Sense of Place, Place of Pride

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.

Quality of Life

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."

Acting Like We Care

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.

City of Makers

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.

Indifference to Craft

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.

Disposable Building

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?

Cultural Shift

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.

See also:

Ashleigh Bell is a designer, project manager and historic property consultant. She will graduate in April 2013 from the acclaimed Heritage Conservation program at Willowbank. Ashleigh has been working on various restoration and adaptive reuse projects in Hamilton since June 2012 and has a background in contemporary design and development, which led her to work in the cities of Toronto, Halifax and Calgary before she committed to an education in conservation. After a few idyllic years of the country life in Niagara, she has found herself a sunny spot in a grand old building of the North End and looks forward to working with businesses and property owners, creating articulate contemporary spaces within reimagined historic settings. She has a profound respect for traditional craftwork and materials, and sustainability, authenticity and local motives are at the core of her design philosophy. Follow her on twitter @AshleighMBell.


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By DrAwesomesauce (registered) | Posted April 18, 2013 at 13:48:42

Great piece.

Best of luck with your plight here in Hamilton.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted April 18, 2013 at 14:30:23

I think it's kind of ironic that, for all our grousing about Partridge and the Hamilton Board of Ed, traditionally the BoE has been the best stewards in the city of their great historical building stock.

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By Stewart (anonymous) | Posted April 18, 2013 at 18:34:32 in reply to Comment 87934

Wait what? The Board hasn't been good stewards, they inherited these schools from a time when buildings weren't thought of as disposable and basically neglected them. They didn't spend money on maintainance and instead spent money building crappy new schools on farmers fields. They've sold off or knocked down most of the good old buildings they had. With Sanford school its even worse, they didn't even TRY to sell it off before knocking it down. Tim Simmons kept saying no one was interested before finally admitting they'd never actually put it for sale. Don't give them credit they don't deserve.

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By Rimshot (anonymous) | Posted April 18, 2013 at 18:18:59 in reply to Comment 87934

LOL @ "grousing about Partridge"!

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By Conrad664 (registered) | Posted April 18, 2013 at 17:09:38

Piers 7 and 8 are the Citys properites now Ummm what to do with it Casino maybe !!!!!!!!!!!!

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By ScreamingViking (registered) | Posted April 18, 2013 at 21:07:49 in reply to Comment 87953

That land has the potential to be a signature piece for the city. I'm still undecided on the casino issue, but Pier 7-8 is definitely not the location for one.

A properly scaled mixed-use development that appeals to both people who want to live there and people who want to spend leisure time there should be the goal. And by leisure I don't mean gaming... keep it open to attractions that have a far wider reach among Hamiltonians and visitors to the city.


“We’re talking a medium density. You’re not going to see skyscrapers. We want to make sure that the waterfront remains very attractive to Hamiltonians — a place where you want to bring your family to enjoy restaurants and shops and a lot of businesses that are very local in nature. Hamiltonians are going to proud of it,” Murray said.

“We want to do things a little differently than Toronto. We want to create a place where people want to come, that isn’t overly developed in the sense that it’s just highrises everywhere and you can’t see the water anymore. So scale is critical.”

I agree completely.

Comment edited by ScreamingViking on 2013-04-18 21:20:08

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By Steve (registered) | Posted April 18, 2013 at 18:54:33

"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."

Hey, we'll have none of that talk here in The Hammer. Places like Cleveland and Detroit can keep their urban renewals. We here in The Hammer prefer,

Written with a nod to sarcasm.

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By -Hammer- (registered) | Posted April 19, 2013 at 01:43:04

Today I was walking down James St N. enjoying the sights if you will. The armoury, the Anglican Church, James & Colbourne, Ventura's, and the gorgeous building across the street from it and thought and lamented the state of one of the owls utop the corner of James and York. These are great buildings that are unique, but compliment the general design of the place.

Then I came across the west block bounded by Vine and Cannon and thought, wow, if there was a place that needed to start anew, it was it. It was a boarded up, near exact duplicate of the (complete) building across the street, in ill repair, with a monstrous middle section of glass, cheap steel and rusted panelling, shifting between two and three floors, and clearly even if in ideal condition, would not boast an appreciable amount of density, from say a five floor Lister Block or old Federal Building (on James, not John or Main) style development.

Then I thought, but that won't happen because despite it languishing for years, the heritage advocates would do everything to stop it, simply because it's on James St. and it's old.

Now perhaps that middle section is the exact thing this article touches base on, as that middle section is out of place, and seems that someone clearly did a partial demo of that part of the building and built something awful out of the materials of the time cheaply. It certainly does not match the predominant brick aesthetic of the street around it. However, that didn't change that the place was a blight to look upon, especially since the owner treated it like a glass warehouse exposed to the world. The empty gravel lot next to it, did little to change my opinion of it either, but one must ask if it hadn't existed and the rest of the older brick building was intact, albeit still in it's it's duplicate, languishing state, would it be all that much better?

The point of this comment? It matters not if it's old or new. If it's not unique, if it's a generic regurgitation of the houses next to it and lacks any sense of character, is is hard to have pride in it. Take a walk down Cumberland at Wentworth, is that a Street you can say is an shinning example of what Hamilton is? It's one of the many other reasons I'm so vehemently opposed to the sprawl on the mountain, because so much of it is generic, cookie cutter housing that history shows, languishes once it begins to show it's age. A west mountain suburb of mixed floor housing, Bungalows and different bricks and materials it is not.

Now, that's not to say I want it replaced with a stucco box, but sometimes part of a good neighbourhood is allowing something new to be created and make new character. Something new, but still pays service to the area's design. Sometimes the wrecking ball is the greatest boon, it's just a shame a lack of developer follow up in the past has made any building demolition a mortal sin to so many in this city.

Comment edited by -Hammer- on 2013-04-19 01:47:41

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted April 19, 2013 at 02:03:35 in reply to Comment 87968

Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them. By old buildings I mean not museum-piece old buildings, not old buildings in an excellent and expensive state of rehabilitation-although these make fine ingredients-but also a good lot of plain, ordinary, low-value old buildings, including some rundown old buildings. ...

If you look about, you will see that only operations that are well established, high-turnover, standardized or heavily subsidized can afford, commonly, to carry the costs of new construction. Chain stores, chain restaurants and banks go into new construction. ...

But the unformalized feeders of the arts - studios, galleries, stores for musical instruments and art supplies, backrooms where the low earning power of a seat and a table can absorb uneconomic discussions - these go into old buildings. Perhaps more significant, hundreds of ordinary enterprises, necessary to the safety and public life of streets and neighborhoods, and appreciated for their convenience and personal quality, can make out successfully in old buildings, but are inexorably slain by the high overhead of new construction.

As for really new ideas of any kind - no matter how ultimately profitable or otherwise successful some of them might prove to be - there is no leeway for such chancy trial, error and experimentation in the high-overhead economy of new construction. Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings.

-- Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

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By -Hammer- (registered) | Posted April 19, 2013 at 03:59:10 in reply to Comment 87969

First off, one building is very different then expressway prevention and block clearing that Jacobs was so adamant in stopping, however I'm assuming you are looking for her planning legacy vs her activist legacy. To that I say Jacobs also espoused the ideas of dense urban development and mixed development.

Greenwich Village, while old, seldom falls into generic, cookie cutter development. Differing floor sizes, archways, window styles, brick colours and stone patterns and appreciate amounts of neighbouring, continuous greenspace in the hudson river park, supplemented by large parks in Washington Square, and James J. Walker. Also notable 10-5 story developments that supplement the smaller ones. Also should probably add home to an eight lane roadway nearby in the Lincoln Highway/West St and a swath of one way streets (although given this is New York, and they possess and overwhelming amount of car traffic in very small roadways compared to Hamilton, may actually be needed). It boasts separated, bike paths, and large car specific roadways and slow speed streets.

Also, take a look at the St. Lawrence where she gained her notoriety protecting. Front & George St. The North East corner of Yonge and Front, Jarvis and the Espalande and several others. New, high density development complimenting old development, of which very little of it repeats. Also continuous greenspace along the esplande, supplemented by large parks in St James, Moss and Sackville. Also, right next to the Gardiner a high density roadway, with bike lanes on the esplanade and slow speed streets in the area. Do we see a pattern here?

In both cases, the areas boast ample 5 to 10 story development which supplement the buildings which makes for appreciable density that so much of Hamilton lacks, another core item Jacobs espoused. It's the missing link. The lack of mixed use is predominant, instead falling into a generic three floor housing paradigm or generic suburban housing, of which only a scant few choice demolitions of generic, insufficiently dense development could provide. They also boast a major roadway nearby.

Now of course many point to surface parking lots as a place where you could erect such buildings, and while I agree with you in the core, where do you intend on doing so in say...Stipley, Crown Point and Homeside. If code red is any indicator, they are some of the worst neighbourhoods in our city. All have an incredibly low number of single residential or commercial buildings above three floors and so much of it swaths of cookie cutter 60s housing

Then look at Durand, which I would say is the ideal of mixed development in our city. There are ample newer high rise residential and commercial developments (Commercial predominantly alone Main) alongside older, lower to medium density buildings, and right next to a major high density roadway in Main St. with fairly sedate streets (which would be better if they were two ways I'd admit) and a bike route along Markland.

I'm not saying bulldoze the city, like Copps did, I'm saying one or two bad buildings is ok, especially if it can lead to one or two high density developments. We also need to focus on the real treasures which aren't sufficiently protected in Hamilton if the narrow miss of the Lister Block, the Sanford School, and the Board of Ed building (which I will admit I was for getting rid of, but understand there are many who did regard it as priceless) is any indicator.

Comment edited by -Hammer- on 2013-04-19 04:32:07

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