Municipal Historic Resource designation refresher series: character-defining elements

Editor’s note: Welcome to the fifth 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 continue to discuss Statements of Significance as the primary tool for summarizing the significance of designated historic places. You can read the previous 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 or 780-431-2309.

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

As previously mentioned, a Statement of Significance (SOS) is a one- to two-page summary document written as a clear, concise and brief narrative of a historic resource. It is written for a broad audience that is not familiar with the resource. The SOS has three sections: description of historic place, heritage values and character-defining elements.

An SOS is central to understanding a resource and any of its elements that might be protected and why.

If a historic resource is designated, the SOS will thereafter be an important planning and property management tool and essential for developing a conservation plan for ongoing management of the resource.

Character-defining elements

Character-defining elements (CDEs) are a listing of the physical materials, forms, location and spatial configurations that communicate the significance of a historic resource. These elements are important because they must be retained in order to preserve the resource’s heritage value.

Character-defining elements may be found in:

  • Style, massing, scale or composition
  • Features related to the function of the resource
  • Interior spatial configurations or exterior layout
  • Materials and craftsmanship
  • The relationship between the resource and its broader setting
  • Traditional activities that continue to occur at the resource
  • Features or materials that have direct bearing on important research themes

Character-defining elements do NOT include:

  • Features that do not contribute to the resource’s significance
  • Elements that have been removed or destroyed, or that were planned but never executed
  • Elements that have been reconstructed

How to Identify character-defining elements

Identification of CDEs should consider the following questions based on the applicable significance criteria (see previous post on determining significance here. (insert link

Theme, activity, cultural practice, event, institution, person

What are the features of the resource that made up its character or appearance during its period of association with the important theme, activity, cultural practice, event, institution or person?

For example, if a home is valued for its association with a significant artist, the CDEs may include the features that defined the house during the time the artist lived there (doors, windows, siding) as well as all the extant features of the artist’s studio – the key physical space associated with the artist’s work and significance.

A building valued for its association with an organization would have CDEs that reflect its appearance during its period of significance as well as features that embody the site’s association with that organization.

If the resource is a site with no material cultural remains (e.g. the location of a treaty signing), the CDEs are features that made up the environment during its period of association.

The Orange Hall (1903) is located in the Old Strathcona Provincial Historic Area. The building’s modest one-storey wood-frame construction is typical of Orange Halls across Alberta. Its CDEs include:

  • Scale, form and massing
  • wood balloon-frame construction
  • medium-pitched gable roof
  • drop siding exterior
  • timber window frames and sashes
  • original wood flooring
  • “Orange Hall” lettering above the main entrance and the building’s rear side
Orange Hall
Orange Hall in Edmonton’s Strathcona district, is associated with the Orange Order, a provincially-significant fraternal organization. Source: Historic Resources Management Branch.

Design, style, construction

What are the historic materials and details that originally distinguished the resource as an example of a particular design, style or construction technique?

For example, if a church is valued as a representative example of Ukrainian-Canadian religious architecture, the character-defining elements would include those design and construction elements associated with this architectural tradition.

The St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Church of St. Michael (1923) is an excellent example of Ukrainian Catholic architecture and its character-defining elements include:

  • Cruciform plan
  • cross-hipped gable roof
  • onion dome terminating in a metal ball with metal trefoil cross
  • smaller domes on the nave and sanctuary
  • interior configuration of nave, transepts and sanctuary
  • iconic and decorative elements

St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Church of St. Michael

Lamont Country was an area of heavy Ukrainian settlement in the early twentieth century. Source: Historic Resources Management Branch.

Information Potential

What are the important research questions that have been or may be able to be answered by investigating the resource? Some of these character-defining elements will be known, and others may reasonably be expected to exist.

For example, if an archaeological site is valued for its likelihood to yield significant information about settlement patterns of a prehistoric community, the character-defining elements might include a description of the characteristics of the site, although this might not be communicated to the public in order to protect the site’s integrity.

The Saamis Archaeological Site is located in Medicine Hat in the valley of Seven Persons Creek. Its character-defining elements include:

  • Excellent intact record of Late Prehistoric and Protohistoric Plains culture
  • association with a distinctive Plains landscape
  • abundant, well preserved cultural materials that represent a diversity of artifacts and bone remains
  • the presence of relatively rare European trade goods in upper terrace occupations
Saamis Archaeological Site
The Saamis Archaeological Site by Medicine Hat has been interpreted as a campsite that was intensively occupied repeatedly between A.D. 1390 and A.D. 1820. Source: Historic Resources Management Branch.

Landmark, symbolic value

What are the features that relate to the resource’s landmark status or its symbolic associations? These features may extend beyond the resource itself to include elements of the location and environment.

For example, if a grain elevator is valued as a local landmark, CDEs might include its distinctive form and its spatial proximity to a railway line.

The Alberta Wheat Pool Grain Elevator (1960) in Big Valley is an excellent example of modern elevator design and is valued in part for its landmark status as a striking visual presence on the skyline. Character-defining elements of this site include its:

  • Location along the former railway line at the eastern edge of the town site
  • position within the cultural landscape of Big Valley
  • vertical orientation of the elevator
  • beveled cedar siding
  • gable roof with gable-roofed cupula
Big Valley Grain Elevator
One of many ‘prairie cathedrals’ that dot our province. Source: Historic Resources Management Branch.

Why are haracter-defining elements important?

A historic resource will inevitably change over time. Since changes made to the historic place may add to or detract from the ability of a historic resource to communicate its heritage value, it is very important to know which of its features are essential to maintaining this ability. A list of CDEs that is derived from an understanding of a resource’s heritage value is the foundation upon which a conservation plan can be built. The only way the significance of a historic resource can be preserved is by recognizing and safeguarding the character-defining elements of that resource. A list of CDEs is a required part of a Statement of Significance, which is a prerequisite for designation in Alberta. Some municipalities include the list in their designating bylaw.

How to write a list of character-defining elements

A list of CDEs should answer the question: What features embody the heritage value of the resource? Also, be sure to:

  • Use point form and strike a balance between specific features and general characteristics;
  • Include only elements that are directly related to the resource’s heritage value(s);
  • Use headings to divide the elements into logical categories. For example:
    • If a historic resource has more than one heritage value or consists of more than one structure, use headings that relate to each value or structure;
    • If a historic resource is sufficiently complex, its character-defining elements can be listed under headings according to their location: exterior, interior, landscape or setting;

Finally, character-defining elements are not meant to be a comprehensive list of an historic place’s extant features. Rather, they are the elements that most strongly communicate a site’s significance and must be protected to conserve its heritage value. An historic place’s list of Character-Defining Elements should be concise and focused rather than an exhaustive catalogue

The next blog in this series will explain the purpose of and how to identify periods of significance to assist with understanding and managing the conservation of historic places.

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