Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Preserving Lunenburg's Heritage of Common Sense

Lunenburg has a rich architectural heritage that is protected by its UNESCO World Heritage Status. For the most part, that's a good thing. But like every concept taken to its extreme, without discretion or a vision of sustainablilty, a good thing can become a bad one. The above model represents the plans, drawn by architect Gerry Rolfsen,  for the repurposing of a very rotten barn, know as the Anderson Barn,  into much needed rental housing.  Here's a photo of the Anderson Barn in its current state.

 And here's where things have become contentious. The Board of the Lunenburg Heritage Society is opposing the demolition of this barn, built in the late 1870's, on the grounds that it is an important part of our heritage and its demolition would set a dangerous precedent.  Ordinarily I would agree, but not this time.

Although facts rarely come into play in the formation of public sentiment, I'm a firm believer that facts do matter. Here are the facts: The original intention of the current owner of this property was to preserve the building.  Two separate engineering reports have determined that the building is not salvageable. Every supporting structure in the barn is rotten. By all accounts this building should be condemned.  The rhetoric in town is that these engineering reports were commissioned by the property owner and are, therefore, suspect.  Engineering firms do not work for the customer.  They work for the integrity of their profession. If the barn is to be repurposed, there is no alternative to demolition.

O.K.  let's return to rhetoric for a moment.  The rhetoric is that the colourful buildings that make up the Unesco Fresco block on King st., owned by The Reiblings, are shining examples of how to avoid demolition and preserve heritage architecture.  Many would argue that those buildings actually were demolished.  It was a bespoke, hand crafted, demolition.  The buildings were held together with chains, while every single board was removed and replaced. A fine process for someone with millions of dollars, but the end result was still demolition.

Here are some more facts about the Anderson barn.  In it's lifetime, it has sustained two fires.  It was estimated, by the engineering firms that only 11% of the current building remains from the original structure.  Most of what we see now was cobbled together around 1940.   It is also inconveniently falling down the hill towards Montague st.  Pelham street was constructed to support horses and carriages, not delivery trucks.  The street is slowly falling into the building, pushing it down the hill. The building's demolition is inevitable.  A couple of good storms will save the property owner quite a bit of money.

Lunenburg's bureaucracy has three things available at their disposal to guide the destiny of the Anderson Barn.  There is a demolition permit; there is a development permit; and there is a policy to preserve heritage.  And so, all discussion, in regards to this property, pertains only to these three things.  We need to add a fourth item to this list- The repurposing of Heritage buildings. Without a mandate to repurpose heritage buildings,  so that they are useful to the present, we will inevitably lose our heritage buildings to neglect.  There aren't too many people that will be willing or financially able to preserve a rotten barn as a barn.  We just don't have that many cows in Lunenburg.  What we do have is a serious housing crisis.  We desperately need young people to move to Lunenburg, but there are very few full time rental units available.

The proposed replacement to the Anderson Barn will have 6, beautifully designed, 1 bedroom units.  These will not be seasonal rentals.   The deteriorating structural members will be replaced by a rationalized post and beam timber structure.  The current failing retaining wall will be replaced by a structurally sound wall that will save the building from its inevitable fate.  The proposed building will bring back many of the lost architectural details of the original barn. The plan is to build a new building that respects the architectual heritage of Lunenburg.

Nobody wants to see a heritage building demolished (unless you are a developer in Halifax) , but if we can't apply discretion to differentiate between a rotten shed, that is not salvageable and a building that is, then there are only two possible outcomes.  The first is that Lunenburg properties will only be bought by wealthy people, pushing out the diversity of people that make Lunenburg special.  And the second scenario is that people will not invest in the upkeep of their historically significant outbuildings and we will, inevitably,  lose them.

As well as having a rich architectural heritage, Lunenburg also has a rich heritage of common sense. My friend, Clayton, comes from old Lunenburg stock.  His grandfather was a sea captain and was known for his colourful language.  Clayton said that if his grandfather were alive today, he would certainly have this to say, "Sweet suffering blue eyed Jesus. It's rotten. Tear the Christly thing down and do something useful with the land."  I wonder if Unesco can protect common sense.  Here's the proposed view from Montague st.

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