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Ramping Up Political Correctness At Osgoode Hall

Mar 21, 2008 04:30 AM
Christopher Hume

In the architecture of the 21st century, political correctness is a design factor like any other. Sometimes this makes sense, sometimes less so.

In the case of Osgoode Hall, it hasn't always been easy to tell which is which. The provincially owned building, on the northeast corner of Queen and University, ranks among the most significant heritage properties in Canada, let alone Toronto. It has been altered and added to over the decades, but so far has managed to retain its architectural integrity. The oldest parts of the structure date back to the 1830s, the newest to the 1970s.

So when former chief justice Roy McMurtry started agitating a decade ago to make the building accessible to the disabled, there was some concern - and not just among preservationists.

Mary Louise Dickson, a lawyer, bencher and Osgoode Hall regular, was one of those less than thrilled at what design fate might befall it. What made this especially interesting was that Dickson, who had polio as a child, uses a wheelchair.

For years, she has used a handicapped entrance on the east side of Osgoode Hall. It has never presented any problems.

Then came 9/11.

"I was concerned they'd do a big clumsy ramp," Dickson admits. "But the design is not bad. They don't want people to go all the way through the building, which is what happens when they enter from the east. I've been going to the building since I was a student; the east entrance has never been a problem. But court security has increased now.

"I really do think that sometimes beauty should trump other considerations. With the political correctness of today, people have to have access through the front door."

Dickson's worries are understandable. One need look no further than the parsonage at Little Trinity Church, on King St. just east of Parliament St., to see how much damage a badly handled access ramp can do. This modest but exquisite red brick house was designed in the early 1850s by Cumberland and Storm - ironically, the same firm that did Osgoode Hall. Swamped by this absurdly large ramp, the poor building looks like an afterthought; in this context, a lost soul.

"We wanted minimal impact," explains Jim Butticci, spokesperson for Ontario Realty Corp, which administers Osgoode Hall. "It has to be almost invisible."

It's not surprising that the architect doing the work - Jill Taylor of Hazell Taylor - sees the project as unexpectedly tough.

"The key," she says, "is to consider the characteristics of the individual buildings and the intentions of the original architect. You have to think of it as architecture. It creates a procession through the front door that allows every man and woman to experience the beauty of the building. It has been very difficult, but I feel comfortable with the results."

Taylor, whose firm completed a $40 million restoration and retrofit of Osgoode Hall in 2005, has also spent years fixing up Casa Loma, which was falling apart.

When complete, Osgoode Hall's new entrance will comprise a 56-centimetre rise made of the same Ohio limestone as the building itself. It will be built in a way that it can be removed without compromising any part of the hall or its courtyard.

Making heritage sites accessible is an issue that won't go away. Extreme voices on both sides underscore the need for consultation.

Work on the $1.8 million project will start late next month and be finished by the end of the year.

Christopher Hume can be reached at chume@thestar.ca

Reproduced from http://www.thestar.com/GTA/Columnist/article/349331

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