Municipal Historic Resource designation refresher series: determining significance

Editor’s note: Welcome to the second post in a series of blog posts developed with municipalities in mind who either have or are considering undertaking Municipal Historic Resource designation. In this post, we will be discussing how to determine if a historic place is eligible for designation.You can read the first post here.

For more information, please review the “Creating a Future” manuals available here or contact Rebecca Goodenough, Manager, Historic Places Research and Designation at rebecca.goodenough@gov.ab.ca or 780-431-2309.


Written by: Dorothy Field, Heritage Survey Program Coordinator, Sandy Aumonier, Heritage Conservation Adviser and Allan Rowe, Historic Places Research Officer.


Determining significance

Typically, most folks agree that preserving significant historic resources in our province is important. While it is relatively easy to identify the ‘old’ stuff, how do you go about determining which historic resources are significant and should be considered for protection?

In order to be considered for protection as a Municipal Historic Resource (MHR), a site needs to:

  • be an eligible resource type
  • possess historical significance
  • have sufficient material integrity

If a site meets all three of these of these criteria, it can be considered for MHR designation.

What is significance?

Resources are significant when they represent an important aspect of the community’s history. This may be for aesthetic, historic, scientific, cultural, social or spiritual reasons. A resource that is significant within the spectrum of the municipality’s history and whose preservation is an integral component of its heritage, may qualify for designation as an MHR. A similar approach is taken when determining whether a historic resource can become a Provincial Historic Resource (PHR). The only difference is that a potential PHR is evaluated on province-wide significance rather than just community significance.

How to determine significance

There are five criteria use to determine if a historic resource has significance. A resource may be of significance for more than one of the criteria, but it only needs to be significant for one to merit consideration for designation.

Theme, activity, cultural practice, event

This applies where a resource can be associated with a theme, activity, cultural practice or event that has made a significant contribution to the broad pattern of municipal history.

engineers-house
Former Engineer’s House, Brooks. This ca. 1911 house represents the pivotal role of the Canadian Pacific Railway and its influence on the town and region, through the introduction of irrigation to the region. Source: Historic Resources Management Branch.

Institution, person

This requires a direct association of the resource with a significant institution or life of a significant person in the municipality’s past.

Alberta Government Telephones Exchange Building, Delburne. This standard plan building represents the role of the AGT in connecting people across Alberta, and fostering the development of the community.
Alberta Government Telephones Exchange Building, Delburne. This standard plan building represents the role of the AGT in connecting people across Alberta, and fostering the development of the community. Source: Historic Resources Management Branch.

Design, style, construction

This relates to significant style or type of architecture or method of construction and also includes associations with the work of masters or resources with high artistic value.

William Blakey Residence, Edmonton. This striking International Style home is significant for its design and for its association with the prominent local architect, William Blakey.
William Blakey Residence, Edmonton. This striking International Style home is significant for its design and for its association with the prominent local architect, William Blakey. Source: Historic Resources Management Branch.

Information potential

This relates to the ability for a resource to convey important information about the municipality’s history, prehistory or natural history.

Nose Hill Archaeological Resource, Calgary. Many archaeological resources across the hill are well documented, but other portions of the hill remain unexplored and undoubtedly have the potential to reveal much about the pre-contact use of the hill over the past 9,000 years.
Nose Hill Archaeological Resource, Calgary. Many archaeological resources across the hill are well documented, but other portions of the hill remain unexplored and undoubtedly have the potential to reveal much about the pre-contact use of the hill over the past 9,000 years. Source: Historic Resources Management Branch.

Landmark, symbolic value

This includes resources that are particularly prominent and/or have acquired special visual, sentimental or symbolic value within the municipality.

Holden Lutheran Church. The tall steeple of this church is visible throughout much of the community, where it is valued as a recognized and prominent landmark.
Holden Lutheran Church. The tall steeple of this church is visible throughout much of the community, where it is valued as a recognized and prominent landmark. Source: Historic Resources Management Branch.

Context

In order to help determine the relative significance of a historic resource, it is important to understand the context. To understand the context of a resource, you need to have knowledge of the period, historical themes and geographical area associated with the resource. Among other things, the social, political, economic, artistic, physical, architectural, philosophical or moral environment may need to be described. A written summary of the background information relating to the selected significance criteria serves as a context statement for a resource.

Assessing significance

A resource must be of significance within its established context to merit designation. Simple association with one or more of the significance criteria is not sufficient. The association must be important and it must be documented. For example, a building historically in commercial use must be shown to have been significant in Alberta’s commercial history. A resource is not eligible if its associations are speculative.

The evaluation of historic resources follows a method that is intended to be fair, clear and consistent. While all evaluations are necessarily subjective, this evaluation process has validity because it is transparent—all stages are thoroughly documented, and meaningful, it relies on historical research and is based on the heritage values associated with the resource.

Once it has been determined that a historic resource has municipal significance, a Statement of Significance should be written to capture the important historic characteristics of a place.

Editor’s note: Check RETROactive in the coming weeks for the next in our series on designation Municipal Historic Resources: writing a Statement of Significance. 

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