By Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express
If these walls could talk, the words would be shaking with fear.
Only a few short steps from the home’s front door, across a dirt path soon to be overtaken with yellowed grass, zooms the ever increasing traffic of Simcoe Street North. Looking out the back window, dust clouds float over the flattened land that will soon be home to one of Oshawa’s newest subdivisions. Long gone are the green fields and thick forest that would have previously been these windows’ vista.
The bulldozers rattle over the dry soil, waiting for the final word to turn their metal teeth on the small, unsuspecting building that has proven so pesky in the past.
Apparently, four years can change a lot.
The house at 2300 Simcoe St. N., previously home to one of Oshawa’s earliest female land owners, Harriet Cock, was built nearly 200 years ago in the mid-1800s.
Harriet immigrated here with her daughter, son-in-law and servants from England, using the fortunes she amassed, willed to her from a pair of deceased husbands. After her death in 1897, the home saw several different owners before it was eventually sold to Windfields Farm, who owned it until 2009.
It is one of the city’s earliest pieces of architecture, and soon it will be bulldozed to the ground to make room for a shopping mall and more houses as part of RioCan’s latest project.
It did not have to be this way.
Four years ago, a report prepared by ERA Architects was commissioned by RioCan to study the feasibility of moving the heritage house, which sits at the edge of its monstrous development.
The report found that the home was slightly more significant than anyone expected.
“We find the building to be of significant heritage value as a rare example of the early frame building type in the Oshawa region,” the report reads.
“This early, and now unusual, construction gives the house notable and significant architectural heritage value.”
It also has a cousin at the Lakefront. The architects used the Henry House, now part of the Oshawa Museum, as a reference point due to the similarities between the two.
“The similarities are too great for the two houses to have been constructed 50 years apart and the conclusion thus is that the subject house dates from the same period,” the report reads.
The architects also found that, despite its age, the house was sturdy and could easily stand-up to the move, which upon consultation with an expert mover, the architects labelled as a “relatively simple project,” as many of the issues were of an aesthetic nature.
“The frame building was found to be in good condition and robustly constructed to withstand the impact of relocation,” the report concludes.
A cost estimate pegged the relocation between $40,000 and $45,000.
While the first 150 or so years left the house in sound conditions, it would seem these last four have just been four too many, according to RioCan.
In a recent letter to city council, it has found the house can no longer stand up to the move as the front porch is collapsing and “the building itself has developed serious structural deficiencies that are now a potential liability risk.”
The letter also states that it had been RioCan’s intention to relocate the property further north and integrate it into a commercial block.
The news came as quite a surprise to Diane Stephen, chair of the Heritage Oshawa committee, who always believed that moving the house was still a consideration.
“There was potential, and that was an option that was always on the table until we get this letter,” she says.
Council was also on board with the relocation, carrying a motion in 2013 that approved the move and also suggested that councillors consider designating the building under the Ontario Heritage Act.
They went as far as making the suggestion as part of the program, approved this year, for honouring the Windfields Farm legacy.
When a draft proposal of the plan was made public, RioCan requested the house be removed from those being designated. According to a city report, “RioCan had a concern about designating the Harriet Cock House…given the state of disrepair of the building and the location of the building in relation to the proposed development in this area.”
RioCan did not return requests for comment on this story from The Oshawa Express, including requests for details as to why the house was not moved following the original report.
When the final program was brought forward in February, the house had been removed from the list.
“It’s unfortunate and it’s always sad to lose a piece of history,” says Mayor John Henry.
“The challenge is we don’t own the property.”
Henry also acknowledges the fact that the house has deteriorated in recent years, admitting to stopping to close and lock the front door of the house while passing by, that was, before the doors and windows were boarded up.
“If it reaches a point where it’s not that easy to repair and move, what’s the end result?” he says.
Included in its letter to the city, RioCan has also provided a $15,000 donation to help with the Windfields Farm Legacy Program, something councillors have agreed should go toward a display case in the new Firehall 6, which will showcase artifacts from Windfields Farm.
“It’s an opportunity for the city to get something,” Henry says of the donation.
“I’m hoping that RioCan continues to do what they promised in the north end of the city, and I have all the expectations of that.”
The sad end of Harriet Cock House also comes with a silver lining for Stephen, since the Oshawa Museum already has an extensive record of Harriet’s life.
“A lot of times when these houses come down, we have no life story about where the people came from,” she says.
Even so, whenever the house does come down, as several reports have detailed, a lot more will be lost than just a pile of wood and shingles.