Prelude to Demolition

The following is a generic record of an historic structure’s slow decline; and ultimately, its final days.

- The still handsome property begins to suffer from a lack of timely maintenance

- Maintenance that is performed is substandard or inappropriate in quality, material and appearance with the result that the overall value of the property diminishes

- The diminishing value of the property continues both in terms of upkeep and in the mindset of the owner/caretaker

- The owner begins to despair under the seemingly incessant and ever-growing list of maintenance issues

- The owner privately capitulates and admits defeat – the property must be divested of either by sale or demolition

- For the benefit of stakeholders, the owner contrives excuses to justify the decision to divest: the building is suddenly financially too burdensome to repair, even with repair it is too expensive to operate, too old with outdated components, and even, unsafe

- If the property is a registered heritage property, an application to deregister is considered or even made

- Outrageous quotes for specific repairs that may require imminent action are recited before the few remaining unconvinced parties as a final means to justify demolition.

For preservationists, the final days are surreal.  They start to imagine the familiar landscape without the familiar.  A sense of urgency and despair motivate a few to explore options.  The owner, who has long ago said good bye, is unmoved by the irrational emotions of others.  History huggers don’t understand the business world.

Posted by Joe Feb 13, 2012 Posted in Built Heritage, Preservation Comments Off


How did we get to the point where some people butcher wonderful examples of built heritage and proudly declare their crimes against culture as a restoration?

When exterior trim is removed, window sills lopped off and other architectural details systematically trashed to install imitation clapboard, also known as vinyl siding, little heritage remains to be seen from the curb.  Suppose the interior is gutted to “open up the space.”  Historic plaster is history.  Traditional room layouts vanish in favour of the open concept fashion that will itself be lamented as dated in a few years.  Wide, historic mouldings are discarded for narrow MDF trim.  Hardwood floors, originally laid to conform to the room layouts no longer suffice so are replaced or covered with new flooring.  Solid wood doors wear too much paint and are placed street-side for municipal clean up.

In some people’s minds, this is what actually passes as restoration today.  It can be seen in presumptuous B&B publicity, magazine articles and real estate ads.

If it is not the wonderful restoration that is boasted of then it seems it is the historic nature of the place that is so highly touted.  But in such cases what is left that can be heralded as historic?  The house frame?  The year the place was built?  The public’s perception of what is authentic and honest is being distorted.

The Bluenose II, the ambassador of Nova Scotia, is being lovingly restored by skilled tradesmen in Lunenburg beginning in summer 2011.  The government first announced the project in 2009 and since that time the true extent of the work has become apparent. Some workers carefully describe the restoration in the context of the shape of the hull or the spirit of the ship.  Criticism of the so-called restoration is widespread as there is reputedly nothing left of the original Bluenose II except the rudder and the boom.  And when were these components last replaced?   One government official has gone on the defensive declaring that the criticism is unfair and that the government is honouring the Bluenose II in a respectful manner.  But is the term restoration being treated with honour and respect?

The difficulty with the Bluenose II restoration is that it is not so much the actual ship that is being restored as it is the concept.  And if you stop to consider the issue, it is the concept or essence of the ship that holds value and meaning to Canadians.  That value is derived from what the ship represents to each of us.  The values foremost in my mind are tied to the ship’s roles of ambassador and as replica of the original – these without question will be restored.   So, while many may feel that calling the Bluenose II a restoration is incorrect, it may not be technically untrue.  What is certain though, is that the use of the term has been problematic as it only serves to further confuse the public as to what a restoration really is.

In light of the confusion and in the interest of clarity, it might be helpful if we simply agreed to refer to the rebuilding of the Bluenose II as a reconstruction rather than a restoration.

But, just so there’s no mistake the next time you’re planning your own restoration project…

The Standards & Guidelines for the Conservation of Historic Places in Canada is a publication produced by Parks Canada and defines restoration as the action or process of accurately revealing, recovering or representing the state of a historic place or of an individual component, as it appeared at a particular period in its history, while protecting its heritage value.

Restoration returns a place or object to its appearance at a particular point in time.  The act of restoration can include removal of components that represent a later (more recent) period and reconstruction of missing features that were known to exist.  Authentic restoration must be based on clear evidence and detailed knowledge of the processes and materials that the project requires.

Now her namesake remains to show what she has been
What every schoolboy remembers and will not come again
To think she’s the last of the Grand Banks Schooners
That fed so many men
And who will know the Bluenose in the sun?

- Stan Rogers


Posted by Joe Sep 06, 2011 Posted in Architectural History, Built Heritage Comments Off

Home Tours: Charming Chester & Beyond

Every year, the Chester Municipal Heritage Society coordinates and hosts a wonderful tour of properties in this sea coast town.  The August 20, 2011 slate of homes was another successful event and organizers should be proud of their work.  The tour was comprised of eight properties and a boat excursion.  The latter component provided unique harbour views (as well as the captain’s views) of the area’s architecture.

The tour properties spanned three centuries of house construction in Chester.  The Zoé Vallé Memorial Library was one of the tour properties and is a remarkable treasure. The c1899 Judge Williams House, 187 Central Street, showed visitors how its owners built a new addition at the rear.  On the top of Prince Street, “Hackmatack” is a contemporary house with an exterior that was designed to blend in with older neighbourhood structures.  Each of these properties as well as the other gems I haven’t mentioned provided a unique and inspirational experience for tour goers.

So many communities throughout Nova Scotia hold similar tours.  Those that love heritage buildings faithfully look forward to these tours all year long.  But what about those that have not yet come to appreciate historic homes to the same degree as the converted?  Our province’s home tours, though thoroughly enjoyable, could do more.

This article is not a critique of any of the wonderful heritage home tours held throughout Nova Scotia, certainly not the charming experience offered up by Chester, just a loose group of observations and a suggestion to help keep the focus of such tours on historic preservation.

All three floors of the historic Cole building at 55 Duke Street (c1830) were part of the 2011 Chester Home Tour.  The building was a pharmacy for much of its history but now houses Wayword Used Books.


Heritage Home tours are possibly the greatest tool the preservation movement has to educate the public and to foster in local people an appreciation for the architecture of our province.

Many of these sorts of home tours fall into one of two categories.  First there is the tour that is free and seeks only to educate the public and instill in them a sense of wonder with respect to heritage.  Then there is the fundraiser or pay-to-view model where education and heritage awareness are also present but tend to be more exclusive and perhaps even incidental.

I would encourage any group that operates the latter formula to try designating just one of their tour properties as free and to really promote that fact.  This arrangement need neither diminish the ticket price nor reduce overall revenues.  So, with no downside why not try it? Consider the upside.

With no entrance fee (for the lone free property), organizers can essentially make it as easy as possible for people to be introduced to the richness of heritage architecture.  More bodies through the door means more Nova Scotians potentially converted to protecting our heritage resources and adding their voices to the crescendo heard over threatened buildings, shrinking view planes, and inappropriate development plans.  One free home tour is also terrific advertising for the remainder of the tour (and next year’s tour).  The curious may become enamored enough to purchase last-minute tickets that will allow them through the doors of all the properties!

Posted by Joe Aug 31, 2011 Posted in Built Heritage, Historic Places Comments Off