Scruples and Steeples

Mahone Bay’s famous churches are facing challenges. These are of course not ordinary churches. These buildings have taken on a status that transcends religion. Collectively they are Mahone Bay’s Eiffel Tower – Lunenburg County’s Statue of Liberty; unlike such contrived landmarks though the existence of these churches is natural and sincere – and therein lies their true charm.

Their relationship to one another and to the water and their similarity yet individuality of forms creates a unique viewscape that has lured and captivated both locals and visitors. Their beauty has inadvertently contributed to the growth of tourism-based businesses in Mahone Bay’s waterfront business district. They have helped make Mahone Bay a nice place to live. But we know all of this. What we don’t know, is how to ensure that these churches continue to make the town a special place while the good people who worship inside struggle with the burden of maintenance within a society that is both increasingly secular and increasingly anti-maintenance. The latter concern is, of course, a reference to that camp who believes if something needs fixing – it should be replaced.

If any one of these churches approaches that final lamentable stage of disposal, the entire county had better mobilize because the architecture of these three churches needs to be viewed as a community asset and as such it deserves community support. Now, support for what happens inside these churches is a personal choice and needs to be separated from what happens outside which is where the churches’ well-documented architectural aesthetic comes into play.

Mahone Bay, and indeed every place of cultural significance, needs a new formula – a formula that supports the authenticity of place here in Nova Scotia. Preservation of our historic architecture is a huge (and often overlooked) economic driver and quality of life booster. Mahone Bay illustrates that as well as any place can.

The problem is that once such architecture is gone, it’s gone; because the scale, quality, and aesthetic of most modern buildings cannot evoke the same degree of emotion as that of earlier edifices.
So what would a new formula look like?

Before getting to that it is important to remember two points with respect to the history of churches in Nova Scotia and in the process debunk a couple of widely-held assumptions. First, most of these glorious buildings were not constructed solely by means of subscriptions from the congregation. Others in the community, regardless of religious affiliation often contributed to the fund raising – or in other words there was community-wide financial support. Secondly, dwindling numbers of church goers is not a new or irreversible trend. The same problem was lamented during the first decade of the twentieth century. The New Glasgow Enterprise, in 1909 for instance, investigated the problem and declared that “not one half of the people… were attending any church.” Interestingly, reasons for not attending in 1909 read like 2012 but delving into them is not the purpose of this editorial.

Stephen Kristenson, pastor of St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church makes the important point that “many use the three churches in almost every conceivable medium, from stained glass to cookies” and he wonders if the three churches shouldn’t explore how some tourism revenue streams might flow back to the stewards of those churches. Kristenson may be on to something; in fact, even just discussing the subject brings awareness to the inequity of the situation.

Let’s return to that “formula” I hinted at earlier. The impact of architectural heritage (and Mahone Bay’s churches is a great example) needs to be quantified and valued by those parties who directly or indirectly benefit from its existence. Municipal governments and businesses are beneficiaries that immediately come to mind.

Now, just to be clear, I’m not one of those artsy socialist types who believe governments should pay for everything and businesses are parasites, I am in fact very pro-business. It could however be convincingly argued that the province’s heritage assets have been treated like parasitic hosts for some time. It’s not really anyone’s fault, it’s just how the thing has developed. As parasitic relationships go, some might even be pretty beneficial if they’re sustainable – but Mahone Bay’s situation is not. The heritage assets of Mahone Bay need external help. First, by being identified for their true local and regional value and finally by the establishment of an arms-length, community-based body to assess historic preservation needs. Whether such a body has an independent structure or is an extension of a regional development agency or a historical society is for stakeholders to determine. Ultimately, funding needs to be found, how much and from where would become clearer after a formal cultural and economic values assessment.

Posted by Joe Oct 18, 2012 Posted in Municipal Issues 2 Comments

Historic Preservation as Economic Development

The familiar matter of heritage preservation versus development in downtown Halifax is scheduled to fall into the laps of regional councillors Tuesday.

This quote is the opening line of an article penned by city hall reporter, Michael Lightstone in the October 2nd 2011 edition of Halifax’s Chronicle Herald.  I want to draw attention to it in order to highlight a common mischaracterization of preservation.

Preservation is not the alternative to development as the quote implies.  There is no “either/or” choice.  Preservation is economic development or at the very least it is a tool for economic development.

Historic preservation is not about saving an old building simply because it’s old.  It is about smart, sustainable economics and it is about respect for one’s culture, heritage and environment – all of which have strong economic significance.

New developments create excitement often at the expense of previous developments, reinforcing the artificial and irrational need of consumers to trend toward newness.  The one economic guaranty of “newness” is that there will always be something newer.  Historic preservation does not place stock in such fleeting appeal.

The appeal of historic preservation is tied to the aesthetics of period architecture and the enduring connection with community heritage – people have lived and worked in these buildings since before living memory and we as a society have attachments to those same buildings as a result.  Those societal attachments impact our sense of place, continuity and even who we are.

Historic preservation strategies produce cumulative economic benefits.  Several of those benefits are highlighted here:

Competitive Advantage - Businesses strive to differentiate their products from those of competitors through developing competitive advantages.  Products that possess real or perceived competitive advantages stand out, seize market share, and are able to command a premium.  Communities follow that same model in their attempt to attract investment of people and capital.  Perhaps the best way in which a community can express its competitive advantage is through the built environment – a reflection of its culture and heritage.  It is often said that knowledge sector jobs can be located anywhere.  If a community looks like it could be anyplace it possesses no aesthetic competitive advantage with which to hold or attract talent.

Tourism Resource – Tourists, whether they are day trippers or globetrotters seek out unique places and experiences.  All round the world, historic streetscapes provide the requisite backdrop and infrastructure for successful tourist destinations.  It makes no great difference whether they are splendidly ornate or humbly vernacular so long as they convey a sense of place and contribute to an authentic local experience.

Buy Local Support – Historic preservation is naturally conducive to any buy local strategy.  Adaptive reuse of an historic building supports the local economy to a greater extent than does a new construction project of the same value.  A renovation is generally labour intensive, requiring local tradesmen whose earnings tend to cycle through the community.  New construction is generally materials intensive, requiring the importation of goods that cause money to flow out of the community.  Local and sustainable development is also a smart insulator in challenging economic times.

Main Street Retail Authenticity – Downtown commercial districts are generally (hopefully) comprised of older buildings that feature a high percentage of locally owned businesses.  Such businesses, in the form of boutiques or services, tend to contribute to local culture in a more genuine way than do the shops in suburban malls.  The authenticity of the downtown merchant is heightened by historic commercial buildings that speak of a local shopping continuity spanning generations.

Business Incubation – Historic commercial districts often exhibit a mix of entrenched family businesses and new fledgling ventures.  The affordable rental spaces often associated with historic commercial districts serve as incubators for the ideas of entrepreneurs – many of whom are young visionaries who, succeed or fail, need a venue in which to roll the dice.  The opportunity for small business incubation fosters entrepreneurship and contributes to the retention of young adults and nourishes their hopes and aspirations.

Every community has its own examples of past choices made between historic preservation and economic development.  Choices for the former have never precipitated economic decline and generally stimulate renewal.  Municipal leaders and developers who capitalize on the promise of historic preservation will not be making the choice between preservation or development but seizing upon a strategy that marries all the comprehensive concerns of citizens: cultural, environmental, social, and economic.

Posted by Joe Oct 06, 2011 Posted in Economic Sustainability, Municipal Issues, Planning & Policy Comments Off

On Apartments in Historic Neighbourhoods

South Park Street, Halifax c1905.

Some heritage home owners argue that their historic neighbourhoods have traditionally been composed of single family dwellings and should retain this composition for the health and sustainability of the neighbourhood.  An extension of this position asserts that future conversions to multi-unit apartments should be limited in the number units the house can be divided into or even disallowed altogether while new apartment construction should not be allowed.  On the surface, this position looks like the obvious one for champions of heritage but it is unfortunately founded on a shaky premise.  The sad problem here is that if the premise is found untrue the entire argument crumbles away as does perhaps the historic character of the neighbourhood and the credibility of heritage proponents.

In fact, this position is more than shaky; documentary evidence doesn’t support such a fanciful claim of ubiquitous single family occupancy.  The household arrangement of yesterday was in some ways quite foreign to us today.  These same heritage homes declared as life-long single family dwellings often housed live-in help, otherwise known as domestics.   Many homes even took in a boarder or two or several.  Both of these arrangements are very rare today and reflect different practices surrounding labour and more liberal notions concerning privacy.  Another social arrangement saw many of these old homes constructed as double tenements – duplexes are not a new invention.  Still other homes, often owned by widowed women, took in large numbers of boarders calling their premises hotels, boarding houses or houses of entertainment.  If enough fabricated nostalgia has not yet been shattered, I should add that in every community a surprising number of these old homes were constructed for the purpose of generating rental income.  To resort towns like Digby and Chester, house rentals were an important asset during the summer tourist season.

There will be no houses to let after this week.  It is a well known fact that Digby is in need of more small cottages. 

Digby Weekly Courier May 4, 1900


All of this means that what some decry as a new and troublesome trend of increasing intensification and non-owner occupation is not really so new after all.  Proponents of preservation should not despair though – there is solid ground on which to stand.

The appearance, specifically: scale, footprint, massing and style of these historic homes were fairly inoffensive and consistent regardless of the social dynamic of the inhabitants.  It is on these points that a preservation defense should be founded as present day additions and new construction often deviate from these historic and character defining norms.  Other more obvious arguments of preserving heritage homes centre on contributions to culture and sense of place but these benefits will not be discussed in this article as they are already well documented and widely accepted.

Those property owners that historically built houses for the purpose of renting typically built structures indistinguishable from other neighbourhood cottages of the period.  These landlords were themselves generally resident in the same neighbourhood and the period was known to support a culture of pride in property that simply does not exist to the same degree today.  Still another difference was that the seductive myth of the maintenance-free property had not yet been borne.  There existed also a culture of communal responsibility that in terms of property maintenance manifested itself in a frankness that saw even newspapers “call out” those whose lack of initiative negatively impacted the great common objective, which was promoting the image and prosperity of the community.

From a historic preservation perspective, single family occupancy is preferable (if sustainable) but there is no great sin in dividing a large heritage home into two or three residential units.  At the end of the day, continuous use and relevance are the greatest insurance against demolition.   The point now, as it was then, is to maintain the appearance (scale, footprint, massing and style) of a single family dwelling (or possibly a double tenement house).

This position, of course, means larger, modern apartment boxes have no place in historic neighbourhoods.  Their construction in such a setting would be inappropriate and fundamentally alter neighbourhood stability and sustainability – to the detriment of the municipality.

For property owners who wish to squeeze a little more value out of their investment in an historic property without offending heritage proponents too much, carriage houses provide an opportunity.  Carriage houses were often generously proportioned structures of as much as 1 ½ stories.  Their scale and siting though have always been and should remain subordinate to the main house.