How we treat our buildings is symptomatic of what we value about our built environment and collectively influences the quality of our shared public realm.
By Ashleigh Bell
Published April 18, 2013
Heritage conservation is not just about demolition or reuse, renovation, restoration or replacement. On a broad level, it is inherently about a cultural attitude towards how we live, what we value and how our built environment reflects that.
It is about respect for the past as much at is about our current impact on our environment and what future generations will inherit, from both us as well as those who came before us. In theory, we entrust government with the role of protecting, facilitating and supporting the things that we value.
Yet it is our actions as citizens that reflect what we care about and ultimately, through these actions we have the power of change.
In Hamilton, things like shopping at the Farmers Market or walking the dog through Gage Park are aspects of living in this city that make life great here. As a result of their use, these places are valued, respected and taken proper care of.
We may not always realize how much the street patterns and physical presence of existing buildings actually influence our quality of life and enjoyment of daily activity. Our everyday routines in the urban environment are conversant to the landscape we've inherited.
Whether it's being able to walk the kids down a tree-lined residential street to the small neighbourhood school, attending a performance at a re-purposed old church with incredible acoustics or stopping in for a latte and morning chat with the owner of the corner coffee bar, there are the aspects of living within a walkable, human-scaled and community-driven downtown core which are not always associated with "Heritage."
Heritage is a word, in this city, that makes developers roll their eyes and check their watches. It prompts visions of crowds with big signs, of love letters and vitriolic rants, angry tweets, newspaper headlines and official public statements and sadly, fire trucks, wrecking balls and rubble piles.
It amazes me how much emotion is embroiled into these fights - if only we could transfer that energy into something productive and preventative as opposed to reactionary, as a last-ditch attempt to save something that we never really realized we cared so much about ... or at least never acted like we did.
A few weeks ago I was standing at a busy downtown corner, waiting for the traffic light. I heard a familiar yet out-of-place sound and turned around. A man was urinating on the carved foundation stones of the office building behind me in broad daylight.
A couple of days later, I went to view some vacant apartments in a grand 1860s stone manse in the south end. Each unit was more decrepit and filthy than the last, their intricate cast iron fireplace grilles globbed with layers of paint, unidentifiable stains on inlaid wood floors and mounds of cigarette butts stashed in a gilded, marble-topped radiator.
We all know that Hamilton has an impressive array of historic buildings, given the early establishment of the town, proximity to the lake and subsequent wealth of industry.
The mansions of Durand and the grand tower of the Pigott building are impressive, but perhaps the true character of this old city lies within its more modest architecture - in the sooty Victorian row houses of the Arts District, the boarded-up old warehouse buildings in the North end, the leaded glass storefronts that sit empty along Main Street East.
These buildings are all built primarily of local raw materials and most feature graceful displays of artistry in brickwork, carpentry, glazing patterns and interior fixtures and finishes.
The elaborate cast iron work found throughout the downtown core is no coincidence. This has always been a city of makers and the buildings that stand today lie as evidence of those lives, their skills and the cultural history of this place. Right here.
How do we treat these historic buildings that provide our city with authenticity, depth of character and charm?
I was speaking with the owner of a significant mid-19th century building on James North the other day. He had just finished reminiscing to me about his youth living in Sweden when I asked him about why he chose to replace the original double hung wood windows of the building with vinyl bottom sliders.
He looked at the floor, embarrassed, having understood the connection between the two points.
If he had lived in a place that valued building craft and loved the place for it, why had he participated in a culture that is indifferent to it? Because it's cheap and easy, he said with a sheepish shrug ... and everyone else is doing it too.
There is a mainstream epidemic in Canada of treating our buildings as if they are disposable.
New buildings are all too often put up quickly, of little design value, and built with chemically derived, imported materials using under-qualified labourers.
We subject old buildings to even less consideration and regularly gauge out handcrafted, often repairable features, slather over hand-laid brickwork with unremovable paint or concrete and put plywood down instead of repairing the roof.
Rather than calling a skilled local craftsperson we call a regional salesman and give our money to chemical and petroleum conglomerates. These are not actions that show citizens who care about the buildings they actually occupy, let alone "Heritage." Is it any wonder then that we're seeing old buildings come down?
How we deal with heritage conservation in Hamilton is not primarily a need for more designations or stricter development guidelines. What's lacking here seems to be a cultural shift in appreciation of place, an appreciation that will eventually influence development and policy.
Theorists have argued that those keen on demolition and 'renewal' in its most literal sense aren't indifferent to the significance of historic places. Rather, they're reacting against what the physical presence of history is reminding them of: lost work, lost income, lost building maintenance budget.
This may be true, but the existing buildings and streetscapes of this city also attest to its history as a centre of creativity and innovation - an identity that is as relevant now as it was 100 years ago.
We're living in a time where vibrant urban communities are thriving in the once-abandoned factories and warehouses of former manufacturing centres from Cleveland to Detroit.
Thoughtful design, skilled craftwork and authentic materials are what set the stage for a culture that values pride of place and strives to build well, sustainably and locally.
How we treat our buildings is symptomatic of what we value about our built environment and collectively influences the quality of our shared public realm. As citizens, property owners, tenants, shopkeepers and landlords, we all have the power to define what 'Heritage' means to Hamilton.
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