OTTAWA | November 18, 2011

These old houses

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Losing our future
Click across Canada's top ten endangered heritage sites.

A lighthouse in Newfoundland is converted to a hotel. A mill in Ontario becomes a brew pub. A former British Columbia provincial courthouse now houses an art gallery.

And across the sea in France, even the famous Château de Versailles is renting out buildings as hotels in order to preserve its heritage buildings.

It’s a trend that’s likely to become all the more common, Robert Moreau says. He’s the director of heritage programs at Parks Canada, a federal government department that helps regulate and track national heritage buildings.

“The biggest challenge for heritage buildings is, as soon as its original use is no longer there . . . to find a new use for it,” he says. “And the challenge on the heritage side is we have to move beyond looking at these buildings solely for their heritage value, and we need to find an economically or sometimes social-economically viable solution for them.”

Natalie Bull, executive director of the Heritage Canada Foundation, a national non-profit organization that aims to promote conservation, agrees.

Though there will always be a place for some heritage buildings to be preserved in their original form, it will be important to learn to adapt, she says. Otherwise, Canada may lose even more of its important heritage buildings.

The Heritage Canada Foundation releases a list of the worst losses each year, which includes heritage buildings demolished from neglect or torn down give way to new developments.

As UNESCO celebrates the 40th anniversary of the World Heritage Convention, Canada ranks high in its preservation of world heritage sites. But on a national level, community support along with new and creative uses may be the only way to save national heritage buildings.

Split responsibilities

Preserving a heritage building is a complicated business in Canada. Because of the structure of our political system, heritage preservation is divided into three jurisdictions: federal authority protects government-owned heritage buildings, provincial governments manage the property level, and municipalities set bylaws and often manage decisions over demolition.

With such a fragmented system, University of Waterloo environmental and planning professor Robert Shipley says heritage buildings are often lost simply from lack of information and guidance on heritage conservation.

“That creates a kind of fragmented regime in which people often aren’t sure what they’re supposed to do or not supposed to do,” he says. “Everybody, I think, would be better off if the rules were clear.”

Not only that, but he says strong federal leadership is lacking in educating municipalities about their responsibilities. “Local politicians don’t take this seriously. And they should,” he says.

When Canada signed the World Heritage Convention in 1972, Shipley says the country was committing to the preservation of world heritage sites and also to a promise to try to preserve Canadian sites through a national heritage program.

Shipley says Canada's heritage legislation is modeled after the 1972 convention. “It’s important that we see that as part of our obligation to a UN charter. Like, we didn’t just make this stuff up,” he says.

It can be a problem when there is little enforcement of the regulations. Often, buildings are lost to what heritage workers call demolition by neglect — an owner buys a heritage property and refuses to maintain it, letting the property fall into disrepair so he can have it knocked down and build something more lucrative. Though the occurrence is frequent, few culprits are penalized, and Bull says it’s too late by then anyway. The building is already gone.

Until Canada takes a stronger approach, Shipley says it won't be meeting its obligations through the convention. That includes public education and taking the legislation seriously.

A community debate

At the federal level, Moreau says the government's hands are often tied. They have no jurisdiction to designate buildings as heritage or to enforce preservation practices. That leaves the responsibility up to community members.

Without support from the community, buildings are much less likely to be maintained, Bull says.

“It’s really impossible for us to ride in on a white horse and tell the community a building needs to be preserved,” she says. “Having a motivated owner or an inspired community is really the first step.”

It’s really impossible for us to ride in on a white horse and tell the community a building needs to be preserved.

And when the community has a vision for the building or is willing to invest time to find one, that can stop a move to demolish an old structure.

“Buildings need to be able to make a living,” she says.

Moreau says a big part of the problem is the lack of education and a missing appreciation for the history of these buildings.

“When it comes to making Canadians more aware of their heritage, I think there’s a challenge for all of us,” he says.

But rallying support for a heritage building can be very difficult, especially for sites that don’t meet the public’s conception of heritage.

A modern struggle

Each year, the Heritage Canada Foundation releases a list of the top ten most endangered heritage buildings in Canada — buildings at risk of demolition to make way for a new build or those falling into disrepair from neglect. This year, the Bank of Montreal building built in 1963 in Edmonton topped the list. The modernist structure sits in the centre of the city, important for its architecture and its location.

It's only one of many buildings on the list that fall under the category of "modern." They were built following the Second World War and don’t fit into the same class of beautiful old churches or mills.

“Sometimes there’s a sense that a building has to be of an elaborate design or really high historic value to be worth saving,” Bull says. “I think that taking a broader approach and focusing less on just special monument-type buildings and really talking about the fabric of communities is where we need to go.

In fact, many heritage buildings don’t fall into the category of beautiful structures, Moreau says.

The majority of heritage designation criteria look for one of three main characteristics. Some sites are important because of their contextual value — landmarks and settings that are important because of their location. Others are valued for their design, Moreau says, which includes old churches or historic mills important for the period they are from. But heritage buildings aren’t always pretty, he says. Some buildings have historic significance because of their architecture or an event that took place there.

The Bata Shoe Headquarters in Toronto was one of these buildings. Built in 1965, it was designed by prominent modernist architect John Parkin. Built primarily out of concrete, with large glass windows jutting out over an open pavilion, the building was deemed one of Toronto's key Modern Movement architectural sites, according to the Heritage Canada Foundation. But in 2003, the building was shut down. Shortly after, the Toronto city council voted  36-1 in favour of knocking it down to make way for the construction of a new community complex.

It's not the only modern-style building to be demolished before it had a chance to be considered a heritage site. And with buildings like these, it can be nearly impossible to garner support for the cause, since the population doesn’t see their value. Moreau says this will change with time but by then it may be too late to save some of the most important ones.

“To be quite honest, as fewer and fewer buildings of the 60s and 70s remain, their value will become more important to Canadians because there are less of them,” he says.

Money troubles

But if a building designated as heritage doesn’t have the backing of a community, it’s in a tough spot. Funding for heritage conservation in Canada is very tight — though the federal government awards some grants for federally owned buildings, there is little available for owners of a heritage property.

The Heritage Canada Foundation has been pushing for a tax break for people who take on expenses to maintain their heritage properties, but the federal government hasn't made a decision on the proposal.

Moreau says Parks Canada conducted a study to assess whether a tax break would be beneficial. The results were mixed, he says, since large corporations would support a tax break, but smaller groups and indivduals would rather see the money up front in the form of a grant to help them with the work.

Marc Cole, a mason and heritage consultant, says funding is usually the biggest issue for owners of heritage properties.

“If you don’t repair the building, eventually it will crumble and you’ll have to take it down,” he says. “The U.S. has grants, tax relief. They can get a tax rebate for taking care of their building. We don’t have that here.”

Home sweet home

And it’s not only the funds that can make restoration difficult. That’s clear to Katherine Arkay, who lives in a designated heritage house in Ottawa. She says she knew the house built in 1874 was special, and she liked the fact that it had been designated a heritage building.

“It had a wonderful bronze plaque, which I thought was beautiful, but I had no idea what the implications were,” she says. The house required a lot of maintenance and repair to keep it in its original state.

“And I don’t mind. I’m quite happy to maintain the house and do it in an original way,” she says. “It’s nice to preserve them, not in a kind of Walt Disney artificial way, but just as an example of what living in housing was like.”

There are also some downsides, she says.

“It’s a two-storey kind of gothic Victorian revival sort, built long before there were building codes,” she says. “So it’s kind of got an interesting roof design, which is very attractive but totally impractical. It just begs for ice build-up every winter.”

It’s kind of nifty to look at it and think that somebody built this all those years ago.

Despite the problems and the extra work, she says she loves her home.

“It’s not standard. You can see a lot of the individuality and feature that the craftsman made, and the errors they made,” she says. “It’s kind of nifty to look at it and think that somebody built this all those years ago.

“There is a certain compromise if you live in a heritage conservation district or a heritage designated house, but there’s a lot to be gained as well.”

Defining heritage in the UN Convention

I. DEFINITION OF THE CULTURAL AND NATURAL HERITAGE

Article 1

For the purposes of this Convention, the following shall be considered as "cultural heritage":

monuments: architectural works, works of monumental sculpture and painting, elements or structures of an archaeological nature, inscriptions, cave dwellings and combinations of features, which are of outstanding universal value from the point of view of history, art or science;

groups of buildings: groups of separate or connected buildings which, because of their architecture, their homogeneity or their place in the landscape, are of outstanding universal value from the point of view of history, art or science;

sites: works of man or the combined works of nature and man, and areas including archaeological sites which are of outstanding universal value from the historical, aesthetic, ethnological or anthropological point of view.

Source: UNESCO

Defining heritage in Canada’s standards and guidelines

Historic Place: a structure, building, group of buildings, district, landscape, archaeological site or other place in Canada that has been formally recognized for its heritage value.

Heritage Value: the aesthetic, historic, scientific, cultural, social or spiritual importance or significance for past, present and future generations. The heritage value of an historic place is embodied in its character-defining materials, forms, location, spatial configurations, uses and cultural associations or meanings.

Character-defining Element: the materials, forms, location, spatial configurations, uses and cultural associations or meanings that contribute to the heritage value of an historic place, which must be retained to preserve its heritage value.

Source: Canada’s Historic Places