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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.

Courthouse St. John'sWhen 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.

Dochstader HotelLocal 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 high style.

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.

Federal Building LethbridgeBoth 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.


A Brief Overview of the Geology of Southwestern Newfoundland

Once Upon a Mine: Story of Pre-Confederation Mines on the Island of Newfoundland by Wendy Martin 

History of Brick Making and Brickyards in the Area

Newfoundland & Labrador's Registered Heritage Structures

THE WALKING QUESTION MARK - Newsletter of the Grand River Heritage Mines Society

Ontario Ghost Towns - Mount Healey

ExploreNorth - The History of Dawson City, Yukon Territory