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A Heritage Moment.

I’ve long loved old houses. When the opportunity presented itself, in a newspaper ad looking for volunteers for my local Heritage advisory committee, I grabbed a laptop and confessed my passion to the municipal officials, hoping for a chance to be involved. And deeply involved I have become.1

So began my education about heritage preservation in Ontario, municipal politics and practices, and the history of the City of Oshawa. Even though protecting old houses is key to preserving local heritage, deciding which are most deserving, and balancing competing interests, can take priority at times.

More than once, I’ve heard people lament, ‘why didn’t they do more to save that beautiful old building?’ With my heritage enthusiast friends, while we tried, many 100+ year old structures have fallen to the wrecking ball. It’s relatively easy to get consensus that an old building has elegant, unique architecture, and ties to eras and people gone by, holding both monument and memories for countless people. Preserving these structures is harder.


  • Willing owners of heritage properties are scarce. Properties have to be occupied by someone. Governments own some historically significant buildings, but there are many demands on the use of taxpayers dollars which limits spending in this area. Some heritage homes are owned by individuals. Many more could be, but misinformation about what it means to own a heritage home has circulated since before misinformation was a thing. People think there will be grave restrictions on their ability to live in, maintain and sell their property if it has a heritage designation, so they are reluctant to own a heritage property.
  • Heritage properties were built at different time, for different purposes, and with different building materials. Most century homes are too big, and don’t have enough bathrooms, compared to modern houses. They may include building materials unfamiliar to modern contractors and need repairs to their robust structures. As far as I’m concerned, this is the good part, but it can deter many. Adaptive reuse is a popular term among heritage supporters. The idea is to convert old buildings to serve a new purpose while preserving the original structure. Simply put: what to do with a big, old house?
  • Agendas are at odds with preserving old buildings. Developers, environmentalists and economic development folks are all, at times, fighting to repurposing the places where old buildings stand. Old houses tend to be on big lots, that could be filled with more houses, multi-unit residential buildings or commercial space. If you’re a developer, the equation is simple – demolish one old house, put up four, you get four times the resale value. Environmentalists prescribe efficiency and conservation of resources in high density housing models. Politicians anticipate more tax dollars from more citizens per square foot and an easier path to recruit new business to their municipality with the conversion of residential spaces to commercial. (Often heritage dwellings were in the middle of the village, which turned into the middle of downtown, or if they were originally commercial buildings, they aren’t as easy to sell as modern buildings because they need retrofitting for required services.)

But, beautiful old buildings. Yes.

That’s why I bother. I could just stand back and let ‘progress’ take its natural path of destruction, levelling buildings and areas that people recognize as part of their history, and would be proud to tell visitors about, if it was still there. I could listen to the call of the almighty dollar, understanding that high density development is a profitable way to provide jobs and address the current housing crisis. These are critically important things, but we don’t need to sacrifice old buildings for them; there is a way to keep both.

I joined my local heritage advisory group with a love for old houses and idealistic goals of preserving these buildings while facilitating local economic growth. Naively, I thought we could build a commercial infrastructure in the existing heritage structures. Picture quaint downtowns with people strolling, popping in and out of vibrant old buildings for shopping, services or to work.

Experience has taught heritage preservation and economic development in conflict in many places. I had to choose a side. I chose heritage. It’s a side that needs more supporters because the economic development side, the ‘optimize the money-making’ side, has lots of supporters. 

Preserving heritage might not be the easiest way, but it can be done. And if we do, it helps us to remember what has been done before. Rather than annihilate the past, we can celebrate the good and build on it.

1 I was officially a member of Heritage Oshawa, a volunteer citizen advisory committee to City Council, from late 2017 to early 2021, but remain engaged in heritage preservation as an individual citizen to date.

The house in the featured image photo is in Wolfville, NS, called Annadale house and was built in 1794 according to the book “Wolfville & Grand Pre” by Brian Cuthbertson, published 1996 by Formac Publishing Company Ltd., Halifax. From research I have done, my great-great-great grandparents lived in it in the 1800’s.

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