Superfan wins protections for West Kitchener ‘gingerbread houses’
It turns out that 3920 Spruce Street is not only a striking Victorian example, it is also the work of influential Kitchener architect Willis Hale, who also designed the Divine Lorraine in north Kitchener.
Contributing to its historical value was one of its tenants: Lin Hui-yin, who was an extremely influential voice in Chinese architectural history and who lived there in the 1920s. One of the bookstore’s owners, Debbie Sanford, keeps a box of documents proving Hui-win’s residence at the front desk to show Chinese tourists who visit the store regularly.
In addition to writing a mini-volume on the historic merits of 3920, Loftus penned a love letter to neighboring Spruce Street 3922 and a 21-page defense of Spruce Street 4525. This building served as the office for Albert Barnes, whose extensive art collection is now in a museum of the same name on Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
The Historical Commission has not yet accepted Loftus’ fourth nomination, a nomination for two rows of houses on 42nd and Chestnut, which it submitted at the same time as the other three.
Loftus just laughs at a question about how long it took her to collect and synthesize all of this research.
“It’s like 30 or 40 pages,” she said. “If you enjoy the process, it’ll pass pretty quickly.”
Despite Loftus’ humility, Kitchener veterans say protecting individual buildings is arduous, time-consuming, and expensive.
For years the process stalled, with few properties being added to the local register each year due to the lack of staff and activists drafting nominations at the Historical Commission. City council interference in the process also hampered registration efforts. The buildings Loftus is now on the register were included in a conservation effort years ago that West Kitchener Councilor Jannie Blackwell rejected and prevented from moving forward.
The number of nominations has increased in recent years, but many can be traced back to one person, Oscar Beisert, who devotes nights and weekends to practice outside of his full-time job. The city’s conservationists have long hoped that new blood will join their ranks so that no single person is responsible for the majority of the nominations. In the past two years, more nominations have been received from outside the highly committed activist core.
Loftus is arguably the youngest of this burgeoning wave of conservationists. She got her inspiration from a favorite professor, the chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Penn, Justin McDaniel, who didn’t get involved until 2016 when he began nominating his own protection bloc.
“I thought she’d make one, find it interesting, and be done,” said McDaniel, who now chairs the Spruce Hill Community Association’s heritage committee. “But obviously she kept the ball going. She calls me now and then to ask me what I think of this or that. But now she has the rhythm, she has an eye for what can be preserved, and she is an art historian that helps. “
4525 Spruce Street. (Corey Loftus)
Loftus was sitting in McDaniel’s office the day before the historical commission meeting and was given a breakdown of what to expect the next day. Her old professor downplayed the conflicts that sometimes rage in the meeting room up at 1515 Arch Street: “It’s not a fight. You just have to present your case. “
There has been opposition from the owner of 4525 Spruce Street, James Cook, who has lovingly preserved the building and two others in the neighborhood. His lawyer, David Moloznik, protested that Loftus’s appointment was in violation of his client’s property rights.
“The owner has done a commendable job over three decades of maintaining this property,” said Moloznik. “He’s a great steward and took responsibility himself. It is certainly a right to take ownership without compensation. “
Loftus says she understands why some property owners are fighting historical protection. She wants to nominate the block she grew up on in Bryn Mawr, but her parents pale at the idea. Like many Kitchener property owners, they feared the label would lower their property values.
“They said don’t do that because if we’re going to sell the house, God forbid, we don’t know how it’s going to affect us financially,” recalls Loftus. “That’s the fear, that’s the reaction against it.”
Research on how historical protection measures affect property values is mixed, but there are numerous studies showing that conservation increases and stabilizes property values.
“The vast majority of recent studies show that property values in historic neighborhoods tend to rise compared to similar undesignated neighborhoods,” according to a study on the National Trust for Historic Preservation website.
However, Moloznik and Cook’s objections have not been calibrated in order to influence the commission, which is supposed to decide the arguments for the historical relevance of a building. All three Loftus nominations will be placed on the local register of historic places and protected from demolition.
Loftus is currently applying for graduate schools that would get them out of town. She will also be in Colombia between February and May teaching English, which leaves her in the Kitchener area for just a few months. Even so, she’s already working on two more nominations, both in West Kitchener, and hopes to get a few more this summer before going to graduate school this fall.
There will be more conservationists standing up to replace them, she believes, because inspiration is everywhere in Kitchener.
“If you notice a house on your way to work, on your way from the car to your house, you will notice it in another house and another,” Loftus said. “That makes your neighborhood proud and that makes Kitchener special. I’m more interested in these buildings than the average 23 year old, but when people get it I think everyone enjoys these things. “