, compounded by water and recent heavy rains that loosened sand between the stones, owner Ovidio Sbrissa says he “firmly believes” his home crumbled because of vibrations in the ground from construction happening close by.

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Sbrissa, an architect, was living in the house up until last week – although city staff thought the building was vacant. City building inspectors said Thursday they had ordered Sbrissa to complete repair work last year and when they didn’t see those repairs materialize, they prepared a court summons.

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Sbrissa insisted he had completed some of the repairs and others were in the works.

Following the committee, Court Curry, a manager of heritage and urban design services at the city, told reporters it’s “too soon” to say whether the “unfortunate” collapse of the Magee House is a case of demolition-by-neglect.

Sbrissa told reporters he hopes a restoration of the historic house, which he described as his “castle in the city,” is possible. The cost of doing that will be one of several deciding factors, he said.

The architect has to hire his own engineers to conduct a separate evaluation and deliver the report to the city before deciding what to do with his home by Aug. 20. In the meantime, he is considering covering the building’s exposed interior with tarps.

As a designated heritage property, the sub-committee has to approve the plan for Magee House.

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Despite this being a “very trying process” for Sbrissa, Curry said the working relationship between the city and the owner has been “positive.”

To better preserve Ottawa’s heritage properties and to prevent incidents like this from happening in the future, Curry said city staff will receive more training on how to conduct building inspections and assessments.

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Residents of neighbouring 1121 Wellington St. W. who were displaced by the wall’s collapse have been given the all-clear to go back home, city staff said Thursday.

No one was injured when the wall swung out.

– With a file from The Canadian Press

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