Let’s Look Local: Historic Building Materials
What makes a historic building suitable for designation? There
are environmental, historic and architectural reasons to take into
account when considering a building or site as heritage. Some
buildings are historic because of their associations with figures
such as politicians or inventors. Others are deemed worthy of
protection by municipal, provincial or federal bodies because of
their architecture, but there are too many architectural styles to
define them all here.
When examining historic building materials there
are two types: universal and local. Let's delve into the history of
historic local materials. In Newfoundland & Labrador, the
St. John's Court House National Historic Site of Canada (left)
is a stellar example of a historic building that was built with
local materials. After a fire destroyed its three predecessors
(most recently in 1892) a new design by local architect William H.
Greene was proposed and Samuel Manners Brookfield of Nova Scotia
was awarded the construction contract. The idea that a Nova Scotian
would impose not only his construction plans but also his
province's construction materials was unwelcome news for
Newfoundlanders! Despite Brookfield's plans, local materials were
substituted for the work.
Local granite was sourced by St. John's stonemason William J.
Ellis, whose quarry supplied the granite facing for the courthouse.
Coming from a quarry near Rose Blanche on the southern coast of
Newfoundland, it took a day's journey to arrive at St. John's. The
local granite meant more than simply an inexpensive building
material - it was, as seen in the dignified courthouse, a symbol of
local identity and pride.
The building's brick was produced at Trinity Factories, located
in present-day Milton, NL. In the late 19th and early
20th centuries, Charles Pelley's factory was producing
brick for many projects, including the construction of the
courthouse. At first transported to St. John's by boat and by
train, and later by road, the Pelley's brickworks was the only
brickworks on the island.
St. John's was destroyed by the Great Fire of 1892, but Reuben
Horwood and his brother found a silver lining: the need for
building materials was wide-spread and the brothers quickly opened
a lumberyard and woodworking factory. Naturally, they were
successful. The city's courthouse was framed with their lumber.
Local materials and higher
styles often went hand-in-hand in colonial Canada. The
Dochstader Hotel (right), south of Hamilton, Ontario, was a
hotel (now a home) that featured a beautiful brick, produced
on-site, and used extensively throughout the house. The plaster
came from nearby Mount Healey and shipped along the Grand River to
the hotel. Mount Healey's mills added to the area's prosperity and
the Dochstader Hotel became the social venue for the area. Finely
crafted as a neo-classical hotel along the banks of the Grand,
today it still speaks to the integration of local materials and
Heading up north to Yukon's former capital, Dawson City, the
Post Office stands as local landmark within the
Dawson Historical Complex National Historic Site of Canada. The
building represents the federal presence and provision of services
in Canada's north and also represents the need for adaptation in
design. Built in 1900, the Post Office is similar in design to
other government buildings across the country from before the First
World War. For example, the
Federal Building (below) in Lethbridge, Alberta, 3,000 km south
of Dawson City, is similar in its design and function.
Both buildings feature a prominent corner tower and
entrance, and both establish a federal presence in each city. By
contrast, the building in Lethbridge is built of stone while
Dawson's Post Office is built of local wood. One of Dawson's
earliest entrepreneurs and founders, Joe Ladue, who operated the
local sawmills while others raced to exploit the region's gold
mines, made his fortune building private homes and public
buildings. By using a local resource, the government saved money
and time, and supported local industry and thus local growth,
albeit early 20th century style!
Unfortunately today, the cost of building with local materials
is expensive for many builders. Economic and environmental
considerations need to be taken into account to build for the
future in Canada, but the surest way to save money, be sustainable
and provide local economic support is to save your
buildings. Whether St. John's Courthouse, the Dochstader
Hotel, or the Dawson Post Office - protecting and restoring these
buildings will help local communities. Sourcing
materials from within 100 miles or from within the proposed
building's region or province is a great way to encourage
sustainability, local growth and can be a great source of pride for
homeowners and builders alike.