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An ounce of preservation is worth a ton of history

It was in Fort Langley about 150 years ago that British Columbia was first claimed for Britain.

The fort was the first of its kind on the West Coast. It's still standing, a prized piece of Canada's past sitting just east of Vancouver.

There are about 7,200 such heritage sites across the country. They're finicky old dames requiring complex maintenance and upkeep, and while Britain and the United States have broad-based programs for preserving "built heritage" - a national trust and tax credits, respectively - Canada has none.

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But a solution may soon come from, fittingly, Fort Langley. The region's MP, Mark Warawa, is spending the next few months speaking with people across the country in an effort to develop Canada's own National Heritage Trust.

"We're looking at what models work, and what's positive with the models in, for example, England, the United States," Mr. Warawa says.

Mr. Warawa is parliamentary secretary to Minister of Environment John Baird, who oversees Parks Canada and the portfolio for heritage preservation.

A national heritage trust system, advocates say, is badly needed. Heritage buildings are "endangered" in Canada, says Natalie Bull, executive director of the Heritage Canada Foundation, because developers often prefer to knock them down and start new.

It's easier, Ms. Bull says, to throw up a cookie-cutter development - such as a new condo - than to take time to work within an existing, antiquated heritage site with its own "quirks," or "problems."

"Oh, it's much more difficult," says Tom Payne, founding partner of Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg, a Toronto architecture firm that has worked on the city's highest-profile heritage sites, including the new National Ballet School and the Young Centre for the Performing Arts. "But I think the results are much richer and more interesting."

Restoring a medium-sized heritage residential building costs $169 a square foot, according to a 2006 University of Waterloo report. A similarly sized new residential building costs $155 a square foot. And the upkeep of a heritage site is sporadic and unpredictable, while new buildings have set maintenance schedules.

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"It's just a different approach," says Catherine Nasmith, president of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario, which advocates for the preservation of heritage sites. "There always seems to be money for capital budgets, but maintenance is just not so sexy."

There's a green element to saving heritage buildings, too. Canada has lost 20 per cent of its pre-1920 buildings in the past 30 years, Ms. Bull of Heritage Canada Foundation says. Such demolished buildings account for a full third of the garbage in landfills, the foundation says.

"I think that we have a responsibility, especially in the context of a greener world, to use things effectively that are here now, and to try and minimize demolition and landfill," says Mr. Payne, the architect.

But to compensate for the inconveniences and extra costs of heritage properties, developers look for incentives - such as those that would be offered by a national heritage trust.

Canada once had such a program: the Canadian Commercial Heritage Properties Incentive Fund. Founded in 2003 with $30-million from the Liberal government, it offered funds for revitalizing buildings, ultimately helping preserve 52 buildings totalling $181-million in nine provinces. The Conservatives didn't renew it, but are considering incorporating it in the new national trust, for which they've so far pledged $5-million.

Currently, it falls to cities and provinces to fight for heritage sites. Victoria offers a 10-year tax exemption for heritage buildings to be turned into housing. It has prompted $137-million in investment so far, but the city is looking for help bearing the cost.

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"The municipalities really are struggling on their own all across Canada to try and make heritage conservation work," says Steve Barber, Victoria's heritage planner. "It is a huge problem all across the country."

The cost of such programs proved too high in some cities. In Vancouver, developers who saved heritage sites once got a tax exemption and a density bonus, which could be sold off to other developers. The initiative sparked $400-million in investment, but paved the way for condo towers of unmitigated, undesired heights. The city cancelled the program in 2007.

Volunteers often play a crucial role. That's the case in Bonavista, a small town in eastern Newfoundland. Near the heart of the town is Alexander House, known by the locals as Bridge House, a classic home built around 1812 - the oldest known building in the province.

Gordon Bradley, the 78-year-old president of the Bonavista Historical Society, bought the house for $7,500 a few years ago. Volunteers put on a temporary roof and covered up the shattered windows. Right now, they're digging a ditch to divert water from the foundation. Eventually, piece by piece, they say they'll restore it to its original state.

"We never have enough money, of course," Mr. Bradley says. "But you expect that."

In search of a national success model for heritage preservation, Ms. Bull points to the United States, where two important incentives are used to entice developers to work with heritage sites. First, "rehabilitation tax credits" cut the taxes of developers who restore heritage sites. Second, the U.S. government has a "heritage first" policy - when looking for office space: it looks first at available heritage sites, creating a rental market for them."It really revolutionized the way developers in the U.S. look at heritage buildings," Ms. Bull says. "We have to treat them like resources that are worth maintaining and investing in."



Church of the Holy Cross

Skatin, B.C.

Between the mid-1890s and 1905, the people of the Stl'al'imx Nation built this Gothic Revival "cathedral in the wilderness" out of local cedar. Since none of them had formal carpentry training, they relied on photographs of Gothic cathedrals in France to craft features such as three delicate steeples as well as a hand-carved altar and pews.

Old St. Patrick's Roman Catholic Church


Built in 1904, in the Carpenter Gothic style, the oldest surviving Catholic church in Calgary features wood siding and a pyramidal wooden steeple. The building remains the property of the Roman Catholic Diocese. However, the land is owned by a funeral home that hopes to erect a mausoleum on the site.

The Grand Trunk

Pacific Railway Roundhouse

Biggar, Sask.

Built in 1909, the massive circular building was designed to service and store 21 locomotives at a time. Its construction included 12-metre fir beams and more than one million bricks. Tunnels have recently been discovered, presumably leading to the nearby railway station.

James Armstrong


International Airport


Built between 1961 and 1964, it is widely recognized as one of the finest examples of mid-century modern architecture in Canada. It includes two massive murals: Eli Bornstein's Structuralist Relief in Fifteen Parts and John Graham's Northern Lights.

Riverdale Hospital


Built in 1963, this example of mid-century Canadian Modernist architecture includes a Japanese terrace garden, steel mushroom-shaped canopies and a 600,000-piece Saico glass mosaic. The City of Toronto owns the land, but Bridgepoint Health, which owns the building, has determined it is no longer suitable for hospital uses.

The Old Grand Trunk

Railway Station


Built of solid grey limestone in 1856, Kingston's first train station has a distinctive mansard roof, its own water tower and a turntable. The station closed to rail service in 1974. The Pig & Whistle operated a restaurant there from 1987 to 1992. It has remained vacant and abandoned since then. A fire damaged it in 1996.

Bens Deli


This Art Deco landmark, with its famous wrap-around illuminated corner sign, retains most of its original interior finishes such as stainless-steel coat racks, a sleek deli counter and stools. Situated on prime real estate, the building has been sold to a developer who has plans for a new 14-storey hotel.

Winter Street Prison


Built in 1865, the stone building is a Palladian-type structure constructed in a complex that also consists of a unique stone penitentiary wall, green space and the jailor's house. It continued its original function until 1990, when the prison was moved to more modern facilities.

St. Patrick's Church


Located in downtown Halifax, this richly decorated Victorian Gothic church was built between 1883 and 1885 with the volunteer labour of Irish immigrants. It houses an 1898 Casavant organ - one of only two remaining from the firm's first 100 instruments. Four panels of its stained glass withstood the Halifax explosion of 1917.

Alexander House

Bonavista, Nfld.

Built between 1811 and 1814, the oldest documented residential property in the province is known locally as Bridge House. Accented by a natural stone foundation, it features gable-end chimneys, a central hallway and a highly symmetrical design.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Josh is a parliamentary reporter in Ottawa. Before moving to the nation's capital in 2013, he covered provincial affairs in Edmonton and throughout Alberta. He joined the Globe in 2008 in Toronto before returning to his home province in 2010. More


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