Saturday, July 30, 2016

Back to the Rockwood Academy, part two

Rear of the gymnasium wing, Rockwood Academy

The fact you give something to someone, or die leaving it to them, doesn’t mean they have to take it.  Especially when it comes with strings.

Josef Drenters willed the Rockwood Academy to the Ontario Heritage Foundation (now the Ontario Heritage Trust), but with a life interest for his brother Andy Drenters.  That was one complicating factor in seeing Josef’s wishes fulfilled.  But the Foundation had accepted property with life interests before — this was the case with the property known as Inge-Va, now a historic house museum in Perth (although there the donor was alive and retained the life interest rather than devising it to a third party). 

The real obstacle to the Foundation accepting the Academy was financial.

Property ownership is of course a big responsibility, doubly so if you are a public body with a mandate to own, preserve and maintain heritage buildings.  Since its creation in 1967 the OHF/OHT has learned from experience how demanding, in all respects, heritage properties can be and the risks of the (less discretionary) budget for capital work on its sites cramping the (more discretionary) budget for its other programs.  Over the years the Foundation became understandably wary of accepting heritage property from donors without an endowment or some dedicated funding source to help sustain the property long-term.

The experience with the Rockwood Academy probably contributed to the evolution (read: tightening up) of the Foundation’s acquisitions policies.  There were no monies in Josef’s estate to endow his gift of the Academy.  Quite the opposite… there were two mortgages!  (I don’t recall the amount involved — not huge, but not inconsiderable either.)

It was soon apparent that the Foundation would not accept an indebted Academy.  And so, in 1984, the Friends of the Rockwood Academy was born.

Friends invitation 1984

The core Friends group consisted of Andy Drenters, his wife Heather, Murray Haigh, and me.  We began raising money to pay off the outstanding mortgage debt.  We solicited donations and pledges from friends of Josef’s, people who owned his work and others who were concerned for his legacy and wanted to see the Academy preserved.  (I remember my colleague Herb Stovel making a generous multi-year pledge.)

I’m pretty sure we would not have reached our fundraising goals, at least in time — the Foundation’s Board was not going to wait forever.  But out of the blue came… Agnes of God.

A movie by Canadian director Norman Jewison, Agnes of God takes place in a Quebec convent where strange things are going on, including what may or may not be a miracle.  But for the Friends it certainly seemed like a miracle that Jewison wanted to shoot the film at the Rockwood Academy, over a several month period, and of course pay for the privilege.



The Academy, with its imposing stone edifice and monastic ambience, was perfect for the part.  Some temporary alterations to the property were naturally required, to make it less Anglo and more Franco, including the addition of faux dormers on the roof… and the construction of a mock bell tower at the rear!

Andy Drenters at work on Agnes of God film set
(note framework for bell tower behind)

Starring Jane Fonda, Anne Bancroft and Meg Tilley (yes, they were all there in Rockwood), Agnes of God was released in 1985.  Location fees combined with the funds raised by the Friends more than paid off the Academy’s mortgages.  The way had been cleared for the Ontario Heritage Foundation to accept the property.

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Now for something completely different.  About this time the simmering threat we looked at in the last post — the encroachment on the rural setting of the Academy by development — seemed suddenly to ignite.  Distracted by Josef’s illness, death and the uncertain aftermath, the Friends and the Foundation had somehow failed to notice that the lands at the rear of the Academy, which had been zoned agricultural, had been acquired by a developer… and were now zoned residential… and a subdivision had been approved.  Yikes!

And here’s where the stop orders come in.

Rookwood Academy from the hill

Development of the subdivision called for extensive clearing and grading of the field immediately behind the Academy, including the levelling of a large hill.  Frantic to secure a buffer zone including the hill, we turned to the Ontario Heritage Act.

Hidden away in Part VI of the Act (“Conservation of Resources of Archaeological Value”) was a power that had never been used.  Subsection 62 (1) said:

Where the Minister after consultation with the Foundation is of the opinion that property is of archaeological or historical significance and is likely to be altered, damaged, or destroyed by reason of commercial, industrial, agricultural, residential or other development, the Minister may issue a stop order directed to the person responsible for such commercial, industrial, agricultural, residential or other development prohibiting any work on the property for a period of no longer than 180 days, and within that period the Minister or any person authorized by the Minister in writing may examine the property and remove or salvage artifacts from the property.  (emphasis added; the provision is the same today, except that “Trust” has replaced “Foundation”)

Okay, some of you are thinking that this stop order power was intended for archaeological sites, not artifact-free hills behind built heritage sites.  And I’d agree.  This is a good example of how legislation can sometimes be interpreted and used (read: stretched) in ways beyond those intended — and therefore why interpretation based on “what the drafters intended” is not definitive.  But back to the story.

Because the hill property was an original part of the 1850s Academy farm — and because bulldozers had in fact begun to level it — then Minister of Culture and Recreation Lily Munro was “of the opinion” that the property was of historical significance and was likely to be damaged or destroyed.  In September 1985 she issued a 180-day stop order under section 62 affecting an approximately three acre parcel including the hill; after it ran out, she issued a second stop order in May 1986. [Note 1]

One reason why the section 62 power had not been used (and has never been used since) has to so with subsection 62 (2).  This requires payment of compensation for 
“personal or business damages resulting from the stop order.”  The amount of the compensation is reached by agreement; failing that, by a proceeding under the Expropriations Act.

In any case stop orders were obviously not a long-term solution to the buffer zone issue.  The Ontario Heritage Foundation in the end reached agreement with the subdivision owner for the purchase of one acre, including most of the hill, for $50,000.

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Andy Drenters behind the Academy today

Thirty years ago, in 1986, the OHF acquired the Rockwood Academy.  For more than 55 years it has been the home, studio and gallery of two remarkable brothers — Josef Drenters, who restored and enhanced it, and then Andy Drenters, who has been its faithful custodian.  The Academy is a magnificent place with a fascinating story… with many chapters left to come.

Rookwood Academy refectory today, with Andy's sculptures



Note 1: Lily Munro, just a few months on the job after the swearing in of David Peterson’s minority Liberal government in June 1985, deserves great credit for taking this bold action. The only other use of a stop order under the OHA was by Culture Minister Aileen Carroll in 2009, who issued a 60-day order under section 35.2, which was added to Part IV of the OHA in 2005.  That order was issued at the request of the City of Toronto to stop demolition of the Maclean House near Casa Loma: 

Friday, July 15, 2016

Back to the Rockwood Academy, part one

I hadn’t been there for decades.  Yet, when greeting Andy Drenters at the door, I said: “This is one of my favourite places in the world.”  On a beautiful day in May it was delightful to see how little things had changed.

Rarely if ever in my life has there been a place like the Rockwood Academy that has brought together the personal and the professional.


Rockwood Academy front facade

The Academy — a property of the Ontario Heritage Trust in the village of Rockwood, just east of Guelph — has an intimate connection with stop order powers under the Ontario Heritage Act, but we’ll get to that… 

The tale I have to tell begins in 1980, but the Rockwood Academy story goes back to the 1850s.


Fast forward to 1960 when the near derelict property was acquired by Josef (Yosef) Drenters, a sculptor of Belgian origin, who painstakingly began its restoration and renewal.

The Academy is immense, rambling and oozes atmosphere — a building that looks and feels very old and timeless, as much on the inside as out.  I guess you would say it has great spirit.  Much of that intangible something is owing to the two men most closely associated with, and dedicated to, it — William Wetherald and Josef Drenters.  And there was an uncanny resemblance between them…

Academy founder William Wetherald
Josef Drenters with one of his sculptures





















Josef, who had spent seven years in a seminary before leaving Europe with the rest of his family to come to Canada, was 29 when he bought the Academy property, seeking a home and studio. He devoted the following two decades not just to his sculpture but also increasingly to the building.  The Academy was more than a labour of love; it became an obsession that sometimes seemed to interfere with his art.  Or perhaps it is truer to say, as he did, that the Academy was his greatest and most demanding work.

Josef laboured for many years on the property with the help of family, especially his brother Andy (Andreas), and friends, including the landscape architect Murray Haigh, who was for a time his partner.  Then in 1978 he discovered… the Ontario Heritage Foundation, today’s Ontario Heritage Trust.  The Foundation provided a grant of $65,000 — those were the days! — to help with the stabilization of the walls of the old gymnasium (the rear wing of the building) and other structural work.


Rookwood Academy rear facade with gymnasium wing on right

As a condition of the grant Josef signed a heritage easement agreement protecting in perpetuity the exterior and many interiors of the 25-room building, as well as other structures on the property including a small stone chapel Josef had built himself.   This easement was one of the first entered into by the OHF since it had gained the power to acquire heritage easements with the passage of the Ontario Heritage Act a few years before.

Now get this — Josef was so conscientious and had such high standards for the work to be undertaken that he ended up doing much of it himself and making the unprecedented gesture of returning $11,000 of the grant.

Josef at work on gymnasium wing

Just about this time, in 1980, I come on the scene as the new staff member responsible for the OHF’s easements program.  Pretty quickly I got out to visit the enchanting Rockwood Academy and meet its intriguing owner.


Gymnasium interior today with Andy Drenter's sculptures

From early on I recall Josef’s concern, with the building itself secured, for the Academy’s surroundings and landscape.  On the edge of the village and backing on to a farmer’s field, the property retained its original rural setting.  But little Rockwood was growing….  Josef had already been able to purchase a small parcel of land at the rear and to the south of the Academy, including the old Academy bank-barn (I think the OHF had put up some of the money for this).  He approached his neighbours with a proposal that they go in together to buy more of the field behind, but to no avail.

Alas, there were soon much bigger worries.  Some 12 years before Josef had had a bout with cancer and in 1983 the cancer returned.  Facing a terminal diagnosis he agonized over the future of his beloved Academy.  While the heritage easement offered some assurance should the property remain in private hands, Josef seems always to have felt that he held the Academy in trust for future generations and he had come to see the OHF as a committed partner in its preservation.  As for his family, Josef’s brother Andy, also a sculptor, had a close connection with the property too.  

Josef decided he would leave the property to the Ontario Heritage Foundation subject to a life interest for Andy.

I had become a friend and Josef’s death in November 1983, at the age of 53, was a huge blow.  With my colleagues Larry Ryan and Herb Stovel I attended his funeral at the towering Church of Our Lady in Guelph.


Chapel built by Josef Drenters in corner of Academy courtyard

In her book Heritage in Stone: Yosef Drenters and the Rockwood Academy, Barbara Smiley tells this story from Josef’s final days:

[Josef’s close friend] Murray Haigh lit a candle in the Academy chapel on All Saints’ Day and made a beautiful wreath of all the last autumnal plants and berries from the garden. This he placed in front of the alter where Josef had spent many hours. When Murray received the sad news that Yosef had died early in the morning of November 8, he went straight to the chapel. The candle, which still had plenty of wax left to burn, had gone out. A small flame extinguished but the symbol of a wonderful man with a great heart, full of compassion, talented, kind — yet a perfectionist and stern taskmaster who never settled for second best.

Josef’s intention of leaving the Rockwood Academy to the OHF was soon confirmed.  But what was not at all clear was whether the Foundation would accept it.


Engraving of entrance by Gerard Brender à Brandis