Heritage is Much More than Bricks and Mortar
From the Nest, Issue 2
by Graham Crawford
There are examples all over downtown Hamilton of significant heritage buildings, some of which are very much still in use, others of which are barely holding on.
Examples of the former include the Pigott Building, the Lister Block on James Street, Treble Hall on John Street, and the elegant stone townhouses of Sandyford Place on Duke Street. Examples of the latter include the boarded up pre-Confederation buildings on the south side of Gore Park, the almost fully demolished James Street Baptist Church, and the seemingly always in limbo Cannon Street Knitting Mills.
Whether renewed or crumbling, what makes them significant to you? Why do you have feelings about these buildings? Is it their architectural beauty? The materials used in their construction? The way the windows are shaped or placed?
For the most part, these buildings are made up of bricks, stone, glass, and wood. But it’s not these materials alone that make a building special. Before becoming part of the building you admire, each stood as a separate element, brought together through an architect’s vision. They are the artist’s paints. The composer’s notes. The chef’s ingredients. If they’re combined together successfully, they’re transformed from components into something of beauty, of purpose, and, eventually, of memory. Architectural heritage is the form it takes. Cultural heritage is the context within which it exists.
But, too often, heritage is defined simply by age. It’s old, so it should be preserved. While that’s sometimes true, it’s not always so. Age isn’t reason enough to warrant designation. It’s more complex than that.
I believe there is an important role for emotion in heritage preservation and admiration. After all, emotion is always part of how our brain processes things. We take facts, place them within a context, often called episodes, and then we surround those facts and episodes with our feelings. It’s why some people are absolutely passionate about a building while others think it’s just old and has outlived its usefulness.
This latter is the approach adopted by many school boards. The belief in the 50-year life-span of a massive public building like a school has led to the demolition of buildings that once contained overwhelming amounts of memory – the context of a big part of our lives as kids, or as parents, not to mention architectural value. They become architectural heritage savagely attacked and returned into their now broken elements. Some of the memories may survive, but without a point of reference, they can fade rather quickly. Without those memories, we lose the greater significance of the buildings themselves.
Seeing heritage from both the inside and the outside every time we consider its value is critical, in my opinion. That’s easy to do if we’re talking about a house museum such as Hamilton’s own Whitehern, or Dundurn Castle. We see how their owners lived in the buildings because they’re frozen in time, both inside and outside. But, what about that old bank building on the corner near you? What about the worker’s cottage down the street from you? Even if you’ve never been inside either of them, their history exists outside and within. Lives were lived inside. Children may have been raised in that house, no matter how humble or ornate. A holiday meal was shared. A sensitive restoration/repurposing of a heritage building permits, even encourages, those memories to remain, to be added to the history still being made.
What was, still is, even though its purpose may have changed. A bank becomes a real estate office, or a lawyer’s office, but the details remain. A school becomes a residential building. The very same staircases that once carried thousands of students up and down over decades, now carry tenants to and from their homes. There continues to be life inside. A post office becomes a courthouse, but the great hall remains great. The wickets people once stood in line to use remain, even if they no longer serve the same purpose.
How many times have you looked at a photograph of old Hamilton and lamented that so much of it is gone? How many times have you thought to yourself, Hamilton was such a great place back in the day?
The home I live in began its life in 1907. I’m the third owner in over a century. Outside, it’s an imposing house constructed mostly of granite fieldstone. Unchanged over the years. Inside, it’s also largely unchanged. Bathrooms have been upgraded, as has the kitchen, but little else has changed. Details that were specified and admired by the original owner, E.M. Dalley, who commissioned the house from Hamilton architect J.A. Armes, are still as they were in his day. Nothing has been gutted, only maintained, loved, and shared. It’s a piece of architecture filled with more than a century of personal memories.
This combination of materials and memories defines heritage. Together, they are an important part of the context that is our lives — past, present and future.
Graham Crawford is a Ward 2 resident who founded the award-winning Hamilton HIStory + HERitage storefront museum on James Street North