Heritage Preservation in the National Post

One thing I like about the National Post, is that it treats issues related to heritage, culture, and education as worthy topics for long, considered, discussion pieces (and not just filler, as is the case in some of our other dailies). Today’s editorial is worth reproducing:

Bricks, mortar and memories

Canada should get serious about preserving its historic buildings

National Post Published: Thursday, July 09, 2009

There will always be debates about what buildings and historic sites deserve preservation, as well as legal discussions over who is obliged to pay for such preservation efforts. Perhaps now is a time when many of those arguments can be settled: At a time when governments are looking to bolster employment through infrastructure stimulus, one option that should be considered is for the federal government and the provinces to restore a wide range of Canada’s historic buildings. It would seem more worthwhile to protect our heritage than, say, buy a failing company.

To understand the role of government in the preservation of historic buildings, consider the fate of the Bata shoe headquarters in suburban Toronto. It was just 40 years old when it was demolished last year to make way for an Ismali Muslim spiritual centre and Islamic art museum — despite the fact that the Toronto Society of Architects had identified it as one of the most outstanding examples of Modernism in the city. The building’s fate is typical of “endangered” buildings identified by the Heritage Canada Foundation, a nongovernmental advocacy group established by the federal government in 1973 to lobby for historical resources’ rescue: While the Bata International Centre may have represented an architectural style worth preserving — as well as being an artifact from one of Canada’s first great international commercial empires — the new owners, the Aga Khan Council of Canada, have a valid claim to use land they purchased in any legal way they please. Only if the Council had been reimbursed through appropriate public financial incentives could the building have been preserved.

The same goes for Edmonton’s Arlington Apartments, Montreal’s Ben’s Deli and Vancouver Pantages Theatre. While Heritage Canada — which released its annual list of endangered buildings on Tuesday — believes all should be retained, each is located on a valuable piece of privately owned real estate in its city’s business core that could be developed for tens of millions of dollars if these old buildings could be removed.

Heritage Canada’s efforts at identifying historically valuable old structures is vital — even if the blame it directs toward public officials often is off the mark. For instance, in this week’s report, it blames the demolition of Ridgetown, Ont.’s Erie Street United Church on “intransigent officials,” and classifies the loss of Halifax’s Violet Clark Building — the last of the city’s old wooden waterfront buildings — as a “scapegoat” in a development dispute. It is not always that simple. Developers cannot be sold land and then be forced to wait years for permission to develop it, all the while paying mortgage and interest and staff costs, not to mention losing sales opportunities as markets fluctuate.

Still, the organization’s basic point is a good one: We Canadians often value our structural history too little. An old church or an old house is taken for granted. Or it is considered insignificant as compared with a great palace in India or a towering cathedral in Europe– too trivial to save.

But while the Dominion Exhibition Display Building in Brandon, Man., may not rival Barcelona’s Holy Family temple or London’s St. Paul’s cathedral, it does honour a time when many new prairie settlements nurtured big ambitions. Built in 1913, the Beaux-Arts Classical-style hall was constructed to house a national fair that would showcase the vast and growing breadbasket of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta at a time when Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s claim that “the 20th century belongs to Canada” rang true in many Canadians’ ears.

The David Dunlap Observatory in Richmond Hill, Ont., another of the Heritage Foundation’s Top 10, was site of one of the first black hole discoveries in the world. It is now under threat of redevelopment because its current owners, the University of Toronto, want to sell off most of its 77-hectare park for homes, condos and strip malls.

Saving these buildings won’t be easy, but money would help. We may be a young country with more land than history, but we risk losing much of the history we have in a race to eradicate old buildings for new ones.