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Conservation and Parks Canada: Keeping our Historic Places Vibrant

The Parks Canada Agency has a long history of protecting, safeguarding and promoting nationally significant examples of Canada's natural and cultural Standards and Guidelinesheritage. Now in its centennial year, Parks Canada is responsible for 167 national historic sites and plays a national leadership role in the conservation of historic places in Canada. In collaboration with provincial and territorial governments, Parks Canada has developed conservation tools such as the Canadian Register of Historic Places, Canada's definitive source of information on historic places, and the Standards and Guidelines for the Conservation of Historic Places in Canada, a benchmark guide for the conservation of historic resources. Parks Canada also shows leadership in built heritage conservation through the National Historic Sites of Canada Cost-Sharing Program, a contribution program, which provides funding for eligible non-federally-owned national historic sites, to assist them in activities which ensure these national treasures are conserved for future generations.

The agency owns and operates many national historic sites and heritage buildings across Canada, and also contributes to the management of those that it does not own. Moreover, Parks Canada supports conservation programs such as the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMBC), and the Federal Heritage Buildings Review Office (FHBRO). Canadian historic places designated at the federal, provincial, territorial, and municipal levels are listed on the Canadian Register online at www.historicplaces.ca. Every week records are posted as historic places become formally recognized by various governments. However, not all buildings can be officially designated and many historic places are in danger of disappearing through demolition or neglect.

It's old and an eyesore- knock it down!  Our approach to heritage is all about perspective.  As the pool of heritage buildings in towns and cities diminishes, there is growing awareness of the logic of rehabilitation for older building stock. How often is a building examined out of context as a "modest" example of its kind instead of as a valuable contributing element within a larger historic district? Keeping older buildings in use is recognized as the best way of preserving them and also the character of a neighbourhood.  

Converting older buildings for retail and residential use is growing in popularity. Today, with increased awareness of "green" issues, Canadian developers and architects are more open to the re-use of older structures even in areas where land is at a premium. Keeping the original use is often best as it involves fewer changes to the building's fabric but when this is no longer possible there are often many alternatives. As congregations diminish for example, the large, open spaces of churches offer many possibilities. In Halton Hills, Ontario, for example, the former Congregational Church of Georgetown was transformed into the Georgetown Public Library and Cultural Centre complete with period stained glass windows.

Rehabilitation of older buildings makes sense - dollars and cents - as construction costs keep increasing.  As Canadian towns and cities evolve, buildings that have out-lived their original use are often neglected and deteriote until major intervention is needed to ensure structural integrity.  Adapting a structure to an alternate use can be cheaper than constructing a new building and can breath new life into declining neighbourhoods.  Refurbishing an older building can often be accomplished more quickly than constructing a new one.  Historic buildings often have lower energy consumption, and can provide more affordable spaces for businesses and residents alike.

Recentlry, the value of Canada's vernacular architecture has been reassessed.  In the past, the term "built heritage" commonly evoked images of monumental architecture such as grand country estates, cathedrals and large civic buildings.  Now there is a growing awareness of the value of "everyday" vernacualr and industrial architecture, and of the contribution a building makes within its larger context.  The continual loss of our "less notable" building stock is extensive but a more creative approach to re-use can save these accumulated resources.

Some examples of early rehabilitation projects found on the Canadian Register include St. Mary's Parish Hall in Calgary's "Mission" District. Built in 1905, this impressive sandstone building was constructed as a Roman Catholic parish hall for French Catholics in Calgary. Sold in 1911 to the Canadian Northern Railway (CNR), it became office space before being rehabilitated as a railway station gaining a track-bed and platform in 1913. 1916 saw the addition of a rear brick extension and trackside wooden canopy. It operated as Calgary Southwest Railway Station under the Canadian National Railway (CN) until 1971. Named a Provincial Historic Resource of Alberta in 1981, the interior was destroyed by fire in 1985 and was subsequently restored in 1987.

Former industrial buildings are ideal candidates for accommodating new uses. The large complex of Gooderham and Worts Distillery (constructed 1859 -1927) is another example of rehabilitation. Before closing in 1990, the distillery developed, produced, packaged, stored and marketed spirits.  In 2001, the 30 unused brick and stone industrial buildings on 13 acres at the eastern edge of downtown Toronto were purchased by Cityscape Holdings.  This innovative developer, working with ERA Architects, designed a pedestrian oriented arts and Gooderham & Warts, 1918, www.thedistillerydistrict.com culture precinct Gooderham & Warts, Nikki Charlton, www.thedistillerydistrict.comwhile respecting the principles of good conservation practice as outlined in the Standards and Guidelines. For example one standard advises conserving heritage value by adopting an approach of minimal intervention. Here, the developers retained as much original fabric and interior features as possible and integrated them into the new design. Grain bins have become office spaces and the distilling room with its large control panel is now used by a graphic design firm. The site includes an interpretive centre with guided tours. This extensive rehabilitation and restoration project saved and revitalized the site, and was enabled through a collaboration of commercial and heritage interests. 

John Street Roundhouse, Roger Cullman, BlogTO, 2009Another industrial structure successfully converted to mixed residential-commercial use is the John Street Roundhouse (1929-31) in Toronto. A locomotive repair facility for the Canadian Pacific Rail (CPR), the introduction of diesel locomotives reduced activity at the site and the building finally closed in 1986. The CPR donated the roundhouse to the City of Toronto and it was designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 1990. In 1995, part of the original structure was dismantled to allow construction of the Metro Toronto Convention Centre below, then reconstructed and is now home to the Toronto Railway Heritage Centre, and commercial operations. In 1997, 17 acres adjacent to the building became Roundhouse Park, which displays railway related items.

In 2002, when the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) relocated from its 1914 department store in Victoria, British Columbia, the building was sold to Townline who engaged Merrick Architects (of Vancouver and Victoria) to convert the building into a downtown condo. The exterior of the former Hudson's Bay Company Department Store was preserved and the open floor interior converted to residential apartments. Preservation of the facades on this large heritage project complied with the Standards and Guidelines thus preserving its heritage character. The palatial design and grand elevations of this four-storey Georgian Revival Style building was chosen to establish architectural permanence and The Hudson, www.hudsonliving.caportray the luxury, grandeur, and modernity of Canada's most successful and oldest company. This development attracts people to live downtown close to work and, by extension, revitalizes the streetscape.

A crucial aspect in the successful re-development of older buildings is location. Due to urban sprawl, downtown buildings are in demand. Downtown re-use projects benefit from pre-existing public infrastructure including transportation, and can incorporate smart growth principles such as mixed-land use and mixed-housing choices, and can contribute to a sense of place. Investing in properties signals confidence and attracts similar projects. Mixed-use neighbourhoods are often pedestrian friendly and their restoration doesn't involve the development of new land.

The principal factor influencing those deciding between demolition and rehabilitation is often economic; tax policies and incentives can greatly impact the re-use of older buildings. Heritage conservation tax credit programs are available in many towns and cities including Victoria, which has a tax incentive for residential conversions of heritage buildings. Breathing new life into historic buildings can also generate additional tax revenue and create new local jobs.

Lead by Parks Canada initiatives, a more thoughtful approach to heritage structures is becoming the trend in Canada. Thanks to easily accessible conservation tools, Canada's built heritage is being conserved in a responsible way ensuring their survival for years to come.


Cantacuzino, Sherban, "Re-Architecture," Old Buildings/New Uses, 1989.

The International Committee for the Conservation of the Industrial Heritage (TICCIH), No. 38, Winter 2007.

Standards and Guidelines for the Conservation of Historic Places in Canada, 2nd edition, Parks Canada, 2010.

Wright, Janet, Balancing Conservation and Adaptive Reuse: the Distillery District, Toronto, Canada.