There was an interesting article in the Toronto Star today about the recent fire on George Street and its place in the overall treatment of heritage sites within the city. I think we tend to spend a great deal of time focusing on “the ancient and exotic” aspects of heritage but such articles remind North American readers that “heritage” can be found in their own neighbourhoods. The article focuses on several buildings within the city which are either seeking or, in one case (the Paradise Theatre) have already been granted a heritage designation. Such a designation gives the city more legal power to preserve buildings through the Ontario Heritage Act.
The list of eight buildings raises some interesting questions about what we should consider heritage. Is a one hundred year old library a heritage site? How about a 1958 supermarket? Should fifty year old buildings in high states of disrepair be demolished and the land reused?
The article has a poll which I think shows some interesting assumptions. The two building which attracted the lowest level of support were a 1950 “art modern” building, currently serving as a bank, and the 1958 supermarket. I wonder if the lack of support is the result of the use of the buildings – we don’t generally consider the local, somewhat run down, grocery store “heritage”. The building was actually the largest wooden arch in Canada at the time of its construction – is this enough to ensure its ongoing preservation and protection. In the poll, the highest level of support went to the most “traditional heritage” site; the Queen and Lisgar Library. Built in 1908, the library is one of the first Carnegie Libraries built in the city. In both age and function it is perhaps more in line with the type of building that is commonly viewed as worthy of protection.
The article also underlines the challenges for preservationists in the city. Due to under staffing and under funding it takes months to get through the process of being a heritage building. On average, according to the article, only four cases are processed a month. With a backlog of 100 cases this is a serious problem. We tend to judge a building worth preserving based upon its age and its aesthetic appeal. Without early efforts to preserve very few buildings will reach the requisite age while maintaining their aesthetic appeal. Preservation must be preemptive rather than reactive.