Can Old Houses Be “Racist”?

Casa de SJ will soon celebrate its centennial. Built as a country house in 1927 by architects Polemus and Coffin, its first resident was Hoffman Nickerson. who was not only dear friends with H.L. Mencken, but an advocate for an American landed gentry. He would not, in today’s parlance, be considered “woke.” Indeed, his attitude toward the poor and downtrodden would like be roundly condemned. Does that make Casa de SJ a racist house?

The two-and-a-half storey 9,000-square foot house in the Yonge and St. Clair area, was built in 1906 for Stapleton Pitt Caldecott, a former Toronto Board of Trade president who was opposed to immigration, a University of Toronto historian says.

Dr. Arnold Mahesan, a fertility specialist of Sri Lankan descent, and his wife, entrepreneur and former Real Housewives of Toronto actor Roxanne Earle, whose family comes from Pakistan, bought the house in 2022 for $5 million, real estate records show. At the time, they say, they didn’t know the home had a heritage designation.

After buying the house, the couple wanted to make changes to its steep stairs, only to learn they needed approval because o the heritage designation. They could have sought approval the usual way, making their case for why changes were needed and coming up with a historically sensitive way to accomplish their changes without doing unnecessary damage to their rather expensive historic home. But no, they came up with a completely different argument.

The couple applied to the board in January to have that designation repealed on the grounds that it was approved by the city in haste in 2018. They say a closer look would have revealed its original owner held views that should have excluded it from preservation.

The city doesn’t currently have a policy that would bar buildings owned by such individuals from gaining heritage status.

In making their allegations about Caldecott at last week’s board meeting, the couple cited a report by University of Toronto lecturer Michael Akladios, which points out that Caldecott was anti-immigration, and in favour of newcomers assimilating into mainstream society.

Notably, Alkadios asserts that he never said Caldecott was racist, but that’s the take pushed by the couple, who argue that heritage status should have been rejected not because the house was not historically significant, but because its owner had bad opinions.

Rather than laugh the couple out of the preservation board meeting, their argument, although contrary to the law, got some traction.

Wynne told CBC Toronto he’s never heard of a property owner who wanted the heritage designation removed from their property on the grounds that the original owner allegedly held racist views.

He added it’s worth looking into past associations that other Toronto landmarks may have with prominent figures whose views would be considered repugnant by today’s standards.

Another board member, Paul Cordingley, told last week’s meeting the Mahesan-Earle application raises significant points about what a heritage designation means.

“I think we have to find a way of disengaging preservation from celebrating,” he said. “Because I would not want anyone to think that if we’re trying to maintain the designation of this house, that we are celebrating or downplaying what goes along with that.”

Not too long ago, historic preservation was liberal cause célèbre, as history (like open space) once destroyed cannot be recreated. And historic districts were established to prevent the latest owner of an historic property from bulldozing it, often to replace it with a McMansion (at the time). But the point was the structure, not the views of its namesake resident.

The idea that a building, a house, regardless of its age or value as a representation of architecture, could be rhetorically undermined by calling it a “celebration” of the “racist” views of a prior owner is a reflection of the power the word retains, despite its promiscuous use and reduction to meaninglessness by applying it to any idea that isn’t officially approved by the progressive orthodoxy of the moment. Mind you, it would change next week.

To add insult of injury, was Caldecott’s views racist to begin with?

“Contrary to the assertions in the Report of the Chief Planner and Executive Director, City Planning Division, the association with Robert Stapleton Pitt Caldecott may not suffice, given Caldecott’s restrictive views on immigration and position on education as a vehicle for assimilation to safeguard the character of the Dominion of Canada under the empire,” Akladios wrote in his report.

Did Caldecott hate the Irish? Who knows. But regardless of Caldecott holding views that were likely common at the time, the house didn’t share his views because it’s a just a structure. Today, more than 100 years later, it’s still a structure. with some pretty cool chimneys.

For any home other than one built by Frederick Douglass or Harriet Tubman, the invocation of racism seems like a remarkably facile way around any laws designed to preserve historic structures. But the couple denies that it’s about stripping the house of its preservation restriction as means of being able to do as they please.

As for whether the couple is looking to renovate or demolish the house, Earle told CBC Toronto they’re not looking to have the designation removed “as a tactic.”

“I have no plans of developing this house or changing this house,” she told CBC Toronto.

“My issue is that I’ve done great work in this city and yet still I have to be racialized by living in a house that is celebrating something so anti everything that my husband and I are.”

There is, of course, a remarkably easy fix if the couple feels “racialized” by living in a home built by someone whose views they dislike. Move.

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