Special Report: Lister Block

A Humble Workhorse Again

Now that Lister been irreversably framed as an "endangered heritage landmark," it's in everybody's best interest to keep it. Who would want to invest in a self-destructive Hamilton?

By Adam Sobolak
Published March 18, 2006

One can quibble over the condition of the Lister Block's architectural details, but the building is in all likelihood sound and salvageable. The nature of its construction is such that the details can be renewed and reproduced upon the existing framework without danger of seeming "ersatz".

No expert, thoughtful, heritage-sympathetic architect or investor would accept "too much deteriorated terra cotta" as an excuse for anything but an easy way out. Even exemplary restorations of comparable buildings which weren't in the Lister's parlous condition (say, CHUM/CITY in Toronto) involved extensive replacement of facade elements; it's the nature of the beast.

Such early twentieth century office buildings are very resilient creatures. Remember how Cass Gilbert's 90 West Street in Lower Manhattan withstood the ravages of 9/11? In cases where abandonment led to demolition or proposals for the same, it's not because they were structurally and functionally unsound; it's because they were deemed shortsightedly or not blighted urban albatrosses. It's a familiar story to those who remember the fall of "999 Queen", John Howard's Provincial Lunatic Asylum in Toronto; its overwrought, "universally" held, yet short-sighted stigma marked the fatal blow.

But Hamilton is not Detroit. There isn't the same overwhelming horror vacuii of downtown abandonment. Within the core, Lister stands alone. Therefore, if it's only this block that's the problem within the overall "default context", the economics of retention and restoration should be more justifiable. If anything, the 1980s era Eaton Centre across the street has more inherent urban-albatross obsolescence to it these days.

So let's get things straight. The fundamental problem is not with the Lister Block: It is with the neglect of the Lister Block. So, the fundamental solution is fix the neglect. The debate, however, is whether to "fix" through renewal, or "fix" through replacement.

Keep in mind, this isn't just another urban albatross. In terms of downtown Hamilton, it is an icon of urban blight and abandonment to many. Yet the problem with opting for its removal and replacement is that the Lister has become an even more powerful icon from the opposite direction - as an endangered landmark.

The snowballing intensity of the "landmark" argument is overwhelming even the most sympathetically-minded "removal/replacement" argument. Maybe it's an arbitrary, hysterical fetishization of the old, but it certainly has clout. And maybe the underlying message isn't so arbitrary.

So, bow to the so-called fetishizers. Keep the Lister - that is, restore it, not just replicate it - and we have a win-win situation. No more blighted abandonment; no more risk to a landmark.

True, LIUNA's proposed replacement may be state-of-the-art and modern and all, while maintaining the lines of the original; but given the escalating gravity of the case, one would really need a "starchitect" turn to compensate for Lister's loss (a la the T-D Centre replacing the old Bank of Toronto - or, I may say with some regret, the Aga Khan proposals for the site of another current "most endangered" landmark, the Bata Building).

To interpret its "heritage value" simply in grudging terms of architectural detail and the condition thereof is patronizing in the extreme, especially in an age when deeper, more sophisticated urbanistic and environmental issues underlie arguments for retention.

Thus, Hamilton has to be careful. A wrong move on behalf of "progress", or a too-simplistic interpretation of "economic viability", might wind up making the city look rather blinkered and parochial, and a turnoff to the investors it may wish, or rather need, to lure. Nor is it a simplistic matter of "good old buildings" vs. "bad new buildings," even if those who support the Lister's retention on "failure of Modernism" grounds might wish otherwise. It's about a richer urban fabric. Period.

And "richer" need not mean "exclusively traditionalist," especially considering that the heritage ledger has swung in favour of the Modern in recent years. In terms of Hamilton, that's meant, among other things, the "rediscovery" of City Hall, the oeuvre of municipal architect Stanley Roscoe. With this considered, an argument can be made that if anything epitomizes "blinkered and parochial" in recent Hamilton, it's the sickly parvenu-Postmodern reworking of a pair of marble-and-glass 1960s office towers and nearby 1950s medical building on James south of the TH&B tracks.

Whatever the demerits of the originals, this surely isn't the way to address them. In terms of everything, I would deem these examples to be more of a net investor-repellent than the abandoned Lister Block. In turn, their own failure in detail might backhandedly illuminate the fallacy behind viewing the Lister's "heritage value" simply in superficial terms of architectural detail.

Keep something else in mind: we've been offered an argument that restoring the Lister is uneconomical. Ultimately, how is its replacement "in kind" guaranteed to be any more economical? Despite the myths offered re so-called state-of-the-art office space, the success or failure of an office building or urban block is dependent upon a whole series of ineffables and happenstances that cannot be tied into raw matters of "modernity" or "obsolescence". Newer buildings can be white elephants as much as older buildings. So why even expend the energy upon replacement, if restoration is a valid and more flattering option?

I can see what might dissuade from the other end: restorations that, in and of themselves, turn out to be white elephants, that don't work out quite as planned and don't pack the immediate economic punch that was promised. Hamilton has a few of those. Because restorations tend to be more ballyhooed affairs than matter-of-fact new buildings, to see them fail or underperform economically can be painful dissuasion.

The problem here may be a bit philosophical: we tend to see heritage buildings as "landmarks," individual, isolated prima donnas, bearers of the burden of overexpectation. We give them too much symbolic weight to carry; and it doesn't allow them to "normalize". We overprogram them. I think that's a fear in restoring the Lister: the fear of overdoing it, in the name of a self-conscious "destination tourism" heritage landmark, like a year-round Doors Open attraction.

Viewed in such isolated terms, the risk is of failure. So let us reframe it, re-envision it, in macro-terms. Lister isn't so much the destination; it's part of a destination. That destination being downtown Hamilton. It's part of the urban fabric; a powerful, anchoring part, but part of it, all the same. There's nothing more normalizing than the urban fabric, in all its delights and imperfections and unpredictabilities.

Being normalized, it's a holistic anti-destination sort of destination - the destination being the world around us, the world in which we live and work and eat and shop and exist. We allow ourselves to look at and appreciate what we otherwise take for granted, and encourage others to do so.

Viewed in those terms, all sorts of possibilities unfold; possibilities which, in their way, vindicate, while even extending, the commonsensical "chamber of commerce" wisdom that might otherwise seem (or be allowed to become) excessively parochial. That way, the Lister can be allowed to be a humble workhorse - as humble as the day it opened - even as it remains a de facto landmark: the best kind of humble workhorse there is.

Maybe it would be fundamentally the same story with a "replicated" Lister, but a restored Lister is better. It's less mundane, more dynamic for its inherent patina and character. It's a better long-term investment: in itself, and for Hamilton. Now that this has been irreversably framed as an "endangered heritage landmark" in spite of whatever LIUNA's spindoctors may have wished, it's in everybody's best interest that it be kept.

Who would want to invest in a "self-destructive" Hamilton?

Adam Sobolak is an executive of the Toronto Architectural Conservancy, but writes here as an individual, so as not to make undue claims.

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