Monday, July 14, 2014

ReThinking Heritage Districts

The City Hotel as it appeared in about 1895.
Considering how much of  historic London, Ontario, has been torn down and relegated to the history books, The London Plan devotes a lot of space to historic London

I've only lived here since the mid 1970s and yet I've watched a lot of historic London disappear. And I've been amazed at what passes for saving our architectural heritage. Think of the City Hotel, the Capitol Theatre and the Bowles Lunch building.

Today the City Hotel, later the Talbot Inn, is a facade with opaqued windows.

The City Hotel goes back to 1865. In 1886 it was extensively remodeled and enlarged. When I moved to London the name had been changed to the Talbot Inn. If memory serves me right, one could get a good Mexican dinner there along with a cold draft. At night one could catch some of the best blues musicians on the bar circuit playing next door. The inn barely escaped demolition when the other buildings making up the Talbot Block fell to the wrecker's ball. The streetscape disappeared to make way for a new downtown mall and hotel complex. (In the end, the mall/hotel complex failed to materialize despite the hasty demolition.)

The Talbot Block was a wonderfully intact row of historic buildings. It was possibly the most historically important block in the city. At one point, more than a thousand Londoners held hands to circle the block and loudly protest the proposed destruction. It was all to no avail. Everything was taken down. Only a poor imitation of the old hotel's facade remains as the exterior wall of the north-east corner of Budweiser Gardens, a sports and entertainment centre.

The London Plan proposes to protect our built heritage and revitalize London's downtown. The distinctive historical elements on our oldest buildings will be conserved according to The Plan. I say it is a little late to take the save-our-built-history approach. If there was ever a topic in need of rethinking, it's what to do with London's core and the remaining historic buildings.

Large chunks of the downtown have been demolished and rebuilt.

I propose a three pronged approach to creating an historic looking downtown core.

  1. Restore remaining historic buildings.
  2. Rebuild some of the easily duplicated missing historic brick structures.
  3. ReThink the core by finding historic buildings facing demolition in other communities, buying the facades, or at least the most important and difficult to duplicate elements, and bringing them to London for reuse.

I know the last two suggestions sound absurd but they really aren't. In fact, both have being done successfully in many places around the world. Think Williamsburg in the States or Old Quebec in Canada.

 Ada Louise Huxtable points out in her book The Unreal America: Architecture and Illusion that "approximately 730 buildings were removed at Williamsburg; 81 were renovated and 413 were rebuilt . . . The next step replaces the "wrong" buildings with the "right" buildings, moved, in turn, from somewhere else." Huxtable calls the result a stage set.

Old Quebec City, despite its fame, has a lot of faux heritage buildings. According to the Encyclopedia of French Cultural Heritage in North America, Gérard Morisset, the art historian behind the reclaiming of the old city's past, believed "restoring a building does not mean maintaining it, repairing it, or rebuilding it; it means restoring it to a state of completeness that may never have existed." I personally saw some of the last Old Quebec heritage buildings under construction in the mid 1970s. The reclamation had been going on for about twenty years at that point.

The Capitol Theatre facade above left. The faux Bowles Building on its right.

London already has one handsome, faux heritage building: The Bowles Building. Originally one of the Bowles Lunch chain of diners, the building had a rich architectural heritage. It's clean, white terra cotta facade sported two large, ornate capital Bs on both sides of the second floor window. The terra cotta is gone, replaced by stone. The fancy Bs, difficult to replicate in stone, are also missing.

Deconstruction and skimming could repair London's core.
Detroit has a lot of once fine structures that are suitable for architectural salvage, both deconstruction and skimming. Deconstruction is the disassembly of buildings to their foundation to preserve up to 85% of the materials. Skimming, a less intensive method, salvages the easy-to-remove materials. The Architectural Salvage Warehouse in Detroit specializes in both deconstruction and skimming.

Cities are for people. At one time London's core was for people. The sidewalks were crowded day and night. If our city planners want to create a downtown heritage district, they are going to have to get busy creating. Otherwise, many of the remaining heritage buildings will disappear and the feeling The London Plan envisions will never materialize.

Heritage streetscapes are popular around the world.

Since writing this, the downtown core has lost another bit of heritage. Kingsmill's department store is closing and being bought and converted to use by Fanshawe College. One more reason to visit the downtown will have vanished. (My wife and I bought a lot at Kingsmill's.)

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