Oshawa heritage lovers are bracing for impact, as soon a wrecking ball could be poised to take down the 160-year-old Cowan House.
“The thought that the house could shortly be a smoking pile of rubble just does not bear contemplating,” said heritage advocate Jane Clark. “There are only 12 properties from the 1850s identified in the entire city, so to casually and needlessly consign Cowan House to the dustbin is inexplicable for a municipality that claims to value its heritage.”
WHAT IS COWAN HOUSE?
Cowan House, at 39 Athol St. W. in downtown Oshawa, was built in approximately 1858. It housed prominent Oshawa families, the Cowans and McMillans, in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The Cowan House sits next to the St. George’s Memorial Anglican Church, and served as the church rectory and offices for years.
“This property is irreplaceable. It’s one of only a handful of this age and certainly of this quality left in Oshawa, and is the only one of its kind left that graces the downtown,” said Clark.
WHY DO HERITAGE ADVOCATES SEE VALUE IN THE BUILDING?
Architectural value — Cowan House is a Georgian-style dwelling with Italianate elements, including the distinctive front entryway.
Historical value — Its owners were founders of many significant businesses in Oshawa, including the Malleable Iron Company, the Fittings plant, Oshawa Manufacturing (Cedar Dale Works) and Ontario Savings & Loan and Western Bank of Canada.
Contextual value — The building has a long association with St. George’s Anglican Church in downtown Oshawa.
THE RECENT HISTORY OF THE OLD BUILDING
• Up to as late as the 2019 Doors Open Oshawa, Cowan House wowed visitors with an almost completely intact Georgian ground-floor interior, including the staircase and reception rooms.
• In 2019, Heritage Oshawa recommended that Cowan House be designated under the Ontario Heritage Act.
• At the time, the Anglican Church opposed the heritage designation of its downtown Oshawa property, asking the city to consider the development potential of the Cowan House lands to support intensification in the Downtown Oshawa Urban Growth Centre.
• City council voted in June 2019 not to designate Cowan House under the Ontario Heritage Act, but to keep the building as a “Class A” property on the Heritage Oshawa Inventory of City of Oshawa Heritage Properties.
• Since that time, the Cowan House has been sold and development plans seem to be moving forward. On May 18, Oshawa received a demolition permit application for the building.
“Is it something we can ask for reconsideration?” asked Robert Bell, a member of Heritage Oshawa, at a meeting this spring.
• Only council can reconsider a decision of council. Given there’s been no reconsideration of that council decision not to designate the Cowan House, at this time city staff are advancing the demolition of the property as it’s been applied for.
“Every single time I’ve stepped into my office at City Hall since being elected, my office window looks right out at Cowan House, and its fate has been a question for much of this term. Given that Oshawa Council didn’t vote in favor of protection a couple years ago and that this Council has been reluctant to impose heritage designation on buildings generally, I’m not optimistic that it will receive protection,” Councilor Derek Giberson said via email.
HERITAGE AND CHANGE CAN COEXIST
Those who love the building say it doesn’t have to remain the same to be saved. They are pushing for the preservation of Cowan House through adaptive reuse. They want to see it incorporated into the new development as a community amenity. The Cowan House champions say that although the building looks to be in bad condition, they believe the rough areas are mostly cosmetic (eg, cracking stucco on top of the original brickwork). Heritage advocates are hoping to meet with the developers and councilors who represent the area to discuss how the property could be adaptively reused to benefit everyone in the community.
“A mix of old and new buildings and different architectural styles add visual interest to a downtown core and increase the appeal, so maybe the new owners of the property can be encouraged to look at some form of adaptive reuse and integration into plans for the site ,” said Coun. Giberson.
If Cowan House is demolished, Clark said that first she would like to see council require the building’s heritage features — especially its interior features — be fully documented so that any interested future citizens of Oshawa can access these archived documents, even if the heritage building is gone.
STORY BEHIND THE STORY: Oshawa heritage advocates reached out with their concerns about a demolition permit application submitted for the old Cowan House.