By Bruce Bowden
The Architectural Conservancy of Ontario (ACO) mandate is to encourage the conservation and reuse of structures, districts and landscapes of architectural, historic and cultural significance. In that regard, we are happy to announce that ACO Port Hope branch has negotiated a conditional agreement for the sale of the historic Opera House building, which was donated to us in 2019 by the Royal Bank of Canada. The purchaser, HopeTowns Community Ventures (HTCV), is a local Not for Profit organization.
Most of you are aware of the Opera House building, at 85 Walton Street, at the corner of Walton and John Streets in downtown Port Hope. For decades now the upper level which housed a flat floor assembly space has been unused except to store an HVAC system. Formerly known as O’Neill’s Opera House the property was constructed in 1871 and remained an essential anchor to the Port Hope Heritage District. For many years, the Opera House was a cultural and entertainment centre for Port Hope. Historic posters still pasted to walls of the stage area depict the acts that played there.
The property was donated to ACO on October 31, 2019, by the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) following a meeting of ACO Port Hope members where there was substantial support to proceed with the acquisition despite the potential financial risks. ACO Port Hope had previously commissioned a Market Use and Feasibility study from Netgain Inc, which indicated that a restoration project was viable. Accordingly, ACO committed to stewardship of the conservation of this valuable and primary historic downtown building. We believe the Opera House is a critical cultural centre for the town and its memories and myths are essential to the community. ACO typically does not own properties, but we determined that we should take up interim ownership until we could find new owners who would share our vision for a restoration.
Early in 2020, the Opera House Committee issued a public Request for Expression of Interest in the Restoration and Adaptive Re-Use of the Port Hope Opera House. The committee developed a website to house the RFEOI along with the history of the Opera House, submission guidelines and current photographs. In February, the committee posted an ad in the Business Section of the Globe & Mail and began a Social Media Campaign to reach institutions and industry experts who may have an interest in the property. After a lengthy and public RFEOI process, which attracted several interested parties, one group presented a proposal that met the requirements of the RFEOI and committed to a restoration of the Opera House following the Standards and Guidelines for the Conservation of Historic Places in Canada. An exciting development for the future of Restoration in the Port Hope Heritage District, their proposal includes commercial space on the main floor along with commercial and community use of the second-floor assembly space.
Some of you may have noticed the exploratory restoration work that has started on the Opera House. A condition of the purchase agreement allows HTCV time to investigate and inspect, the property to ensure their project will be viable. The due diligence period ends December 29, 2020. However, the closing date will be most likely be late 2021 as HTCV hopes to receive charitable status before the transfer.
This project has been a significant undertaking for ACO Port Hope, requiring investment of the time and effort of several devoted ACO members, not to mention the cost of reports, studies, our RFEOI process and ongoing operating costs. However, we expect the benefits of saving this historic focal point of the downtown Port Hope core for adaptive re-use will result in a huge benefit to Port Hope and all of its citizens. At the time the transaction is completed, the Opera House will be celebrating its 150th year! However, the final restoration by HTCV is anticipated to be a multi-year, multi-million dollar project before the doors finally open.