Heritage Conservation | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Heritage Conservation

Heritage conservation has assumed a place in contemporary Canadian society because it addresses certain desires, notably for tangible connections to our historical roots and a "sense of place" for those who despair the "anyplace" character of many communities.
Heritage Building Window
In Lower Town, Ottawa (Corel Professional Photos).
Shaughnessy House
The design of the CCA incorporates the 1874 Shaughnessy House that director Lambert saved from demolition (photo by Brian Merrett: www.merrettimages.ca/).
Mile of History
One of the goals of the National Capital Commission is to preserve the historical treasures of the capital (Corel Professional Photos).

Heritage Conservation

Heritage conservation encompasses the identification, protection and promotion of things that are important in our culture and history. The term heritage covers a wide range of tangible things: it can be an object in our built environment, such as a railway station, a bridge or a neighbourhood; it can be an artifact of moveable cultural property, such as a painting, a dress or a Red River cart (see Conservation of Movable Cultural Property); or can be a part of our natural environment, such as a park, a garden or a heritage trail. It can also be intangible, as in folklore, customs, language, dialect, songs and legends. The term conservation can be defined as protection from any agent (be it environmental or human) that threatens to destroy heritage; it also implies increasing our understanding and awareness of heritage. The practice of heritage conservation in Canada ("heritage preservation" in the USA) usually refers to identifying, protecting and promoting valued elements of the built environment, ie, of buildings, structures and sites that have been created in the development of Canada.

Heritage conservation has assumed a place in contemporary Canadian society because it addresses certain desires, notably for tangible connections to our historical roots and a "sense of place" for those who despair the "anyplace" character of many communities. Interest in heritage conservation has grown along with the general conservation movement: it is widely recognized that society can no longer afford to waste resources of any type, including the built environment. It is a concept based on responsible stewardship - that is, on managing valued resources in such a way that they are passed on to succeeding generations unimpaired - and it applies both to the process of making our urban and rural habitats and to enhancing their livability.

Grass-roots community activism has powered much of the heritage conservation movement. Dozens of activist organizations such as the Lunenburg, NS, Heritage Society (1972), Héritage Montréal (1975) and the Society for the Protection of Architectural Resources in Edmonton (SPARE; 1979) have coalesced around threats to their community's built heritage. Concerned citizens in the 1950s, for example, saved from demolition the spectacular 19th-century mansion Craigdarroch Castle in Victoria, BC; residents and supporters of the Milton-Parc neighbourhood in Montréal spearheaded the rehabilitation of hundreds of 19th-century dwellings in the 1970s and 1980s; and inner- city residents of Regina successfully campaigned in the 1980s to retain the neighbourhood-scale capacity and appearance of the Depression-era Albert Memorial Bridge. Through these successes - and some failures - these groups have risen to the challenge of defending their built heritage, often one site at a time, by opposing heritage-insensitive actions, brokering or undertaking restorations, advocating improved heritage legislation and sensitizing citizens to heritage values.


One of the earliest large-scale attempts to preserve a valued built resource in Canada was Governor General Lord Dufferin's intervention in 1875 to save and enhance the old fortification walls of Québec City (see Québec Citadel). Instead of demolishing the walls, as local business interests wished, Dufferin had the derelict structure rebuilt and added evocative new features. In the spirit of the times, Dufferin's primary objective was to enhance the city's picturesque qualities: it was the notion of a walled city that he thought important, not necessarily the actual stone walls.

Half a century later, in 1927, Father Albert Lacombe's 1861 log chapel in St Albert was the subject of the first attempt at heritage conservation in Alberta. Almost half of its logs were replaced, and the building was encased in a protective brick shell. The extreme measures taken to prolong this building's life reflected the early 20th century's fascination with artifacts actually touched by our country's pioneers.

A century after Dufferin's Québec City intervention, a portion of Halifax's waterfront was revitalized in one of the most ambitious conservation projects undertaken in Canada. Derelict warehouses and commercial buildings were conserved and rehabilitated to create Historic Properties, a heritage shopping precinct. In step with the times, private investment drove the rejuvenation of this historic urban district.

These three examples illustrate that heritage value has many guises: a design idea or concept can have heritage value, as with Québec City's walls; an artifact materially associated with an important person can have heritage value, as with Father Lacombe's chapel; and structures in their physical and economic context can have heritage value, as with Historic Properties. Design, material and contextual values are the cornerstones of the current approach to heritage conservation. Design values focus on the creative concept underlying a building, structure or site; where design values predominate, conservationists attempt to restore any lost design integrity. Material values focus on the actual substance of which the property is made; where material values are paramount, conservationists attempt to extend the life of the materials. Contextual values focus on the manner in which the property interacts with the larger community; where contextual values dominate, conservationists attempt to maintain or enhance the building, structure or site's fit within the community. Most heritage conservation projects today represent an interplay of all three values; that is, efforts are made to recover any significant design values that have been lost (while safeguarding those that remain), to extend the life of historically important materials and to ensure that there is a fit within the community appropriate to the resource's heritage value.


While Manitoba boasted a historical society when the province was only nine years old and Fort Chambly, Qué, was restored through private initiative in 1882-83, concerted heritage conservation activities were relatively rare in Canada until the early 20th century. It took initiatives such as the creation of the Royal Society of Canada's Committee for the Preservation of Scenic and Historic Places in Canada (1900), the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (1919), the Commission des biens culturels du Québec (1922) and British Columbia's laws to protect Native artifacts (1925) to give structure and voice to heritage advocates. This period also saw the rise of activist conservation groups such as the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario, founded in 1932. It was an era characterized by the creation of house museums such as the William Lyon Mackenzie house in Toronto, and the preservation of unrestored former military sites such as Fort York, Ont, Prince of Wales Fort, Man, and Fort Langley, BC.

The 1920s and 1930s saw an increase in scholarly interest in early architecture. Accurate measured drawings of surviving historic buildings (modelled on the National Survey of Scotland program) were drafted by Ramsay Traquair (1874-1952) and his architecture students at McGill University, by Eric Arthur (1898-1982) and his students at the University of Toronto, and by Traquair's student Arthur William Wallace (1903-78) in Nova Scotia. Publications by these and other enthusiasts began to warm the public to heritage buildings. During this period conservation was largely government-driven, and a building or site was conserved most often for its association with a person or event of historical significance. Fort Anne in Annapolis Royal, NS, for example, was named a national historic site in 1920 for its association with the clash for empire between France and Britain, not for any architectural values the surviving 1797 Field Officers' Quarters may have had.

This was also the beginning of the age of heritage reconstructions and outdoor museums. Champlain's 1605 habitation at Port-Royal, NS, and the long-lost buildings of Fort George, Ont, were created anew at or near their original sites. Frequently undertaken as make-work projects, these heritage reconstructions were not acts of conservation in the conventional sense - though, ironically, many of them are now valued as illustrations of our early-20th-century preoccupations, and are being preserved as such. The popularity of the restored and reconstructed Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia (begun 1926) influenced the creation of many outdoor museums, where visitors could wander among restored heritage buildings and modern replicas while costumed "animators" demonstrated the tasks of everyday life in bygone days.

These great popularizers of heritage inspired a new period in heritage conservation, one with a didactic, tactile bent largely missing from the previous era's house museums and preserved forts. Outdoor museums were created across Canada. Some, such as Upper Canada Village, Ont (1950s-60s), and Kings Landing, NB (1960s), were created by moving authentic buildings to a new location; others, like the Fort Macleod Museum, Alta (1950s), and Ste Marie Among the Hurons, Ont (1960s), were total reconstructions. The re-creation of part of the fortress of Louisbourg, NS (begun 1961), surpassed Williamsburg as the largest such project undertaken in North America. Large-scale heritage restorations and reconstructions like Louisbourg, Dawson, Yukon (begun 1960), and old Fort William, Ont (begun 1971), were based on exhaustive historical research by government-funded historians, archaeologists, architects and engineers who sought to re-create vignettes of Canada's past as conjecture-free as their scholarship and skills could produce.

A key turning point in the field of conservation occurred at mid- century, when the Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences (1951) advocated broadening the scope of heritage to include architecture itself. Until that time, buildings and sites were generally not thought to have heritage value unless associated with great historical figures or events; architectural values were infrequently acknowledged. The federal government's response to the commission's recommendation was the Historic Sites and Monuments Act (1953), which was amended in 1955 to permit designation of architecturally significant buildings as national historic sites. The first national historic site commemorated specifically for its architectural importance was Old Government House in Fredericton, NB (1958). Nevertheless, at the end of the 1960s only a few dozen national architectural commemorations had been made, no province had clear criteria for defining heritage property, and municipal legislation to designate and permanently protect heritage buildings from demolition was virtually non-existent.

The 1970s marked the beginning of a dramatic change in heritage conservation. In the years after Expo 67, the private business sector slowly converged on the field to capitalize on the growing niche market for reused heritage buildings that had developed with the country's emerging sense of nationalism and history. Whether on their own, as with corporate giant Alcan Aluminum Ltd, which won praise for incorporating four heritage buildings into its Montréal headquarters complex in 1980-83, or in a public-private partnership, as with the Central Chambers project in Ottawa, in which a heritage building became the key component in a commercial redevelopment scheme completed in 1993, segments of corporate Canada began to recognize that there could be social, civic and indeed financial value in heritage conservation.

Entire historic urban districts were also redeveloped, largely through private investment, between the late 1960s and the early 1980s. Notable examples include Gastown in Vancouver, Historic Properties in Halifax, Yorkville in Toronto, Vieux Montréal, the Exchange District (formerly Market Square) in Winnipeg and Market Square in Saint John, NB. Many smaller communities joined and continue to participate in the national and provincial Main Street revitalization programs established in the late 1970s and 1980s, in which a community's heritage is used as the catalyst to revitalize the economy of its business district. Ecomuseums (écomusées) such as in the Beauce region of Québec and the Crowsnest Pass in Alberta take the same concept and apply it to entire regions, using tourism and local work skills as the primary economic engines (a "patriconomy").

During this era Canada moved onto the world stage of heritage conservation. By signing the 1972 Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (the World Heritage Convention) in 1976, the federal government committed itself to protecting world heritage sites within Canada, and implied that the highest possible standards of conservation would be followed. World heritage sites are chosen by the World Heritage Committee as among the most significant cultural and natural sites on Earth. The first cultural site in Canada to be entered on the World Heritage List was L'Anse aux Meadows, Nfld (1978), the location of the earliest known European settlement in North America. In 1998 there were 12 Canadian cultural and natural world heritage sites on the list, including the historic area of Québec City, inscribed in 1985 for its role as the military, administrative, religious and cultural capital of the French empire in the New World, and "Old Town" Lunenburg, NS, inscribed in 1995 as an outstanding example of a planned British colonial settlement in its conception and in its remarkable level of conservation.

The scope of heritage conservation has widened considerably since the early 20th century, particularly in recent decades. It now includes unpretentious "vernacular" buildings and industrial sites, ensembles of buildings such as neighbourhoods and historic districts, and sites of interrelated natural and cultural components, known as cultural landscapes: the 19th-century walled garden at Maplelawn in Ottawa and the Beth Israel Jewish cemetery in Québec City are now accepted as valued parts of our built heritage, as are the scenic rustic roads of PEI. In today's broader, more inclusive view of heritage, Modernist buildings such as the 1957 BC Electric Building, an early glass curtain-wall skyscraper (see Skyscrapers) in Vancouver, are now legitimate candidates for conservation - and catalysts for debate over the nature of heritage conservation in a world of planned obsolescence. Alternative notions of heritage, such as the West Coast Native concept that the skill to create a totem pole may be a more important heritage to safeguard than the physical artifact produced, are also stretching long-accepted ideas about heritage conservation.

Process of Conservation


The first step in the heritage conservation process is to identify and list those properties that have value in our culture. Historical research and recording are usually undertaken at this stage to understand and document the property, and to assist in future activities. Identification begins with a survey to find the buildings, structures and sites that have value to the community. Criteria are frequently used to maximize the objectivity in this culturally subjective evaluation process. Typically, these criteria focus on design, material and contextual values. Those that meet the criteria are considered to have heritage value, and are listed on an inventory.

Various individual inventories exist at the municipal, regional, provincial and national levels. Municipalities and provinces with inventories frequently distinguish between listing on their inventory, which implies documentation but typically no protection, and designation, which involves legal protection. The largest single inventory list is the Canadian Inventory of Historic Building, which, under Parks Canada's administration, has computerized information on more than 200 000 pre-1914 buildings across the country.


The next step is to protect the identified heritage resource. Protection can refer to an administrative regime under which a property is managed, such as designation, or to an intervention, such as basic maintenance, or to both. Designation is not essential for protection, but is often undertaken to enhance the listed property's prospect for long-term survival. Most designations in Canada are made by the provinces, territories and municipalities because, under the Constitution, real property issues are the concern of the provinces. The federal government may designate properties it owns, through the Federal Heritage Buildings Review Office (1982); it may also commemorate historic sites of national significance under the aegis of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, the advisory body to the federal minister responsible for heritage.

Every province and territory has developed some form of heritage legislation, and many have enabled municipalities to make heritage designations. A heritage advisory committee is frequently used to advise municipal councils on heritage matters, including designation. Designation normally restricts the nature of interventions that can be made to a building or district (in 1997 there were about 120 legally designated heritage districts in Canada) to those that respect the heritage values identified in the evaluation process. The counterbalancing "carrot" may be grants, tax relief or other incentives.

Protection can also include interventions to recover significant design values that have been lost, to extend the life of historically important materials or to ensure a fit within the community. This may involve "preservation," the stabilization of a property in its current state by slowing or halting deterioration; "restoration," the recovery of the physical forms and details a property had at a particular time in its history; "rehabilitation," the adaptation of a property to meet current standards; or a combination of these actions. To deal with the problems particular to the conservation of heritage properties, appropriate practices based on sound technical and scientific research have been developed by conservation specialists. Specialized tradespeople are frequently used for the more complex interventions, and education programs train new generations in these skills. Conservation principles that outline the limits of acceptable interventions have been developed to guide changes to our irreplaceable built heritage. A number of professionally based non-governmental heritage agencies have been established to address some of these issues, including the Association for Preservation Technology (1969), the Heritage Canada Foundation (1973), the Society for the Study of Architecture in Canada (1974) and Icomos [International Council on Monuments and Sites] Canada (1975).

Promotion Awareness

The final step in heritage conservation is promoting our understanding and awareness of heritage. Events such as Heritage Day (the third Monday in February in many provinces) champion our tangible and intangible heritage; awards such as the annual "orange et citron" (orange and lemon) prizes awarded by Sauvons Montréal celebrate the best and lambaste the worst interventions to our built environment; walking tours familiarize us with the rich layers of history that make up our special places and everyday haunts; exhibitions by the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montréal and the Canadian Architectural Archives in Calgary, among others, expand our understanding of the art and science of our built environment; public talks such as the annual William Kilbourn Memorial Lecture by Heritage Toronto expose us to new ways of understanding our past; and publications of all types, in print or on the electronic highway, inform us about the identification, protection and promotion of the important things in the history of our built environment.

The ultimate success of heritage conservation will continue to depend on the efforts of individuals, groups, agencies and governments to increase the value we place on our heritage, and to thereby move a conservation ethic deeper into the mainstream of Canadian life. While much has been lost, much has been saved, ensuring that some of the most culturally rich, dynamic and popular parts of our built environment will survive for the benefit of future generations.

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