When I saw an online petition to save Sir Sandford Fleming Cottage in the Dingle Park, I tried to picture the building. I’ve been in the park plenty of times, and as I traced the routes of the park’s roads in my mind, I could see various other buildings in my mind’s eye, but not the cottage.
Built in the 1870s, it’s a relatively unassuming place. And John Macmanus, chair of the Friends of Sir Sandford Fleming Park, thinks that may be one of the reasons it’s fallen into disrepair.
“Here we have a little cottage. It’s buried in the park, not that visible. Who cares about it?” he said in an interview.
Macmanus and the members of his organization care. And he’s hoping council does too — at least enough to stabilize the cottage and prevent it from falling into further disrepair. The city owns the building, and it has been a municipally registered heritage property since 1985.
He says District 9 councillor Shawn Cleary has been “generally supportive” of the group’s efforts to have the city restore the cottage, and that “he’s agreed to present our petition to council on February 9th.”
“I’ve been working with with John and the other friends of Fleming Park,” Cleary said in an interview. He said he’s hoping to get the petition “in enough time that I can go to the clerk’s office, get it previewed, and then also work with the park staff and the CEO, because I’d like to bring a motion with it as well… because oftentimes we bring petitions, but nothing really happens to them.” The motion, he said, “is going to depend on the conversation I have with Friends of Fleming, but I’m also having conversations right now, just testing my colleagues, and I’ve had conversations with a few other councillors to see what their appetite is.”
The building has been empty for more than five years, when the city evicted the tenants who had been living there. In a 2014 newsletter to residents, then-councillor Linda Mosher said the city “decided it was in the best interest of the municipality and more cost effective” to terminate the lease on the Fleming cottage. She visited the property herself — a couple of people told me they think she had considered using it as a constituency office — and said in the newsletter she was “very disappointed and saddened by the condition of the building.” But she made no particular promises about its future.
A 2017 CBC story on the state of the cottage, by Nina Corfu, notes that the heritage plaque on the building gets its date of construction wrong and misspells “Sandford” as “Sanford.” (To be fair, just about everybody involved seems to misspell the name at some point.)
The municipality’s statement of heritage significance for the cottage describes it in part like this:
Architecturally, the cottage is a simple, Victorian cottage. The architectural value of this wood framed structure lies in the unique hipped gable roof which extends over a broad verandah. Additionally there are unusual, triangular dormers and small pediments notched into the eaves at each end of the building. Inside the house a notable feature is s large stone fireplace and wide wooden wall board construction. The cottage is located on a large parcel of land (The Sir Sandford Fleming Park), on which other registered heritage structures are located (The Dingle Tower and the Sir Sandford Fleming Barn). The cottage is in close proximity to the road that leads to the Dingle Tower, and is an important link to the history of the area.
Michele Raymond is president of the Northwest Arm Heritage Society, the co-author of a book on the history of the Northwest Arm and a former NDP MLA for the area. She said the cottage “is part of the original part of Fleming Park. It’s a sweet little piece of vernacular architecture, and we don’t have a lot of that kind of thing around.”
Raymond added, “What I regret is that the city places huge emphasis on Fleming Park and the Dingle Tower, and yet they’ve allowed this to fall into disrepair.”
Macmanus says architectural features aside, the connection to Fleming makes the cottage worthy of preservation.
Fleming bought the property in 1871. The cottage, where he would spend summers with children and grandchildren, was part of a larger constellation of buildings, including a stone barn (which still stands), gazebos, a boathouse, and a bridle path. In its heritage designation, the city notes that “it is believed” Fleming died at the cottage.
His purpose in donating the cottage and land around it, Tom Mason writes in a piece for Saltscapes on Fleming and the park, was to maintain public access at a time when private ownership was cutting off access to the water. Mason writes:
By the turn of the century much of the land along the Northwest Arm was being turned into private boating and social clubs. The Bloomingdale property became the Waegwoltic Club; The Jubilee Boat Club, the Saraguay Club and St. Mary’s Aquatic Club were all created. Fleming, who had kept his estate open to the public, feared that soon there would be no place left for the common man, who couldn’t afford a club membership to enjoy a picnic or launch a canoe along the Arm.
In a 2016 report commissioned by the city, the firm of SP Dumaresq calls for a restoration not only of the cottage, but also the grounds. It would involve removing an annex to the cottage–a later addition–and revitalizing the grounds. The scope of work report sees it as an opportunity to restore this part of the park and honour Fleming’s memory.
The report says:
Our recommendation is to access the cottage from a new parking lot near the barn. This would replicate the 1908 approach which was probably up a path from the wharf, past the barn up to the cottage. Another parking lot could be constructed up the hill from the cottage, providing a garden loop between the parking lots, connecting the barn and the cottage and providing a safer approach to the cottage than the road… The path could be fully accessible, connect the barn and the cottage and could lead visitors to other pedestrian loops such as the Loop Road to the hill to the north where the summerhouse gazebo once stood and another to the shores of the Arm where the bathing/boathouse and wharf once existed…
How wonderful it would be to celebrate Sir Sanford [sic] on the very grounds where he frolicked with his children and grandchildren! The recognition could be in the form of a Memorial Garden located between the cottage and the barn. The garden could be a self guided experience with interpretative plaques. Additional interpretation could be provided in the cottage and the barn which would only be open when appropriate, provided enough information was provided in the Garden.
The report pins the cost of the project at $200,000. It was released to the Friends of Sir Sandford Fleming Park as part of an access to information request made by the group. Macmanus provided portions of the 841 pages of the report, including emails from Mosher about the property being “a mess.”
In an email reply to a nearby resident whose name is redacted, Mosher writes:
There was mold, holes in the floor boards, the ceiling in the basement had beams and wood nailed onto it. There is probably asbestos, etc. The building was disgusting.
In a September 30, 2016 email, city planner and heritage officer Maggie Holm writes to Terry Gallagher, manager of corporate facility design and construction, in support of the Dumaresq proposal:
I am very much in favor his approach to returning the building back to a ‘period correct’ state of approximately the early 1900s… The Cottage is very relevant to the history of Sir Sanford [sic] Fleming, and helps interpret the entire park — the Tower is a National Historic Site, both the Cottage and Barn are municipally registered heritage properties… Syd’s suggestion of tying all of these pieces of built heritage together with the walking paths and gardens is brilliant — It will enable people to better interpret the Park and Sir Sanford Fleming and create a wonderful destination.
Thanks Maggie for your contribution at the meeting.
Cleary said his reaction to the Dumaresq report was, “Well, that’s not really going to fly, is it?” While he said he can’t speak for previous councils, he thinks there are a few reasons the city hasn’t spent money on fixing up the cottage. In 2019, the municipality bought a privately owned property that included part of a popular walking trail. “The neighbourhood, rightfully so, was concerned because we might lose part of the trail, and essentially it wouldn’t be a loop trail anymore,” he said. “So I had to convince my council colleagues to spend almost a million dollars to buy that piece of land, to keep the park whole.” But that also meant the idea of asking for more money for the cottage was “out the window,” he added.
Things might be different now, Cleary said, because a couple of years have passed and because the city is saving money by renovating the buildings in the park that house the canteen and washrooms. “So, in good conscience, I feel like I can ask my council colleagues to spend some extra money on funding to do something with the cottage.”
The fact that there’s no consensus on what that “something” will be is also a stumbling block to its preservation, Cleary thinks. There’s no parking available, so some kind of museum is impractical. He said moving it is unlikely, because its heritage designation cites the building’s “secluded setting”.
“So it’s an awkward sort of thing, and we’re trying to figure out what we can do with it. It would be great if there was a community group that would partner with us,” to run the cottage, Cleary said, citing the Cole Harbour Heritage Farm Museum as a model, “but there hasn’t been any sort of reasonable size group that could come out of the woodwork to help with that.”
For Macmanus, the question of use is “irritating.” He said, “People keep on saying, well, what’s it going to be used for?… Without a commitment to restore the cottage to to a habitable state, it’s a waste of time to actually consider uses.”
The Friends of Sir Sandford Fleming Park did ask the city for action on the cottage in 2019, but got no response. (I did not get a reply from the city when I emailed to ask for comment on this story.) Then the pandemic hit. Now, Macmanus said, the group has the commitment and resources to put more pressure on the city for action. “What’s different about this time is that we don’t intend to stop with just the petition,” he said. “We’re looking at next steps and ways and means to keep this in front of the city.”
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