As Manager of the Historic Places Research and Designation Program, one of Brenda Manweiler’s primary responsibilities is the Provincial Historic Resources Designation Program. The goal of the Provincial Historic Resources Designation Program is to identify, evaluate, and designate those historic resources that are most significant to the province as a whole. Currently there are some 360 sites protected as Provincial Historic Resources in Alberta, with several more added every year.
The designation program is almost entirely driven by citizen input. Applications for provincial designation come from the public, usually the property owner but sometimes also from other individuals or groups concerned about the long-term future of a resource.
Once a resource is designated, its owner cannot destroy, disturb, alter, restore, or repair it without written approval from the provincial government. But the owner gains tangible benefits, including access to conservation grants and technical advice, and the intangible benefit of knowing that a valued property will be preserved and protected into the future.
Brenda feels these citizen advocates could take even greater advantage of the Provincial Historic Resources Designation Program if they better understood the designation criteria. Here are some key things she’d like people to know:
A property doesn’t have to be grand or architecturally detailed, nor associated with some famous person to be designated. It doesn’t even have to be a building.
Brenda notes: “The general public seems to have such a defined idea of what a historic place can be. They’re thinking of homes, commercial buildings, churches, schools.” But the Alberta Register of Historic Places also includes gardens, such as the Reader Rock Garden in Calgary; buried resources such as Balzac Archaeological Site; a radar station located in Cold Lake; a steam locomotive in Settler—even a Meteorite Impact Crater, in Whitecourt.
“I would love to see more of these unique historic places,” she says. “One of the gaps that we have in our family of historic resources is sports and leisure sites,” she continues. “Canada is such a hockey country; Alberta is such a hockey province. Where’s an ice rink? Where’s the baseball field? I’d love to designate some sites that help to celebrate Alberta’s strong history in athletic pursuits.”
Provincial designation isn’t better than municipal designation, just different.
Brenda explains: “Provincial significance is determined by looking through a pretty big lens. Is this site significant to all Albertans? Has the site helped shape the province into what it is today? Municipal designations have a narrower scope, a local lens to look through to determine significance.” But a municipally designated site can be just as significant as a provincial one—often even more so—within its own community context. Both levels of designation offer the same form of protection: the resources cannot be altered without approval from the designating authority.
She continues: “We have a variety of sites throughout the province that have been designated as both Municipal and Provincial Historic Resources. People might think that’s just duplication, so why bother? But I think it’s important to note the perspective that we come at it from. A provincial point of view is going to be lot different than a local perspective, so a site could end up being designated under both categories for different reasons.”
An example is Calgary City Hall, which is designated by the federal, provincial, and municipal governments. Both the provincial and municipal designations recognize the building’s significance as Calgary’s seat of government, and as an excellent example of Richardsonian Romanesque architecture. But the municipal designation also notes that it is “the earliest known example of steel-frame construction in Calgary” and that it was designed by a prominent Calgary-based architect.
Designation is not just about the sites and structures; it’s also about people and how they’ve used these places.
The most modest or ordinary place could be where a remarkable person lived or worked, or where some once-crucial, unusual, or game-changing human activity took place—and that’s what makes the site historically significant.
One of Brenda’s favourite examples is the Owen Residence/Dominion Meteorological Station in Edmonton. Inside this ordinary American four-square dwelling was “arguably the most significant meteorological post outside of Toronto” (according to the Statement of Significance). Even more remarkable, it was operated by “Weather Lady” Eda Owen, one of the few female meteorologists in the world working at a major station.
Another very modest but significant place is the Community Rest Room in Ponoka. When farm families came into town to conduct business, men could congregate in their choice of hotels, bars, and pool halls. This facility provided a much-needed retreat for women and children, offering not only toilets and showers but also a safe and social meeting place—and even a venue for political organizing.
“So much of the significance associated with Provincial Historic Resources comes down to the unique stories—the events, people, and places that have helped to make Alberta what it is today,” Brenda says.
Written by: Kerri Rubman.