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Preston Springs Hotel – A grim future for a historic hotel

August 2020

The Preston Springs Hotel, an abandoned luxury hotel in Cambridge, Ontario, has been an iconic landmark in the area for 137 years.

Opened in 1888 as the Del Monte Hotel Walder by Robert Walder, in what was then called the Village of Preston, an area populated by German-speaking Mennonites from Pennsylvania.

Standing at the corner of Fountain Street and King Street, the primary feature of the five-storey hotel, which was eventually expanded to 9,000-square-feet, was the mineral baths in the hotel’s basement; baths that it was claimed could “cleanse” the body.

In the nineteenth-century, physicians across North America recommended mineral springs as a treatment for many ailments, like arthritis and rheumatism, or a variety of diseases. The high sulphur content of the water in the area was made it an ideal location for such a facility, similar to the ancient Roman Baths, leading to a population boom and rapid business growth in Preston.

The name of the luxury hotel was changed to Preston Springs Hotel in 1903, by then-owner A.R. Kauffman.

The coming of the Great War in 1914 spelt the end of the hotel’s first run, closing until 1921, when A.R. Kauffman, along with Gordon and Edwin Hagmeier, two doctors from nearby Hespeler, succeeded in re-opening the hotel.

Operated it as the Preston Springs Hotel and Sanitarium, it became the top health clinic in North America, as well as a luxury hotel, attracting celebrities such as the legendary baseball player Babe Ruth, Anne of Green Gables author Lucy Maud Montgomery, and Lord Stanley, Canada’s 6th Governor General, and namesake of the Stanley Cup of the National Hockey League.

All types of treatments and facilities were offered, including X-rays, hydrotherapy, electric baths and mineral cures for circulatory, respiratory, urinary, nervous and gastrointestinal ailments.

This second rendition of the Preston Springs Hotel endured until World War II took a devastating chunk of the hotel’s business, leading to its demise for a second time.

By 1943, A.R. Kauffman, who was once again the sole owner, rented the empty hotel to the Department of National Defence, who used it as a barracks to house around 200 women from the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service school, HMCS Conestoga, in nearby Galt.

Several efforts to revive the hotel and spa after the war failed, including by the Evangelical Lutheran Synod, who rented Preston Springs to accommodate professional and retired business-people.

By the 1960s, the former hotel became the Preston Springs Gardens Retirement Home, a retirement and long-term care facility.

The final chapter in the life of the Preston Springs Hotel came in 1990, when the long-term care facility closed. The abandoned building was boarded up and despite going through many owners and re-development plans, it has remained empty and deteriorating ever since.

Over the next 30 years, the abandoned building went through many owners and re-development plans that never came to fruition, all the while deteriorating as the years went by. One of the issues that worked against the re-development plans was the small size of the property, with a huge hill directly behind the hotel, which limited options for parking. Ironically, the heritage designation had the effect of making more challenging to re-purpose the old structure.

A group of investors who bought the hotel in 1999, headed by London developer Peter Moffat, undertook a $7 million renovation, with the plan to turn the former hotel into an upscale retirement home. Unfortunately, the following year the project was abandoned, after a little more than half of the restoration work was completed. Fortunately, a new steel roof was added, helping to slow down some of the interior deterioration.

The abandoned hotel sustained damage on the fifth floor in 2006, when a fire broke out. Firefighters quickly put the fire out, saving the historic building from total destruction.

The building is a prime location for urban explorers (UEers), people whose hobby is exploring and photographing abandoned buildings and structures. Ethical UEers will only take photographs and do not engage in vandalism or theft of things like metal pipes or copper wiring, things frequently found in old buildings, that can be sold to scrap dealers for easy cash.

By January 2020, the deterioration had become so bad that Dennis Purcell, the Chief Building Official for the City of Cambridge, issued the current owners, Haastown Holdings Preston Inc., an “Order to Remedy an Unsafe Building,” which called for the immediate demolition of the building.

Two independent engineering firms had issued separate reports that determined the building was in such an advanced state of decay, that structural failure in the near future was a very real possibility.

In others words, the building would collapse if left standing much longer.

This order was temporarily suspended in June 2020, when Cambridge City Council elected to refer the demolition order to the Conservation Review Board (CRB), an adjudicative tribunal that rules on matters covered by the Ontario Heritage Act, can hear the case sometime this fall.

Given the estimated $3 million cost, just to bring it up to minimum safety standards, and still more to restore the Preston Springs Hotel to its former glory, combined with a lack of desire to see the deteriorated building remain standing, the future looks very bleak for this historic building.

That said, it would be nice if someone of the wealth of Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos could have stepped in and fronted the money that would have been needed to restore it to its former glory. Developers don’t build buildings like this one anymore.

Update: Demolition of the Preston Springs Hotel began on 31 December 2020.

Sources: https://www.therecord.com/news/waterloo-region/2020/01/23/tracing-the-decline-of-the-preston-springs-hotel-from-an-iconic-landmark-to-a-dangerous-eyesore.html, https://kitchener.ctvnews.ca/cambridge-moves-one-step-closer-to-demolition-of-former-preston-springs-hotel-1.4787875, https://www.cambridgetimes.ca/news-story/9832783-not-everyone-sad-to-see-razing-of-cambridge-s-preston-springs-hotel, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Preston,_Ontario, https://medium.com/@IsaacMaw/the-mystery-of-the-preston-springs-hotel-7521161d7463, https://www.kitchenertoday.com/local-news/group-wants-to-save-half-of-preston-springs-hotel-2134364, https://www.therecord.com/news/waterloo-region/2020/06/26/preston-springs-hotel-will-stand-until-provincial-tribunal-review-in-the-fall.html, https://www.therecord.com/news/waterloo-region/2020/06/26/preston-springs-hotel-will-stand-until-provincial-tribunal-review-in-the-fall.html, https://www.therecord.com/life/2016/03/12/flash-from-the-past-mineral-springs-put-preston-on-the-map.html, Jim Quantrell’s “A Part of Our Past,” Ken McLaughlin’s “Cambridge,” and Linda Revie’s “History of Preston Springs” in Waterloo Historical Society annual volume 92, 2004.

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

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