‘Destroying connections to the past’: Investigation ongoing into fire at former psychiatric hospital

London, Ont., fire crews were called to the site’s vacant former recreation hall at 850 Highbury Ave. around 6 p.m. Saturday. via London Fire Department / Twitter

As the investigation into a fire that broke out at a former psychiatric hospital in London, Ont., over the weekend remains ongoing, heritage advocates are highlighting the loss it brings to local history preservation efforts.

Fire crews were called to the site’s vacant former recreation hall at 850 Highbury Ave. around 6 p.m. Saturday. Officials said the structural integrity of the building was “heavily compromised,” resulting in the roof collapsing into the shell of the building.

Kirk Loveland, platoon chief for the London Fire Department, said that due to some portions of the ground being scheduled for demolition, all water mains on the property had been disconnected.

“We had to provide our own water supply and we couldn’t use hose lines because the complex is too far back. We ended up shuttling water using tankers,” he said. “Crews were on scene for an extended amount of time because it was too dangerous to enter.”

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Despite large challenges, firefighters were able to knock down the blaze fairly quickly and remained on scene overnight checking for live hot spots.

No injuries were reported.

Loveland said investigators were on the scene Sunday and used an aerial truck to survey the damage. As of Monday, crews have still not been able to enter the building as the “conditions remain too dangerous,” he said.

“We don’t know the structural stability of the building and from that, we’re not sending inspectors in until we get an engineer to look at the building and assess it,” Loveland said.

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While there is no estimated timeline for when the assessment of the torched structure will take place, he said that its findings will either result in “possibly shoring up the building, or knocking the building down.”

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Due to this, the cause of the fire and the estimated damage cost have not yet been determined.

According to Joe O’Neil, an advisor to the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario’s London branch, the hospital first opened its doors in the 1870s, with the land’s more recent structures being built into the 1920s.

The site, which sits on 58 hectares of land in the city’s east end, was bought from the province for $17 million by Old Oak Properties in 2019 with plans to create one of the biggest redevelopments in London. The plans include building seven towers, some mid-rise buildings and additional residential, transit, heritage, open space and academic elements.

At that time, O’Neil was chair of the heritage advisory committee for the City of London and said that the recreation hall, which was used as a large gathering place for patients, is a protected heritage building through the Ontario Heritage Trust and the original intent with the developers was to preserve it in the redevelopment of the land.

“When development is finished, there could be anywhere from 20,000 to 30,000 people living on the site of the psychiatric hospital. So, one of the things the heritage community was promoting was the need for a community centre and said, ‘Wouldn’t this recreation space make a beautiful anchor for that?’” he said.

“That’s why it’s so sad to see it burnt because even though I understand the shell of the building is standing, the reality is the heat of the flames probably destroyed the mortar (and) whatever they used to hold the brick together and I don’t even know if they can reuse the brick to rebuild it.”

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In addition to the recreation centre, the Chapel of Hope, infirmary and horse stable are also to be preserved, according to the Ontario Heritage Trust.

Robert Bierbaum, vice-president of operations of Old Oak, told Global News in an email that the company is working with the London Fire Department to “ensure the safety of the site.”

“Old Oak values the history of this site, since acquiring the land we have put in place both physical measures to secure all historic buildings, and 24/7 live monitoring. This live monitoring allowed us to quickly notify the London Fire Department at the first signs of a fire,” he said.

“Old Oak is committed to working with the municipality to ensure this building and any others of historic importance are incorporated with any future development in a way that pays respect to its heritage.”

This is not the first time a fire has broken out on the land.

Last November, crews battled a suspicious blaze at the former horse stable, resulting in the temporary closure of a busy section of Highbury Avenue. Prior to that, in April 2021, firefighters quickly knocked down another suspicious fire at the Chapel of Hope, with original construction dating back to the 1880s.

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The London Fire Department was able to extinguish the blaze inside the Chapel of Hope, which is on the grounds of the former London Psychiatric Hospital.
The London Fire Department was able to extinguish the blaze inside the Chapel of Hope, which is on the grounds of the former London Psychiatric Hospital. London Fire Department Twitter

While the cause of Saturday’s fire has not yet been determined, O’Neil highlighted that at its core, the former hospital grounds still shine a light on how some of the city’s marginalized communities continue to live.

“I and others have personally noticed that when they shut down the psych hospital, there was an explosion of chronic homelessness on the street because many people had nowhere to go,” he said.

The hospital closed its doors in 2014, with the last 150 patients being transferred to Parkwood Institute.

However, after visiting the site again over the weekend, O’Neil said that he heard from local workers that there are some former patients who are now homeless who continue to camp on the land in the warmer months.

“They live out here in the summertime because this is the only home they know,” he said. “I think what we’re seeing with not just these historical buildings, but other buildings that get burned is an outcropping of bigger problems that are going on in the community.”

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O’Neil added that these fires are “not just destroying history; it’s destroying connections to the past that we’re people trying to solve problems that we’re still experiencing today and we’re not learning from both the mistakes and the bonuses of what they learned in the past.”

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