GUEST COLUMN: Advisory body needed for library, Lawrence House

Bryan Trothen

After what seems to have been decades of inadequate maintenance, Sarnia’s downtown library building is now in need of $3.5 million worth of repairs and upgrades. The architect’s report commissioned by city council has set out a list of nearly 80 renovations that need to be done and are ranked from immediate and imperative to later and less urgent.

It has been suggested that the root of the problem lies in the administrative structure whereby there are two municipal governments with interconnected responsibilities. The city owns the building, but the county, which provides library services, is somehow also responsible for the theatre part of the building.

If this “co-management” is, in fact, one cause of the disrepair, the solution may be putting the whole building under one “manager” with the clear duty of securing the whole physical structure – the bricks, the mortar, and all the mechanical systems.

It has also been suggested that the city should re-institute the advisory board that supervised the city’s libraries prior to 1991, and that this new body could become the building’s guardian and advocate, making sure that it is properly secured and maintained.

This is an excellent proposal, but the idea that this new agency could be modeled on the Lawrence House’s advisory board is mistaken because, in fact, there is no such organization. In spite of its name, the Lawrence House Centre for the Arts is a non-profit cultural organization operated by a Board of Directors, and since the Centre is merely a tenant and not a city operation, it has no direct responsibility to be the building’s advocate.

Nevertheless, the Lawrence House, like the library, has been seriously neglected, and a quick survey reveals that exterior painting and repairs to the porches, gutters, trim, and roof have not been undertaken in a timely or appropriate fashion. The roof alone has been in need of expert restoration and preventive maintenance for the last two or three years, and no action has been taken even though the situation has been brought to the attention of council. The Lawrence House, like the library, is a city-owned property and, as such, it is the city’s responsibility to maintain its physical integrity.

It would probably be reasonable to conclude that, based on the deteriorating condition of both facilities, an advisory authority should be created by the city to oversee their physical condition and ensure that there is proper maintenance and upkeep for them – and perhaps other city-owned buildings.

As for the Lawrence House, an architectural/engineering assessment is probably long overdue. As well as being a designated heritage building, the House has an iconic popular status as a symbol of downtown and perhaps, of the city itself. It would be shameful and embarrassing to let it continue to deteriorate.

Bryan Trothen is a community volunteer with a strong interest in Sarnia’s social, cultural and political issues