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


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

Historic Fences

One of several different postcards produced in the early 1900s that showcased Yarmouth’s famous hedges, also known as “live fences”.

Why does our romantic notion of a dream home typically include a white picket fence?  It could be the result of inherited nostalgia or even a creation of Hollywood – but either way the vision seems to have widespread appeal.  Most people view a white picket fence as an integral component of a picturesque property and one that adds a good deal of charm and order to a place.

How can something as seemingly simple as a white picket fence assert so much elegance?

Demystifying the allure of the white picket fence first requires a look at ourselves.  I believe the human mind has an affinity for order; and, a white picket fence is a manifestation of order.  Its stark white rails of uniform height and precision spacing pleases us with its cleanliness, form and predictable pattern.  A fence also demands order by dictating where one may and may not walk.

Additionally, a fence typically possesses one very likeable attribute – humility.  What I mean by that is that as beautiful as a fence may be, it really doesn’t seek attention for itself; in fact, it nobly aspires to an existence of servitude. It exists to accentuate and compliment the structure that it encloses.  Visually, a good fence does not compete with the associated house but draws the eyes upward.

I am, so far talking exclusively about traditional white palings so I need to acknowledge a few other Nova Scotian fence traditions.  Yarmouth’s live fences (or hedges) were stunning in their perfection – trimmed as close as a 4-H calf at Pro Show – they could if required keep the wandering beasts at bay.  Earltown’s Bone Setter’s wall is one of many vestiges of old stone walls erected for the manifold purposes of clearing stone from fields, enclosing grazing animals and marking property lines.  Bay of Fundy fishing weirs were simple yet ingenious devices that utilized the power of the tides to catch fish – once commonly stitched into the beaches of Fundy, their presence told of a way of life with a clarity no other type of fence could convey.  Snake fences zigzagged their way through rural Nova Scotia many years ago and have entirely vanished apart from the odd suburban residence that displays one for artistic purposes.  Dozens of other styles of board fences and iron fences were erected throughout the province with some of the latter still surviving in cemeteries and older residential areas.

Historic photographs provide a wonderful opportunity for communities to document the style or styles of fences once associated with their local area.  The diversity of style that existed from region to region and even from one town to the next was in many cases quite striking.  Fences were but one of many built features that conveyed a sense of place but their ubiquity and design has largely been forgotten.

The handsome new fence around the Chambers’ property is noticeable. The grounds are much improved in appearance by this neat and substantial enclosure, and King Street by its increased width and beautiful row of shade trees will soon become a favorite promenade.

Colchester Sun, Aug 29, 1877

What led to the demise of Nova Scotia’s historic fences?  Fashion.  Changing tastes, between the years 1900 and 1910, began to favour unobstructed greenery over boarded enclosures.  This meant that open lawns became the ideal and although hedges are a form of enclosure the fact that they are also greenery dictated that they remained in vogue.  Unfortunately, no one had remembered to inform the livestock of these changes.  So during the first decade of the twentieth century conflict reigned in Nova Scotia as livestock and their owners had to adjust to the new fashion.  They were, of course, accustomed to moving through town streets with much the same effect as a golf ball in miniature golf – with barriers keeping them on the straight and narrow.  Fewer fences meant an increase in complaints of cows destroying front yards on their way from one grazing ground to another. Demands for better supervision of livestock were made and eventually more men and boys provided it.  As herd boys demonstrated their diligence, still more home owners dismantled their fences.  So in the end, fashion, and to some degree better bovine management, sounded the death knell for fences.

The swinging pendulum of fashion though may once again be calling for a renaissance.  Historic Nova Scotian fences are much too attractive to allow them to remain forgotten.  So, consider a fence for your home, especially if it is a heritage home and try to avoid the generic pre-assembled styles available at home reno stores.

For more on historic fences, and particularly the unique fences of Truro, see Joe Ballard’s articles, in the Winter 2011-12 edition of the Griffin – a quarterly publication of the Heritage Trust of Nova Scotia and also Edifice Old Home Magazine, issue 22, 2009.

Posted by Joe Aug 31, 2011 Posted in Architectural History, Cultural Landscapes Comments Off