Magee House saga persists in court years after partial collapse

·7 min read
Architect Ovidio Sbrissa lived in Magee House at 1119 Wellington St. W. for 17 years before one of the exterior walls collapsed on July 24, 2018. Now he intends to represent himself in several lawsuits related to the collapse. (Kimberley Molina/CBC - image credit)
Architect Ovidio Sbrissa lived in Magee House at 1119 Wellington St. W. for 17 years before one of the exterior walls collapsed on July 24, 2018. Now he intends to represent himself in several lawsuits related to the collapse. (Kimberley Molina/CBC - image credit)

When the sudden collapse of a wall left a gaping three-storey hole in a heritage building on trendy Hintonburg's busy main street, the head of the area's BIA said the worst-case scenario would be years of lawsuit limbo.

Nearly four years later, that's exactly what's unfolding. The owner now wants to represent himself in court, but he has missed the deadline to file a motion to do so.

The owner of Magee House, Ovidio Sbrissa, is being sued by the city to recoup what it spent to make the 19th-century building safe after the southwest wall collapsed on July 24, 2018. Sbrissa has also counter-sued the city for what he claims really caused the wall to fail: vibrations from nearby construction projects.

Meanwhile a bank is suing Sbrissa because he stopped paying his mortgage after the collapse, and he's suing the insurance company that denied him coverage after the wall came down.

Scott Stilborn/Ottawa Fire Services
Scott Stilborn/Ottawa Fire Services

In early April, after Sbrissa said he could no longer afford his lawyer, the lawyer removed himself from the record and Sbrissa was given 30 days to either file a motion to represent himself or find new counsel. Failing to do so can result in his matters being dismissed and his defences struck out.

That deadline passed over the weekend, and reached by phone Tuesday, Sbrissa says he's still working on the motion and plans to file next week.

Sbrissa intends to defend himself, saying the matter is too technical for lawyers to understand, and simultaneously that no lawyer wants to touch it because it involves the city.

"Needless to say that all of this time that's gone by, the lawyers have really not done much. But they charged a lot, and we're still nowhere," Sbrissa said in an interview in April.

"I want to get to court. I want my day in court. How many more years is it going to take, you know?"

Reno Patry/CBC
Reno Patry/CBC

Mortar, or no mortar?

For Sbrissa, everything comes down to this: mortar, the paste that hardens to bind things together in construction, such as bricks and stones.

Engineer John Cooke, who was hired by the city to evaluate the building right after the collapse, contended the wall failed because the mortar holding all the stones together had turned to sand that was pushed down by years of precipitation, turning the place into "basically a house of cards."

But Sbrissa contends there was never any mortar to begin with; that it's a Celtic dry stone wall with some mortar on the outside just to keep the wind out, like chinking on a traditional log cabin.

After the wall collapsed, Sbrissa's insurance company denied him coverage, citing Cooke's report about the deteriorated mortar. In February 2020, Sbrissa sued his insurance company for $1.3 million, claiming it's in breach of their contract.

Giacomo Panico/CBC
Giacomo Panico/CBC

On Sept. 3, 2020, the city filed a lawsuit against Sbrissa to get back the $32,000 the city says it spent on demolition work to "terminate the danger [posed by the building] and to protect the public," and also cited Cooke's report.

Days later, Sbrissa fired back with his own lawsuit against the city, seeking $550,000 in damages. Sbrissa alleges "excessive vibrations" from nearby construction were actually to blame for the collapse, and he claims the city was negligent for failing to monitor those vibrations and act to keep them in check.

All suits remain active and none of the allegations has been tested in court.

What happens to the building?

What will become of the languishing, boarded-up grey stone structure at 1119 Wellington St. W., which Sbrissa calls his "castle in the sky," is an open question.

Sbrissa wants to restore it and maintains that's always been his intention — even after he applied to have what remains torn down (he later backtracked) and then tried to sell the property in 2020. He got a few offers, he says, but rejected them because no one intended to save what's left.

Laura Osman/CBC
Laura Osman/CBC

The architect is 75 years old and restoring the heritage structure could take years. He also recently acquired a former train station in Comber, Ont., that he intends to renovate. Is he able to take all of it on?

"Well, I'm pretty young because I just got married at 68. Nothing is impossible. ... But most architects reach their real period of significance when they're in their 70s or 80s," he said.

Does he have the money?

"Not at the moment, but if I win my case in court I'll be in a position to do it. I'm not asking [for] money to get rich. I'm just asking that I get paid enough so I can restore my building to the way it was."

Time will tell. And in all likelihood, it will be some time yet.

Trevor Pritchard/CBC
Trevor Pritchard/CBC

Let's fix the real problem, BIA head urges

Dennis Van Staalduinen, who leads the Wellington West Business Improvement Area, made the original comment when the wall collapsed that years of limbo would be the worst outcome.

He wishes there were a more creative way to deal with the matter, one that would focus on getting heritage structures back into shape and into use instead of assigning blame. Not every developer is created equal, he says, and not everyone who owns a building has the same resources to improve them.

"If we are going to designate heritage properties as we should, what are we as a society and a city going to do to actually help the people who own those properties do the right thing? That's the next policy step that we're not getting to," he says.

"There's no point in having a heritage law at all if it prevents us from saving heritage buildings. ... I couldn't care less about who's to blame. I just want that building working again and functioning as part of the streetscape."

Van Staalduinen says it's on the city, not just the owner, to help salvage buildings like Magee House and Somerset House — another heritage structure that has sat damaged and unused for years as disagreements between its owner and the city rage on.

Ryan Garland/CBC
Ryan Garland/CBC

Magee House timeline

July 24, 2018: The west wall of Magee House partially collapses, and Wellington Street West is closed to traffic in front of the building. The next day Sbrissa tells CBC he likely would have died in the incident, had a neighbour not cajoled him into getting a slice of pizza. (Sbrissa had been living in the building, which the city thought was vacant, for 17 years.)

July 27, 2018: A corner of the remaining structure and part of the roof are demolished after the city's chief building official issues an emergency order. The city says this will allow for a more thorough assessment of the building.

July 31, 2018: Wellington Street West re-opens to vehicle traffic between Sherbrooke and Carruthers avenues. The sidewalk directly in front of the building remains closed to pedestrians and doesn't open again for another year.

Early August 2018: John Cooke, an engineer the city contracted to evaluate Magee House, says the wall's mortar had turned to dust that was pushed down by years of precipitation, leaving "no two stones" held together. He recommends demolishing it altogether or taking it down and rebuilding stone by stone. Sbrissa disagrees, saying vibrations from nearby construction were to blame, and vows to hire his own engineer to contest Cooke's findings.

Mid-August 2018: Martin Topley of Durham Engineering, hired by Sbrissa, concludes in addition to construction mistakes made in 1870 when Magee House was built, seismic shifting caused either by natural or man-made forces caused the collapse. "If you ask me as a professional, it's vibration that probably did it," Topley says. "There had to be something move."

September-December 2018: Sbrissa applies to have what remains torn down and a committee approves the demolition. Sbrissa then changes his mind just two weeks prior to demolition, and a building official later announces Sbrissa must reinforce the building or risk the city demolishing it at Sbrissa's expense.

March 2019: Residents and businesses grow increasingly impatient with the sidewalk closure.

Oct. 18, 2019: The sidewalk in front of Magee House finally reopens nearly 15 months after the collapse.

February 2020: Sbrissa sues his insurance company after it denied him coverage after the collapse.

June 2020: A bank sues Sbrissa for not paying his mortgage after the collapse.

September 2020: The city sues Sbrissa, and he counter-sues the city.

April 2022: Sbrissa's lawyer is removed from the record. Sbrissa is ordered to file a motion to represent himself or hire new counsel within 30 days, or risk his matters being dismissed and any of his defences struck out. Sbrissa misses the deadline.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting