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Hotel built in 1882 by freed slaves up for demolition

22 December 2011 No Comments

By Erica Phillips

The boarded up structure north of Barrie, Ont. doesn’t look like much. The intersection on which it stands appears desolate. But the Hillsdale Hotel is another link to the Black community’s past that’s in jeopardy of being lost and forgotten.

Freed slaves, the Davenport brothers, built the Hillsdale Hotel (also known as Alma House, O’Neil Tavern, O’Neil House and Simcoe House) in the Springwater Township of Simcoe County, Ont., in 1882. The building currently stands to be demolished after its owners requested a demolition permit in 2009 but agreed to delay demolition.

Ralph Hough, deputy mayor of Oro-Medonte Township and a county councillor, other politicians, and not-for-profit group the Hillsdale Hotel Foundation want to see it saved. “As far as I know, it is the last remaining original hotel building on the old Penetanguishene Road and I would like to see it moved to the Simcoe County Museum and eventually restored to its former glory,” says Hough. Although this is the most viable option, the county does not have the needed funds.

In 1990, the former Township of Medonte designated the Hillsdale Hotel “a building of historical significance.” The Davenports’ homestead was also designated. The family, originally from the U.S., was among the first to settle in the area in 1819. According to a report from the County of Simcoe, the Davenport brothers were master builders, completing many substantial buildings in Simcoe County.

“The [Hillsdale Hotel] and its builders had a significant role in the Hillsdale area,” says Linda Collins, mayor of the Township of Springwater. “I am pleased that local citizens established a foundation in an effort to raise funds to restore the hotel. The history books are not yet finished with the [Hillsdale Hotel] given that the matter is before county council through a request of the Simcoe Museum expressing an interest in having the hotel as part of its holdings of historically-significant buildings. I’m certain the Foundation would appreciate assistance and donations in support of its effort.”

About $700,000 is needed to move and restore the hotel, which was a YMCA in the ’50s, and a stagecoach stop and a livery in the late 1800s and early 1900s, according to Janet Yanuziello, the vice president of the Hillsdale Hotel Foundation. “We applied and were refused for a Trillium grant,” Yanuziello says. “We did have [two loans] arranged for $100,000 each. However, both were contingent on getting the Trillium grant.”

Several other organizations also support saving the structure. “We have interiors tours and input on the hotel from the Brampton Historical Society, Springwater Township, and ERA Architects from Toronto on behalf of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario (which found restoration favourable after a viability report and study),” Yanuziello says.

Supporters now await a decision from the major stakeholders concerning the fate of the landmark. However, without a major injection of money, it seems that this landmark, like much of Canada’s Black history, will be unceremoniously abandoned and buried.

For more information, visit hillsdalesimcoehouse.com

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