In praise of older buildings

I agree with Prince Charles. It looks like a prison, complete with guard tower.
I agree with Prince Charles. It looks like a prison, complete with guard tower.

Prince Charles and I have something in common. We’re both interested in architecture and have no professional qualifications or particular expertise in the field to back up our opinions, but we have very strong opinions. He once described Mississauga’s new city hall as resembling a prison and I’m inclined to agree. I’m a huge fan of old buildings being restored and recycled into new retail or residential space. My husband was saddened to learn recently that the old United Church he attended as a boy in St. Thomas, Ontario has been torn down from lack of use. In Toronto we have seen many old churches reborn as condos incorporating amazing gothic architecture and other unique features.

The Distillery District reborn. Well done, Toronto.
The Distillery District reborn. Well done, Toronto.

A recent newspaper article described the refurbishing of an abandoned nineteenth-century knitting mill in Hamilton into a residential and arts complex. The Distillery District in downtown Toronto is a wonderful example of bringing these old buildings back to life and generating new communities around them. Europeans respect the remains of previous buildings, often incorporating a section of historic Roman wall as an architectural detail in new usable space. Many of the homes and buildings destroyed in both world wars were faithfully restored to their original glory. We saw this firsthand in northeastern France and Belgium where entire villages levelled by bombs and artillery were faithfully and lovingly rebuilt in the original style on the original footprint. One of the most memorable examples is “Canada House”, the bombed-out duplex made famous in film of the D-Day landing of Canadians on Juno Beach in France.

In the late sixties, I dated a guy who worked as a bouncer at the "old" Drake Hotel.
In the late sixties, I dated a guy who worked as a bouncer at the “old” Drake Hotel, before it was trendy.

The refurbishment of industrial and warehouse space in former urban industrial neighbourhoods has resulted in community rebirths. Liberty Village in the King and Dufferin area of Toronto is a perfect example. When I lived a rented one-bedroom apartment in that neighbourhood in the late sixties the area was considered a tad unsavory. Flop houses and beer halls were common sights and nearby Parkdale had not yet achieved gentry status. One of my old boyfriends at that time worked as a bouncer at the original Drake Hotel on Queen Street West where a country and western band played in the main lounge and local beer drinkers could pass the time by entering through the “Men’s Entrance” at the side door. Today, The Drake Hotel is a popular landing spot and place to be seen for hip and happening artists and musicians.  A block west of The Drake is The Gladstone Hotel, another former watering hole that has been respectfully restored and reborn under the direction of the Zeidler family.

Industrial space beautifully reborn as a restaurant.
Abandoned industrial space beautifully reborn.

Building code requirements and labour costs often push the costs of renovating old buildings beyond that of new construction so deep pockets and a genuine appreciation for old architecture are required to make the financial and time commitment. But when it happens and it works, the result is glorious. Last year, when I visited Sirius Satellite radio’s studio in Liberty Village, I witnessed the rewards of this effort. I was interviewed about my book, BOOMERBROADcast on What She Said on Channel 167 by Christine Bentley and Kate Wheeler in a building that had formerly been a carpet manufacturing factory. The renovated office spaces were surrounded by similar old buildings that had been converted into residential, artists’ and commercial space that was a wonderful merging of living and work space.

It involves a lot of work and a lot of money but the results can be spectacular.
Renovations involve a lot of work, patience, skill and plenty of money but the results can be spectacular.

I recently stayed overnight in a beautifully restored farmhouse B&B near the town where I grew up. When the owners bought the house, it was derelict and occupied by an assortment of racoons, skunks, snakes, mice, rats and all kinds of creepy crawlies. The new owners gutted the interior to the studs and started over. Original doors were lovingly sanded, their hardware cleaned and restored and doors re-hung. Woodwork beyond repair was replicated by millworkers in Cobourg; floors were replaced; a new wrap-around veranda was built to replace the original that had been torn down years earlier and the home was generally re-built to twenty-first century building codes and standards with respect for the original design. Whenever I drive by deteriorating old Italianate or Victorian homes in small Ontario towns, I mourn what they once were and could be again if someone had the cash and the time to bring them back to life.

Boomers are getting similar retrofits with hip and knee replacements, injectable fillers, dental veneers and other cosmetic modifications aimed at making everything old seem like new again. Unfortunately we will never have the staying power with the patina and lasting beauty of old buildings enjoying a rebirth. But that doesn’t mean we should give up on old relics. With some TLC, a major infusion of cash and respect for the beauty that once was there, past beauties can still be appreciated.

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