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.

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

Research

Annapolis Royal, 1878 / Asher Benjamin’s Architecture, c1840

Vineberg & Fulton Ltd. is committed to ongoing research in the field of historic preservation. This commitment means a significant amount of resources is invested in continually improving our understanding of historic building technology and local building traditions.  Vineberg & Fulton has assembled an impressive database of Nova Scotia’s rich and varied architectural history.  This dynamic database forms our doctrine, comprises our reference material, and informs our recommendations and advocacy.  Valuable, startling, and even contradictory information is constantly being peeled back like so much old linoleum.

Research is producing a better understanding of the built environment of the past few centuries here in Nova Scotia. Research is answering questions as well as raising new ones. What sort of influence did the American landscape architect, A. J. Downing have in this province? What paint colors were used in what towns and on what parts of a house and in what period? Why do so many old houses appear to have kitchen additions built on the back? Where did our stained glass, ceramic tile, wallpaper, pressed steel, and awnings come from and what styles were popular and when? What sorts of shrubs and trees were planted in urban areas? Why were our parks created and how were they intended to be used?  Why is there eel grass in my walls and should I remove it? Why does any of this matter?  The questions that can be asked are infinite. Answers will help Nova Scotians authentically preserve one of their greatest cultural resources—their built heritage.

Vineberg & Fulton Ltd. is always interested in viewing or acquiring day books, catalogues or other books and printed material that deal with the various building trades in Nova Scotia. Period photographs of homes and commercial buildings are also sought to help identify and interpret construction practices and local trends.

The vestibule and stairway lights are of rich shades of opal and Senetian glass and cut jewels designed and executed by Messrs. Castle & Son of Montreal, who also supplied the Mosaic pavement for vestibule floor.

Local newspaper, 1893

Greater knowledge of this province’s architectural history will help ensure appropriate and honest treatments for historic places.  Renovations undertaken with good intentions and historical assumptions often lead to regrettable outcomes.  Be sure that appropriate research and documentation comprise any intervention.

Many people love to live in Nova Scotia and many others love to travel here. Sure, it’s the “down home” lifestyle of locals that is always cited as the key to bluenose charm.  But since we’re products of our environment, let’s ensure that our built environment is preserved so that we might be as charming as a country cottage.

Posted by Joe Jul 11, 2011 Posted in Atlantic Canada, Built Heritage, Publications & Research Comments Off