Special Report: Heritage

We Cannot Afford Another Chapter in the Vanished Hamilton Series

Residents brought new life to the streets of Hamilton by rolling up their sleeves, taking back vacant spaces on streets once thought too difficult to revitalize. They did it without grants or the financial support developers are receiving.

By Stephanie Trendocher
Published August 08, 2013

In light of recent conversations and letters to Council surrounding the decision to demolish 18-28 King Street East and falsely designate new buildings as heritage, I've been reflecting on what led me to learn, live in and love Hamilton eight years ago. This is a lengthy response, but our city's history and heritage played a significant role for me, as it has for the many citizens who have voiced their concerns.

18-28 King Street East (Image Credit: Stephanie Trendocher)
18-28 King Street East (Image Credit: Stephanie Trendocher)

Born and raised in Hamilton, I moved to Toronto after high school and I thought I would never look back. But throughout my time in Toronto, there were pivotal experiences at historic places throughout Hamilton that kept bringing me back home. Gore Park was one of them.

As the demolition equipment arrived two weeks ago to the surprise of many, I stood in Gore Park wondering why Council and the developers can't see what its citizens do when it comes to these buildings. We can't afford to lose these important, historical buildings.

After a year studying design at OCAD in Toronto, it was during a visit to McMaster University where I truly felt inspired and decided to switch schools. I came across Hamilton Hall, or the James Stewart Centre for Mathematics as it is now known.

One of the oldest buildings on campus and originally a science facility, it was Collegiate Gothic in style on the exterior. When I walked inside for the first time I realized how special this building was. Architect Bruce Kuwabara's re-visioning of the building was a beautiful tribute to its history and original function.

So why would this have mattered to me - a potential humanities student? Too often, a building's cultural capital is overlooked. Historic buildings are records of our past. They communicate where we've come from and how we got to where we are today.

For me, the James Stewart Centre for Mathematics was a great example of adaptive reuse: a respectful nod to the building's original intent but repurposed for modern use. The light and open feel, the combination of interactive and reflective spaces - it gave me a sense of place. It felt like a space where ideas and creativity would be embraced.

Closeup of 24 King Street East (Image Credit: Stephanie Trendocher)
Closeup of 24 King Street East (Image Credit: Stephanie Trendocher)

For two years I continued to live in Toronto, but found myself routinely riding the GO Bus to Hamilton and transferring to the HSR in Gore Park on my way to McMaster. The more time I spent in Gore Park, the more attention I paid to its architecture and overall landscape. I saw the possibilities for the downtown core and started to witness the subtle changes taking places on James Street North.

I fell in love with Hamilton and decided to move back in 2006. I documented the positive changes as people here began building the dream community they wanted to live in. Shops, studios, coffee houses and restaurants began popping up.

My partner and I purchased a century home in the downtown core. It wasn't the vision of urban planners that brought new life to the streets in Hamilton we love today. It was residents rolling up their sleeves, taking back vacant spaces on streets once thought too difficult to revitalize. They saw potential. They did it without grants or the financial support developers are receiving.

The practice of demolishing and rebuilding from scratch is too common these days. Desperate for inward investment, city officials frequently allow developers to demolish historic buildings and construct larger standardized buildings which are assumed to return greater profits. Despite ecological codes of practice, many developers continue to favour empty sites to achieve a quick return.

Building reuse should be a major priority. Developers should first and foremost demonstrate how existing buildings can host modern uses while preserving their relevance. It is well known that people are attracted to live, work, visit and return to cities with unique character.

On a recent trip to Portland, Maine I was thrilled to learn the City of Portland had adopted a historic preservation ordinance [PDF] back in 1990 to recognize and preserve its vast collection of historic architecture.

A quick walk around town and you can see that change is thoughtfully managed, so that the unique character of these historic areas is preserved.

It is well known that there is a market in Hamilton for adaptive reuse of existing buildings. We've witnessed the transformation of buildings from places that were ignored to places that are loved. We've seen the community connect and work together to make lasting changes in our neighbourhoods. We've been admired by other cities for the progress we've made.

Great examples of adaptive reuse in Hamilton do come to mind: the Lister Block, 270 Sherman, Witton Lofts, 118 James North, and the undergoing transformation of St. Marks Anglican Church. But despite the efforts of citizens, we've also seen great loss of buildings with historical significance.

As we continue to revitalize our city, I ask Council and the property developers to preserve Hamilton's architectural history and our authentic sense of place. We have the examples of best practices in other cities and we know that preserving historic structures makes sense.

Before another building is demolished and a new condo, hotel or big box store is built in its place, consider the social fabric of the city. Consider the vision of architects like William Thomas who built this city brick by brick. Consider the Gore Park civic square, defined by a streetwall with over 150 years of history.

Consider the designers, engineers and entrepreneurs who are boosting the creative economy today - their studios, workshops and retail storefronts contribute to the economic development of our city. Consider the long-term residents who paved the way and new city dwellers who are investing in the local economy.

Consider makers, urban manufacturers and firms looking for small, independent spaces in the city centre to produce meaningful and quality goods. Consider that the mixed-use districts of our lower city are making Hamilton a desirable location for many looking for complete neighborhoods.

Cities affect all of us and it is up to us to ensure we grow them responsibly. We need the cooperation of city officials, developers and building owners to designate heritage properties like those in Gore Park so they are protected from demolition and a guarantee that proposed alterations or additions are reviewed to ensure compatibility with a property's original design.

We need to ensure that new construction within historic districts maintains a respectful relationship between new and old. We can't afford to wait until its too late. We need not another chapter in the Vanished Hamilton series.

Excerpted from Stephanie Trendocher's original post on Beaux Mondes.

Tell Council and the Province to designate the Gore and protect these buildings from demolition:

mtrmclco@ontario.ca, mchan.mpp.co@liberal.ola.org>, Bob.Bratina@hamilton.ca, Brian.McHattie@hamilton.ca, Jason.Farr@hamilton.ca, Bernie.Morelli@hamilton.ca, Sam.Merulla@hamilton.ca, Chad.Collins@hamilton.ca, Tom.Jackson@hamilton.ca, Scott.Duvall@hamilton.ca, Terry.Whitehead@hamilton.ca, Brad.Clark@hamilton.ca, Maria.Pearson@hamilton.ca, Brenda.Johnson@hamilton.ca, Lloyd.Ferguson@hamilton.ca, Russ.Powers@hamilton.ca, Robert.Pasuta@hamilton.ca, Judi.Partridge@hamilton.ca, kevin.finnerty@ontario.ca, Peter.armstrong@ontario.ca, tamara.ansoncartwright@ontario.ca, tmcMeekin.mpp@liberal.ola.org, ahorwath-co@ndp.on.ca

Stephanie Trendocher is the Co-founder of Beaux Mondes, Marketing Coordinator at the provincial transportation agency for the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area, member of the Tourism Hamilton Advisory Committee, transit geek, nostalgist, lover of print, scribbler of thoughts and day dream believer.


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By Rimshot (anonymous) | Posted August 08, 2013 at 10:30:08

Time to strike a committee to review best practices in other municipalities, with a view to drafting the terms of an RFP for a consultants' report on recommendations on potential options for encouraging preservation-friendly outcomes. We hope to have that in place for the city's bicentennial.

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By Jim Street (anonymous) | Posted August 08, 2013 at 10:39:21

^ There won't be anything left by then - just a few dozen more "Vanished Hamilton" collections.

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By viennacafe (registered) | Posted August 08, 2013 at 22:34:20

Here comes the broken record: The Municipal Act is broken.

There was a letter to the editor of The Spec, recently, where the letter writer maintained that Hamilton was luckier than Detroit because Mike Harris got it right by imposing amalgamation on cities. I was struck by just how ass-backwards that observation was.

The suburban dominance of Ontario's urban landscape is like a pillow over the face of progress. It literally smothers urban innovation. Put another way, the suburbs are first and foremost agents of a status quo that prioritizes roads, subdivisions, and conformity. It is a status quo that looks outside to the shrinking global economy for jobs and economic opportunities rather than toward building dynamic and robust local economies. For the suburbs, people exit communities with their money in the morning and return to their communities with stuff made in China and factory processed food in the evening. Communities are not where they live and work but where they sleep.

All of these issues raised over and over and over again by people who live the urban lifestyle and who feel frustrated by what they know to be good and true can never be resolved at a municipal level dominated by suburban councillors who share no community of interest or sympathy with the thoughts, aspirations, and values expressed above.

And it must be recognized that these issues are not at all unique to Hamilton. The same acts are being played out in cities all over Ontario everyday day in and day out.

Unless those people who share the ideas and aspirations expressed by the author begin to reach out to other like minded souls beyond the borders of their own urban cores to begin the development of a urban political movement with the capacity to impact provincial elections, this urban groundhog day experience shall never be interrupted.

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By Connie (registered) | Posted August 09, 2013 at 03:51:22

Save your breath Stephanie. This Council doesn't have a friggen clue. Downtown is a lost cause. It's a good thing the artists and James N business association created the revival there before the city got into the act and destroyed it too. Too bad they can't learn, but just keep repeating the same mistakes.

What a loss of opportunity. What a complete lack of contemporary thinking and creativity, and taste. The Gore is now a lost cause, and it could have been such a masterpiece.

I travelled through some nearby small towns r

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By Connie (registered) | Posted August 09, 2013 at 04:14:14 in reply to Comment 90684

(oops) recently. What a beautiful job they're doing of restoring and updating their lovely main streets. Too bad the city is so backwards.

It remains to be seen whether some councillors will lose their seats over this.

These are the councillors who refused to designate the buildings: Collins Clarke Ferguson Partridge Pearson

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By Janice (registered) | Posted August 09, 2013 at 14:21:00

I just returned from the Maritimes and while holidaying, I had the opportunity to spend a few days in the downtown historic city of Halifax and its amazing waterfront. This area has been undergoing a successful rejuvination for a number of years. Historic buildings on Barrington, Hollis and the upper and lower parts of Water Street are being preserved either completely as with the Historic Properties on the waterfront or by building new modern structures while preserving the facades of the historic buildings, many of which have been designated. The facades have not been dismantled; rather they have been secured while the modern development goes up behind the original historic building. The technology exists to do this. Why would the developer not do the same. I have several pictures which I will post on the Durand Neighbourhood website once downloaded. Please visit www.durandna.com. Janice Brown, President, Durand Neighbourhood Association

Comment edited by Janice on 2013-08-09 14:21:52

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By Jean Pierre (anonymous) | Posted August 09, 2013 at 16:30:57

I just looked at Hamilton Magazine's web site. Its poll is about the Gore Park buildings being demolished and only the front facades being saved. 78% do not support this outcome. http://www.hamiltonmagazine.com

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By Sigma Cub (anonymous) | Posted August 10, 2013 at 11:52:26

The city's last three high-profile heritage items -- City Hall, Lister Block & 100 Main West -- set problematic-to-dismal precedents for heritage preservation.This latest turn feels less surprising than inevitable: to varying extents, we're paying to be violated.

If we're going to take architectural heritage seriously, the City should not only intervene in cases where there is a clear-cut heritage threat, but also weed through the chaff on its books so that it knows where to direct its obviously scant resources and limited willpower (or, conversely, so that community advocates can leverage their own time and energy most effectively).

Speaking to this issue on The Hamiltonian, Councillor McHattie remarked that "the list of 7,000 [7,490] potentially significant heritage properties assembled by the former area municipalities and brought together at amalgamation has still not been ground-truthed and none of those properties have protection. There is now a staff project to examine the 1,000 downtown Hamilton properties on the list, and others are determining the best way to tackle the remaining 6,000 properties."

At the time of an RTH map project a couple of years back (http://raisethehammer.org/blog/2152/mapped:_hamilton's_heritage_interest_properties), the number of buildings of heritage interest stood at 7,490. It's not clear if the councillor's comments reflect investigative inroads or just exuberant rounding.

Either way, it's amazing to me that the bona fides of thousands of "potentially significant" sites have not been examined over the last decade or more, but that might explain why the City appears to be in no hurry to designate more properties. They've settled for the appearance of caring (eg. flagging century homes), leaves the matter open to interpretation, trivializing the whole enterprise (ie. such properties are of interest but not of importance).

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By Rimshot (anonymous) | Posted August 12, 2013 at 06:46:47

"You can do whatever you want with the crap behind the façade" is the new "You can do anything in Hamilton."

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By Noted (anonymous) | Posted August 16, 2013 at 11:48:30

"Hamilton’s Downtown Built Heritage Inventory project is a pilot study to review and update the existing Inventory of Buildings of Architectural and/or Historical Interest. This project will include field surveys and historical research of approximately 800 properties in downtown Hamilton. The boundaries of the Pilot Study Area are Wellington to Queen, Hunter to Canon.

Phase 1 of the pilot project is complete. Comprehensive data through field surveys and historical research of the properties has been collected.

Phase 2 of the pilot project is underway. E.R.A. Architects and City staff are in the process of developing a consistent evaluation format and system for nomination of properties for prospective designation or for inclusion in the register as non-designated property under Parts IV or V of the Ontario Heritage Act."


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