Derelict buildings, ruins and architectural salvage are valued in Europe to the extent that fragments of crumbling Roman walls or centuries-old buildings are rarely torn down but incorporated into new and attractive projects. In North America it seemed until recently we could hardly wait to tear down classical Georgian architecture or turn-of-the-century industrial buildings to replace them with characterless glass monoliths designed with minimal imagination and no personality.
I was reminded of this recently when we visited The Britannia Mining Museum, a rehabilitated copper mine near Squamish, British Columbia that has been restored and opened as a museum in 1974. The original Britannia copper mine employed 60,000 people between 1904 and 1964. Until 1958, when a road was built to link the community on Howe Sound to Vancouver, all access to the site was by water only. When we visited the site I was unprepared for how interesting the experience would be. Climbing new wooden steps up the side of the mountain, we then took a small train into the tunnels where the guide demonstrated the working conditions for miners who drilled, blasted and loaded carts with raw materials. A vertical processing facility used gravity to funnel materials through the various processes to produce pure copper powder ready for smelting. The facility sat derelict for a number of years before it was restored and environmental remediation began on Howe Sound. What a great way to recycle an old eyesore and at the same time create interesting and productive jobs for the community.
It’s always gratifying to see projects such as The Distillery District in Toronto become vibrant and colourful destinations in our community. Or the refurbishment and gentrification of such former industrial neighbourhoods as Liberty Village or The Brickworks alongside the Don Valley Parkway. In St. Thomas, Ontario, a handsome old railway station in the centre of town is being restored to provide commercial space. This past summer we attended a wedding reception in the grand hall of the former Hamilton, Ontario railway station that had been carefully and tastefully restored.
Just this weekend I read in the newspaper about a condominium project in Bracebridge, Ontario created from an 85-year-old brick schoolhouse that no longer met modern requirements.
The developer, McMurray Street Investments retained the main structure and added architecturally compatible new elements to create a beautiful low-rise residential complex within walking distance of the downtown shops, library and the waterfront.
Beauty can be achieved in the most unusual places. I’m always encouraged and delighted when I see these old buildings dusted off, tarted up and given new life. I think that’s justification for Boomer Broads buying a new pair of shoes or that colourful winter coat you’ve had your eye on, don’t you. When we were in France, my honey bought me a vintage crystal brooch at the Marché de Puce, the Paris antique market, but I can’t wear it yet because he’s earmarked it as a Christmas present. So when I do get to show it off during the holidays you can be sure this old sow’s ear is going to sparkle like never before with a little help from some fresh paint, some new highlights on the roof and a little wine to loosen up the creaky old joints. It’ll be worth the investment.