Christopher Hume, the Toronto Star's architecture columnist (yes, Toronto has an architecture columnist!), wrote an article on March 4 that is particularly timely as Hamilton prepares to demolish our beloved Lister Block.
His article, titled Worth Saving?, warns, "Canada is on its way to becoming a country without a past."
"Though not lacking for history," Hume writes, "we tear down the architectural evidence with gleeful abandon." He presents the evidence in stark numbers:
In the last three decades alone, we have destroyed fully 20 per cent of the nation's pre-1920s building stock. That's no mean feat. Indeed, it is estimated that 35 per cent of total waste in landfill sites comes from demolished buildings.
Hume lists the Heritage Canada Foundation's (HCF) ten most endangered buildings, which includes Lister, a Classic Renaissance building constructed in 1924 but left derelict over the past decade.
His article is helpful because it makes an economic case for preservation, not only to raise the economic value of neighbourhoods that contain historic buildings and attract cultural tourism, but also to leverage the existing stock of constructed buildings more effectively.
"[T]earing down buildings," he argues, "is a tremendous waste of energy, and at a time when such waste can no longer be tolerated, we must think twice before resorting to such drastic measures."
He quotes the HCF report:
It is widely recognized that older buildings contain large amounts of embodied energy and require fewer resources to upgrade and restore than would demolition and redevelopment or greenfield development. Yet, Canada's existing building stock represents the largest collection of material assets for which there is no coherent management and stewardship policy.
Marion Joppe, director of the School of Hospitality and Tourism Management at the University of Guelph, explains, "Historic architecture is the soul of a city. Heritage is what makes cities unique. It's what gives cities their identity. If you have just bland modern architecture, you feel you could be anywhere."
Can you imagine tourists wanting to visit, say, Vienna if it looked like Jackson Square or Hamilton City Centre?
The Lister Block occupies a special place in Hamilton's history, designed by Bernard Prack architects and constructed in 1924 by Hamilton's mighty Pigott Construction Company (also responsible for the beautiful Pigott Building a few blocks south).
Among its architectural features are terra cotta pilasters, tapestry brick with copper spandrels, and a terra cotta entablature on top with cartouches in the frieze. The storefronts were finished in copper with wrought iron grills over basement windows.
Its fate became unclear during the "Urban Renewal" disaster of the 1970s and '80s, when much of Hamilton's historic core was demolished to make room for cartoony enclosed malls and civic megaprojects, and changed hands several times between 1986 and 1999, when LIUNA bought it to house 1,200 government employees.
That deal fell through, and since the building was already vacant (the previous owner, Metrus, had evicted its commercial tenants), it was left derelict and remains so to this day, where it stands in immediate peril of the wrecking ball.
It may not be as universally recognized as the Sydney Opera Hall or the Empire State Building, but it's one of Hamilton's most definitive architectural landmarks and one of our defining characteristics.
I believe the message that beautiful, historic buildings in the heart of downtown are worth preserving and restoring is far more compelling, optimistic, and economically hopeful than the message that it's okay to let a building rot and then demolish it.
Too much of our historic core has already met that fate, and almost nowhere has the new building been an improvement on the old.
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