Roof collapses at historic Nova Scotia textile mill building

·5 min read
Built as a cotton mill in Windsor, N.S., in 1881, the brick relic has started caving in on itself. (Jeorge Sadi/CBC - image credit)
Built as a cotton mill in Windsor, N.S., in 1881, the brick relic has started caving in on itself. (Jeorge Sadi/CBC - image credit)

A historic brick building familiar to anyone who's driven through Nova Scotia's Annapolis Valley has developed an unplanned skylight.

A passerby on Highway 101 could be forgiven for not noticing the damage to the old textile mill in Windsor, N.S., but a closer look shows a significant chunk of the snow-covered roof is now resting on an angle on the second floor of the vacant three-storey building.

It isn't clear when the collapse happened, but it was brought to the attention of the building's owners and local officials on Saturday. Word seemed to be spreading through the community the same day, with a steady stream of cars passing slowly for passengers to gawk; some stopping to take photos.

Abraham Zebian, mayor of the Region of Windsor-West Hants Municipality, said he understands the interest and the attraction to the site, given its 140-year history in the community. Regardless, he said, "It's very important to stay away."

Locals noticed the collapsed roof on Saturday. The owners of the building sent a structural engineer to assess the damage and prevent anyone from going inside — a not uncommon occurrence, despite 'no trespassing' signs.
Locals noticed the collapsed roof on Saturday. The owners of the building sent a structural engineer to assess the damage and prevent anyone from going inside — a not uncommon occurrence, despite 'no trespassing' signs.

Owners assessing the damage

Mike Gallant — a project manager for United Gulf Developments Ltd., which bought the property in 2018 — was on his way to inspect the site Saturday afternoon. He told CBC News the company was sorting out how to keep the public from going inside. Commissioning private security and putting up fences were both on the table.

"It's an unfortunate situation, obviously. We're doing what we can to mitigate the issue. It's all about protecting the health and safety of the public and that's our first priority," he said.

Gallant, who is a structural engineer, said prior to the collapse, he had been leading an assessment of the building. He said he hadn't yet learned enough about it to have predicted something like a roof collapse.

"We'd just started wrapping our heads around it," Gallant said.

The question he was trying to answer was whether a tear-down, renovation or sale would make the best business sense. Gallant said that question still remains.

Representatives from the company and the municipality met earlier this month. From that meeting, Zebian said he believed the property owners were "very motivated to do something with the actual structure."

He said he figured the roof collapse was "just a slight setback."

Abraham Zebian, mayor of the Region of Windsor-West Hants Municipality, says he still thinks a revitalization of the building is possible.
Abraham Zebian, mayor of the Region of Windsor-West Hants Municipality, says he still thinks a revitalization of the building is possible.

Zebian said many in the community keep close watch on the building.

"It's an icon. Every day over 16,000 cars pass along the highway here and they see the building [from] its former glory, with the old smoke stack that stood at an angle, to what it is today."

A 140-year history

Built as a cotton spinning mill around 1881 (or 1884, by some accounts), the 74,631 square-foot building was an operational textile plant until 2005. According to the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, that's the year Nova Scotia Textiles, Inc. consolidated with its Truro-based competitor, Stanfield's.

The building has been vacant since then, but there were once plans to convert it into a retail and condo complex.

In 2009, units were listed for sale ranging in price from about $200,000 to $585,000. It was marketed as "Mill Island — not just a home, but a destination, only a short hop from Nova Scotia's premier destinations!"

This artist rendering was included in a 2009 real estate listing for 'Mill Island,' a complex that was supposed to have upscale condos, fine dining and specialty shops. The developers behind the project put the building up for sale in 2013.
This artist rendering was included in a 2009 real estate listing for 'Mill Island,' a complex that was supposed to have upscale condos, fine dining and specialty shops. The developers behind the project put the building up for sale in 2013.

New windows were installed around the same era, but the project stalled and many of those same windows — designed to fit the 19th century esthetic, but some still bearing modern manufacturer stickers — have since been smashed.

Photos and videos from inside the building are easy to find online, making it clear that it isn't difficult, or uncommon, for trespassers to visit. Interior walls are covered with graffiti, from elaborate, multi-coloured pieces to a simple, white "I love my mom," punctuated with a heart.

'It was a dangerous spot to be left wide open like that'

Alex Hanes said he suspects he might have seen it all for the last time when he visited the site last weekend. The hobby photographer and life-long Windsor resident went to take some photos of the dilapidated building, suspecting that its end was near.

"I know I shouldn't have been in there," Hanes said.

But, he said, he didn't want to miss his chance to photograph it.

"I figured if I was going to take some pictures of the interior I better just go ahead and do it."

United Gulf Developments Ltd. bought the dilapidated structure in 2018.
United Gulf Developments Ltd. bought the dilapidated structure in 2018.

Hanes said he was glad to hear the owners were going to seal it off to the public.

"It's a wonder someone wasn't hurt. There was big gaping holes in the floor. It was a dangerous spot to be left wide open like that."

Still, Hanes said he hopes the structure can be saved.

"It's a beautiful building, it's an icon of the community. A lot of the families raised their families, they raised their kids working at that mill."

His family, included. Hanes said his grandmother worked at the mill for decades.

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