Illustrations by Briana Corr Scott
It’s our history. It’s who we are.
Built heritage. It’s a term that gets bandied around when people talk about our collective history. But what does it mean? Obviously, it’s something constructed. Probably sometime in the past. The term suggests it has some relevance to our culture. But after that? What counts?
Public buildings obviously qualify.
A prime example would be the Truro municipal library. This iconic example of Second Empire style was once the teacher’s college and is integrally related to the development of public education in 19th and 20th century Nova Scotia. It’s also a beautiful building.
What about houses of historical significance? Most likely. Think of Willow House. Currently an inn, the New England Colonial-style home was built in 1840 for Pictou’s first mayor. The Chapman House in Amherst was built in 1774 and the two-storey brick manor house made of marsh clay is still owned by the builder’s descendants. They both qualify.
But how about cemeteries? Dykes? Lamp posts? Parks? The answer is yes to all those things. If you can touch it — as opposed to intangible heritage, like music or even a dish associated with a particular region — it can be designated as built heritage.
And if something that has been built is of historic interest, then it can be officially registered as such.
There are three levels of heritage designation: municipal, provincial and federal. To get a building listed, people generally start at the municipal level. That’s the easiest place to get listed and if something is of provincial or national importance, it stands to reason that it must be of local significance as well. But the opposite isn’t necessarily true. The building in question might, for example, have been the home of the community’s first doctor or a beloved teacher. That historical connection has no real value beyond the local area, but it still makes the house culturally significant enough to have a local designation. If that doctor or teacher went on to become a premier, though, it would then have provincial significance as well; and if he or she then became a famous inventor or war hero, the building has national importance.
The Heritage Trust of Nova Scotia has been around since 1959. Its mandate is to “promote, foster and encourage interest in and preservation of buildings and sites of an historic, architectural and cultural nature within Nova Scotia.”
According to executive director Emma Lang, build heritage consists of “the things built by humans that make our communities what they are.” A building can be significant for a variety of reasons well beyond just being old (although being old helps; generally speaking, a building should have been around for at least 50 years). Those reasons can include the building’s original purpose, the kind of construction, who once lived there or its importance to the community. It sounds contradictory, but a building can be designated of historical significance because of its unique architecture, or it can be registered because it represents a very typical vernacular style that defined a particular era. So, a one-of-a-kind place like St. Ninian Cathedral in Antigonish, a stone edifice built between 1867 and 1874 and featuring murals created by Ozias Leduc in the early 1900s, counts. But so can a typical barn from the 1800s, even though no one may have recognized it as significant at the time.
“We have an inventory of 150 buildings,” says Leslie Childs of the Amherst Area Heritage Trust. “Not all are grand gorgeous houses. There are lots of typical workers’ houses still in town as strong as when they were built.”
Of course, in any given area there are hundreds of buildings that are not registered, which makes it difficult to create any kind of inventory of heritage buildings. The reasons for this vary. Some people are afraid to pursue heritage designation because they think it will limit what they’re allowed to do with their own property. They worry they’ll be constrained to paint it a particular colour or won’t be able to do renovations to suit their own tastes. Generally speaking, though, this isn’t a problem.
“No one says you have to live in the 19th century just because you have an older building,” says Lang. “Nothing says you can’t get a new stove or update your HVAC.”
People who live in heritage buildings are expected to maintain its heritage value, but the chances are they would do that anyway. Otherwise, they’d be living in a modern house. And when push comes to shove, they can’t really be stopped from doing what they like with their own property. They can only be delayed.
Insurance can sometimes be a problem. Insurance companies base their prices on replacement costs. When a building has irreplaceable components — think hand-carved stone imported from Scotland or 16-inch-thick hickory beams — prices can skyrocket. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, and Lang says the federal organization, of which the Heritage Trust of Nova Scotia is a member, is working on getting the rules rationalized.
The reasons for registering a building can be both concrete and intangible. For example, there are grants available under the Heritage Development Fund for both conservation work and conservation advice, as well as provincial tax rebates. But there is also the internal reward that comes with acknowledging the worth of a building and the community in which it stands. Registering a building shows that the owner thinks it’s something worth preserving.
“It shows the community, young people and tourists that we value history. It’s a public way to acknowledge that we value them [old buildings] and the more buildings registered the more we can lobby to government to show we think they are of value,” says Lang.
John Blackwell lives in a heritage house in Pictou. The retired librarian, research administrator and chair of the Pictou Heritage Advisory Committee says, “We must respect old buildings that have managed to survive. They’re like people. They’re survivors and part of who we are.”
That survival often includes applying the three Rs to a building. Lang calls it “adaptive reuse.” Instead of tearing a building down, make it serve the community instead. The train stations that dot the region are a prime example. The station in Amherst is a pizza joint; in Pugwash it houses the library; the Tatamagouche station has been converted to an inn and restaurant; and in Pictou and Antigonish the stations serve as a community centre and museum respectively.
Such an approach also yields an environmental benefit. New materials
aren’t being manufactured and old ones aren’t ending up in the landfill.
We lose untold numbers of heritage buildings every year. Yet, they are what tie us to our community and show the rest of the world who we are. Built heritage is not just why people visit Paris or other large cities that have world renowned monuments. It’s also why people spend a day or a week meandering down the Sunrise Trail.
It’s our history. It’s who we are.
And it’s what makes us a community.