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.

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