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A year after demolition, the Preston Springs hotel site is stuck in legal limbo

CAMBRIDGE – Walter Gowing watched the Preston Springs Hotel collapse last year, and with it more than a century of stories and memories.

“The day they started taking it down, I walked around quietly and just listened to what people were saying,” said Gowing, a former Cambridge journalist who recently wrote a book about the hotel titled “ Ghosts of Del Monte”.

“There were people saying ‘oh, that’s an eyesore, I’m glad to see it go down,’ and people who were literally in tears and sad to see it go,” Gowing said.

“I was sad to see him go down, but I kind of knew it was necessary.”

It has been a year since the historic Preston Springs hotel was demolished under a municipal emergency demolition order, and the site remains empty as it is stuck in legal limbo.

The City of Cambridge must confirm the emergency demolition order with the Ontario Superior Court, but it is still waiting for its case to be heard due to the long legal backlogs caused by the pandemic.

The city hopes to recover the cost of the demolition from the owner, Haastown Holdings. But until this particular legal process is resolved, the prominent site will remain empty. The city spent $200,000 to tear down the iconic hotel that has stood on King and Fountain streets for 132 years.

Built in the 1880s, the Preston Springs Hotel at 102 Fountain St. S. attracted wealthy tourists from far and wide to soak in the sulfur springs that bubbled beneath the hotel. The building has served many purposes over the years, including a naval barracks for women and a retirement home.

Preston Springs was left vacant in the early 1990s and exposure to the elements caused irreversible damage to the historic building. One investor after another bought the building, then sold it when they were unable to come up with a viable redevelopment plan for the heritage structure. Trespassing and vandalism over the years have also contributed to the deterioration of the building.

The city building official deemed the building unsafe in January 2020, and a demolition order was issued shortly thereafter. This order was blocked by an appeal filed by heritage defenders; they objected to the city council’s decision to strip the building of its heritage status.

Then, on Christmas Eve, a final blow to the hotel came in the form of an emergency demolition order to be issued immediately. The hotel could no longer be saved. An emergency demolition order voids heritage protections and any appeals that may be in place on a property.

The following week, wreckers were seen removing items from the hotel and preparing the site. It took four days to demolish the hotel and people came to see the once majestic building turn into a pile of rubble.

Gowing was one of those people, and this historic moment sparked in him the desire to write a book about the hotel.

Gowing tells the story not only of Preston Springs, first known as the Del Monte Hotel, but also of the two other hotels in the area that benefited from the sulfur springs bubbling underground. One by one, each of the three hotels disappeared.

Gowing started working at the Preston Times (which later became the Cambridge Times) in 1948 and worked as a local reporter until his retirement last year. He has spent his life collecting information and stories about Preston and its people. As a high school student, he worked at Hotel Kress as a bellhop and heard many stories about the three iconic hotels that once stood at this prestigious intersection. He decided to compile his collected stories and the stories of these hotels in his book.

The Kress Hotel burned down many years ago, but not Preston Springs. Gowing said the hotel has managed to survive fires, car crashes and other blows to its historic shell.

“The fire didn’t destroy this building even though there were many fires. The firefighters said, ‘We would never let it burn,'” said Gowing, whose brother was a local firefighter.

“This hotel should have been saved 30 or 40 years ago. The city never followed up. »

He is not alone in thinking that the hotel, the last of its kind, should have been better protected.

The Cambridge and North Dumfries Chapter of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario fought hard to save the building. In a statement, the heritage advocacy group said it continued to monitor the situation closely.

The ACO Cambridge said it “has not wavered in its commitment to championing heritage conservation.

“While we disagree and continue to disagree with the decision to demolish a regional landmark, the historic Preston Springs Hotel, the ACO-Cambridge is unable to provide further comment. at this time as the former hotel in Preston Springs is currently the subject of open litigation,” the statement read.

As the empty site awaits resolution from the courts, the city remains hopeful for its future.

Mayor Kathryn McGarry said the city has no indication of when that case will be heard.

“We look forward to that happening,” she said.

“We still recognize the history and heritage value of this property, and we really hope that future plans presented to council will commemorate what Preston Springs was in a meaningful way. And we had assurances from the current owner that would indeed be within the realm of possibility,” McGarry said.

“Unfortunately the structure was overall unsafe and needed to be demolished, but we are now considering all possibilities that exist for the future,” she said.

In an email, Paul de Hass of Haastown Holdings said he could not comment on what his company had planned for the site until the legal process was resolved.

Gowing said he would like to see the site turned into a park to honor the beautiful sprawling gardens that once existed behind the hotel, but he knows that is unlikely to be the case.

Gowing’s book “Ghosts of Del Monte” is available from Words Worth Books in Waterloo and Hair Space salon in Cambridge.