North York Mirror
Three months after a devastating fire caused extensive damage to North York’s historic O’Connor House, the adjacent coach house should be able to welcome students and members of the community beginning next month, the hopeful chair of the board of directors says.
The fire department is expected to carry out a final inspection of the coach house this week, Tony Wagner said. The inspection is a routine step in the restoration of the historic site, as the coach house was not affected by the fire at the O’Connor House main mansion.
Once the coach house passes the fire department’s final inspection, the city will issue a partial occupancy permit allowing the main floor and basement to be used.
The O’Connor House board and officials from the Toronto Catholic District School Board are hoping to host an open house the first week of September when school is back in session.
The coach house can then be used on weekdays by students of Senator O’Connor College School, just steps away,
The O’Connor House board can also begin using the space on evenings and weekends for community, heritage and cultural events and can permit bookings for functions. A community open house will be held some time in the fall.
Meanwhile, restoration work is continuing on the main mansion, on Rowena Drive, southwest of Victoria Park and Ellesmere Road.
Walking around the construction scaffolding outside the building last week, Wagner acknowledged he gets emotional when he catches a strong whiff of smoke, which takes him back to the day of the fire on May 9.
Construction crews were working on restoring O’Connor House, which was only two months from completion, when flames began shooting through the roof.
While the fire didn’t appear serious at first, soon flames were climbing 30 feet into the air.
“Certainly, we’re all devastated,” Wagner said at the time. “When the flames came out, I admit I started to cry.”
Initially, Wagner was worried the building would be condemned, but is ecstatic renovations have been able to continue on what is a labour of love for dozens in the community. They have worked for years to save the historic home from the wrecker’s ball.
“Our mission and objective remain to...open O’Connor House for the community, for the school, for cultural events. We will push through this,” Wagner vowed at the time of the fire.
He also jokingly suggested the ghost of philanthropist Senator Frank O’Connor, a politician and businessman who died in the house in 1939, would help preserve the site.
Last week, Wagner said he still feels O’Connor’s spirit is playing a role in saving the building.
“I don’t want to be corny but at the time (of the fire), I said Frank O’Connor is still here. I still feel that,” he said, praising the level of co-operation between the O’Connor House board, school board officials, staff from the city’s preservation services, the architect and contractors.
“I still am (emotional). As chair of the board of directors, I want to instill confidence our mission is preserved. We will fight the fight to bring it to life.”
Wagner is hoping the main mansion can open sometime during the first few months of 2013, which will dovetail with the 50th anniversary of the school.
While he is thrilled the building has been saved, Wagner said there have been many challenges to overcome, including extensive smoke damage.
“I was inside two weeks ago and in the attic. It was just horrific,” he said.
“To see the damage, I couldn’t take it...It was overwhelming, the smell (of smoke).”
There was also severe water damage as a result of the fire. Firefighters had to punch holes in the 1930s plaster walls to prevent the fire from spreading. When insulation inside the walls got soaked, mould began to grow, Wagner said.
Meanwhile, Wagner said the city should soon be issuing a fire restoration permit that will allow the roof to be replaced, although it may be repaired. Also, crews are trying to save historic crown moulding. They are also installing an elevator.
He estimated the fire caused between $500,000 and $1 million damage, adding insurance issues are being handled by the school board and construction contractors.
Rebuilding after the fire is not the first time O’Connor House has been saved. Twice in 2009, the school board asked North York councillors to approve a demolition permit, arguing the cash-strapped board couldn’t afford to maintain the property.
Councillors denied the requests and community activists continued with plans to save the site.