Restoration of the Taber Courthouse

Editor’s note: If you’re interested in other restoration projects by the government’s Heritage Conservation Advisers, read about the conservation of Circle L Ranch.

Written by: Fraser Shaw, Heritage Conservation Adviser

Designated a Provincial Historic Resource in 2013, the Taber Courthouse presides over a quiet park just off Taber’s main street. The building’s stately arched entryway speaks to its historic importance as one of Alberta’s first “sub-jurisdiction” courthouses, a system of provincial justice administration introduced at the time.

Built in 1918, Assistant Provincial Architect J.B. Allan developed the courthouse design and noted Provincial Architect Richard P. Blakey subsequently revised it. Blakey’s eclectic mix of Edwardian, Classical Revival and Spanish Colonial Revival elements eventually became an architectural prototype for other courthouses of the period. Examples of Blakey’s work that are still intact include the Blairmore Courthouse in the Crowsnest Pass and the Medicine Hat Courthouse. Both of these buildings are Provincial Historic Resources.

Read more

“Isn’t it good, Norwegian Wood?”

So, a colleague of mine here in the Historic Resources Management Branch recently returned from a course on wood conservation in Oslo, Norway.

While he didn’t find out why John Lennon lit a former lover’s house on fire as the song strangely suggests, he did attend the 2018 International Course on Wood Conservation Technology (ICWCT). A biennial course that gathers academics, professors and scientists from around the world (including two from Canada) to deliver lectures, ICWCT also combines this with field work and theory centered on the practice of wood conservation.

The Borgund Stave Church in Lærdalen, Norway was built just before 1150. From the Middle Ages up until the beginning of the twentieth century the use of pine tar was restricted to the protection of churches, since it was both time-consuming  and expensive to produce. This goes a long way towards explaining why outdoor woodwork on the stave churches from the twelfth century which has been protected with pine tar is preserved in an excellent condition. Norwegian church accounts reveal that the local farmers and villagers were obliged to apply fresh tar to the external walls of the stave churches at ten yearly intervals*. Photo by: AzaToth

Heritage Conservation Technologist Evan Oxland went to Norway to learn more about technical and theoretical aspects of wood conservation, as well as what other contemporary international approaches there are out there. He was the only Read more

Another Log in the Wall: Preserving Historic Timber Architecture in Alberta

The uncoated timber Slemko Barn at the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village, a variety of building components representing different species, thickness of section, and orientation of wood grain. Source: Evan Oxland, 2017

“Sustainability is not possible without durability […] Once constructed a building becomes a machine that ‘needs to be fed’.” -Joseph Lstiburek, 2006

In Alberta, there are hundreds of thousands of square feet of raw uncoated timber used in historic architecture, including farmhouses at the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village and log churches at Historic Dunvegan. Penetrating oils and wood coatings help prevent the primary causes of wood deterioration, but when these historic structures must be preserved in perpetuity, how do you assure the building material will last when it was originally built to make it through only a decade or two?

This is where Alberta Culture and Tourism’s Conservation and Construction Services comes in. Read more

Dealing with Graffiti at Historic Places

Historic places are unfortunately fair game for graffiti attacks – sometimes especially so when these places are visible and widely recognized landmarks. Defined as writing or drawings scribbled, scratched, or painted illicitly onto walls and other surfaces, graffiti from a heritage conservation perspective is an intervention to be removed or reversed. It clearly differs from old markings that are an acknowledged and legitimate part, or “character-defining element”, of a historic place. Examples of the latter are prisoners’ inscriptions etched into the basement cell walls of the Cardston Courthouse or, on the opposite side of the law, North West Mounted Police members’ initials carved into the sandstone outcrops overlooking Police Coulee at Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park. These special cases contribute to heritage value rather than obscure or detract from it. Read more

Historic Burial near Viking, Alberta: A story of excavation, ceremony and community

In late August 2015, Brian Rozmahel, a farmer near the Town of Viking, was working in one of his fields. He recently experienced problems with gophers causing damage to his crops and decided to set up several traps as a preventative measure. One morning he went out to check the traps he set the day before and discovered something he was not expecting to find. A badger got to the site overnight and dug into the gopher burrows. Quite a bit of earth was brought up through the badger’s digging. However, there was more than just earth that was surfaced by the badger. Resting on the ground near the burrows were human remains and other items such as buttons and beads.

When Brian encountered the remains he immediately contacted the Viking Detachment of the RCMP. The RCMP cordoned off the site and did an initial investigation of the area. In the meantime, the exposed human remains were sent to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME) for further analysis.

In consultation with forensic anthropologist, Pamela Mayne-Correia, the OCME concluded that the human remains were historic in nature and were likely of a young Aboriginal individual. The RCMP deemed the situation to not be criminal and the Historic Resources Management Branch (HRMB) was then contacted by the OCME. As the remains were considered historic, the HRMB now had jurisdiction over the site. Read more

Okotoks Big Rock – Managing Vandalism with Technology

The word ‘Okotoks’ translates from the Blackfoot language as ‘Big Rock.’ The name was given by the resident indigenous people to a very large boulder that is known as a glacial erratic – boulders that have been moved from their original location by glacial ice. Okotoks is by far the largest erratic in Alberta; it is about the size of a two-story house and is estimated to weigh nearly seven million kilograms. The Big Rock is a well-known landmark in southern Alberta. It is a designated provincial historic resource owned by the Government of Alberta, and is accessible to the public by means of a hiking trail, signage and a parking lot. What is not well-known is that the Okotoks Big Rock has a great deal of Aboriginal rock art painted on its surfaces.

Okotoks Big Rock Erratic
Okotoks Big Rock Erratic

Rock art includes pictographs (paintings) made with a red paint composed of iron-rich hematite (red ochre). The existence of a few red ochre images on the Big Rock has been known for decades, but the revolution in digital photography and image enhancement has brought to light a whole lot more art on the Okotoks erratic than previously known. Specifically, we now know that some areas of the rocks were extensively rubbed with red ochre. Since these red areas lack definable rock art figures like humans and animals, it was long believed that the red blotches were simply part of the rocks’ natural colour. Through enhancement we can now pick out hand prints and finger swipes, telling us these red blotches were indeed made by human beings.

Rock art at Okotoks Big Rock
Rock art at Okotoks Big Rock
Photo-enhanced areas of red ochre smeared on Okotoks Erratic. Note hand prints at top.
Photo-enhanced areas of red ochre smeared on Okotoks Erratic. Note hand prints at top.

All rock art sites are sacred to Native people; rock art represents communication between human beings and the spirit world. Blackfoot people still visit the Okotoks site, conduct ceremonies, and hold the site in great reverence. Thus, it is all the more sad and frustrating that the Okotoks erratic has been subjected to extensive and increasingly frequent bouts of vandalism. As the site is operated by the province and is open to the public, there comes a point where some action needs to be taken. It is an eyesore, an embarrassment and severely disrespectful to the Blackfoot beliefs about the sacred character of the rock. But what can be done with a massive rock surface covered with graffiti that underneath lies fragile, precious painted pictures that tell stories of ancient Aboriginal people?

In the past few years, serious incidences of graffiti were washed off the rock face using a high pressure water sprayer. More recently, an environmentally friendly paint stripper had been used with good success. But critical to any graffiti removal has been potential impact to underlying rock art. We realized that we could never properly manage the site until we had a high-quality “map” of the rocks that plots the complex rock structure and the locations of all the rock art images. We realized that the best way to make a physical record of the Big Rock was to record it in 3D using a portable laser scanner. While documentation won’t stop vandalism at Okotoks, it will make us much better prepared to deal with future instances in a way that protects significant historical resources.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

A partnership with the internationally respected organization CyArk was formed. CyArk is a nonprofit organization dedicated to digital recording and preservation of the world’s most significant sites. Among their credits are 3D recordings of the statues of Easter Island, Pompeii, ancient Thebes, and Mt. Rushmore. CyArk also digitally stores the 3D information for each site, serving as a world archive of heritage data. CyArk retained a local service provider to assist with the equipment and expertise to conduct the laser scanning. In early October 2013 the entire external surface of the Okotoks Big Rock, including the tops of the rocks and some internal crevices, was scanned during two days of field work. The result is a strikingly accurate rendering of the Okotoks erratic in both its geometric shape and the plotting of all known rock art images. The project also resulted in production of an accurate 1:200 scale model of the Rock that will be useful for planning and educational purposes.

3D rendering of point cloud data from laser scan at Okotoks with enhanced photography overlaid. Red areas are red ochre paint; note square-bodied human figure at upper left.
3D rendering of point cloud data from laser scan at Okotoks with enhanced photography overlaid. Red areas are red ochre paint; note square-bodied human figure at upper left.

In addition to the rendering and scale model, the project also raised awareness about negative impacts associated with graffiti and heightening understanding of the value and importance of historic resources to the community. Further Alberta Culture now has a sophisticated tool to use for site management.

Alireza Farrokhi holding 1:200 scale model of the Big Rock
Alireza Farrokhi holding 1:200 scale model of the Big Rock

Sadly, the rocks have already been subjected to more graffiti in the months since our project ended; however, we now have accurate information on the type and location of rock art that will assist in graffiti removal efforts. There are other threats to the cultural and natural significance of the Okotoks erratic. It has long been a favoured place for climbers, subdivisions are rapidly encroaching on the site, and public visitation is increasing. There are many challenges ahead in the long-term management of the Big Rock, but thanks to the careful recording conducted through Innovation Program funding we have a solid baseline of information about this very special place that will guide future management.

Written by: Jack Brink, Curator, Royal Alberta Museum and Alireza Farrokhi, Head of Conservation and Construction Services, Historic Places Stewardship


Creative Problem Solving Delights Head of Conservation and Construction Services

Alireza Farrokhi at the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump during the 25th anniversary celebration in July 2012.
Alireza Farrokhi at the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump during the 25th anniversary celebration in July 2012.

Alireza Farrokhi, Head of Conservation and Construction Services in the Historic Resources Management Branch, describes his work this way: “My unit is the operational arm of our branch. Other program areas protect historic resources and promote heritage conservation by designation, research, and advisory services to municipalities and private property owners; they tell how heritage conservation should be done. We are the group that does it.” Like other program areas, Conservation and Construction Services follows Standards and Guidelines for the Conservation of Historic Places in Canada closely.

Stewards of Provincially Owned Historic Resources

Conservation and Construction Services is responsible for “the heritage conservation, maintenance, and environmental management at all designated Provincial Historic Resources that are owned by the province.” That includes more than 50 restored historic structures, 14 operating historic sites, and 70 “mothballed” (vacant but stabilized) historic structures located at five sites not currently in use. The unit also collaborates with other government ministries—such as Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resources Development; Alberta Tourism, Parks and Recreation; and Alberta Infrastructure (the property manager for all government-owned buildings)—if heritage conservation work is required as part of a larger project.

The seven-member unit (which includes three Heritage Conservation Technologists, a Restoration Foreman, and two Restoration Craftsmen) is currently working on numerous projects throughout the province. Staff members once covered specific geographic areas, but are now more likely to be assigned projects based on their expertise. Members of the unit make up the crew for smaller projects. Larger ones are contracted out, with unit staff overseeing the project planning and management.

Restoring and Conserving

The unit’s ongoing workload ranges from conducting multiyear, multistructure restoration projects to addressing specific conservation problems, including some “that come out of the blue.” One staff member works full time at the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village, east of Edmonton, restoring buildings one by one. Another has been restoring the log structures at the Perrenoud Homestead near Cochrane. Members of the unit have also worked recently at the Rutherford House in Edmonton, the Stephansson House near Markerville, and Victoria Settlement near Smokey Lake.

Two images contrasting the Hewko House at the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village before and after its restoration.
Hewko House restoration at Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village: before (2008) and, after (2009)
Images showing different aspects of the St. Charles Mission re-roofing at Historic Dunvegan.
St. Charles Mission re-roofing at Historic Dunvegan

Heritage and Environmental Conservation

Alireza’s current projects involve restoring “environmentally challenged” industrial sites. He and a colleague are currently working at three that were critical to Alberta’s history: Turner Valley Gas Works, Alberta’s first natural gas plant and a key player in the creation of the province’s oil and gas industry; Greenhill Mine Complex, a historic coal-mining operation in the Crowsnest Pass; and the Bitumount Site north of Fort McMurray, the birthplace of oil sands extraction technology.

an image contrasting a scale model of the sulphur plant with the plant itself
Scale model of the sulphur plant at Turner Valley Gas Plant (top) and the genuine article (bottom)

“Back then, their focus was solely on energy extraction. They were not really concerned about the environment,” he says. “But now these are areas that we need to clean up with heritage conservation considerations, so we can’t just dig out the dirt and take it away.” Older structures and equipment must be rescued and stabilized; working in sections, contaminated soil and water must be removed, contained, and treated; nearby waterways must be monitored to verify that groundwater and surface run-off is now clean.

Other historic sites under the unit’s care often require environmental remediation as well, especially removal of asbestos and lead paint.

Regular Maintenance: Conservation at its Best

Conservation and Construction Services is also responsible for regular maintenance (as part of the heritage conservation process) at the sites under its care. To help with that, the unit is developing a maintenance manual for each historic structure. The manual will compile, for easy reference, all records of previous work conducted, related reports, cyclical maintenance requirements, and specific concerns to monitor “so we’re not caught off-guard.”

Alireza loves the challenge and creativity of heritage conservation work. “If a job is not challenging, it’s not interesting,” he says.

Modern buildings tend to develop predictable problems that have known solutions, he explains. But with heritage buildings, “the problems that we deal with don’t necessarily have known solutions. You have to come up with innovative ways of dealing with problems. I love that! It opens up the discussion. There are no right or wrong answers.” For every project, “you always consider the construction technology, what kinds of materials are used, why this is happening, and how you can resolve the issue without impacting the heritage fabric and values.”

An example is recent work at the Rutherford House, an interpreted site on the University of Alberta campus. The sun porch is used as part of the restaurant. Air leaked in through its windows, making the space hard to heat, and water condensation was rotting the wooden window frames and sashes. It was decided to add unobtrusive storm windows where none had existed before. That involved “coming up with different details, experimenting, discussing with our contractor what’s possible and what’s not, and monitoring the work along the way, experimenting to see if it works.” Now the heating and condensation problems are solved and the staff is “very happy,” Alireza says. And, “it would be very hard for you to pick out where the storm window is because it blends into the historic window as if it’s not there.”Images Showing the Rutherford House Sunporch before and after storm windows were added.

From Iran to Canada

Alireza started his career as a civil engineer in his home country of Iran, doing project management for the construction of large-scale industrial and high-rise buildings. His eyes were opened to heritage conservation work when the firm that employed him was building the subway system in historic areas of Tehran. The discussions about the heritage fabric encountered there were like “poetry,” he recalls.

Alireza earned a master’s degree in heritage conservation in Tehran, then he cofounded a private company specializing in heritage conservation—a risky business venture in a country where almost all conservation work is done by the government. The company grew into one of the largest of its kind in Iran.

His company helped with stabilization of heritage structures of the 2500-year-old Bam Citadel, which was damaged in a devastating earthquake in 2003 in which some 43,000 people lost their lives. While doing that work, Alireza questioned why, at the same time that thousands of displaced people lacked basic necessities, conservation professionals were routinely advocating the use of the most advanced and expensive documentation techniques instead of less costly ones (laser scanning rather than study of years of existing aerial photographs.

That led him to the University of Calgary’s doctoral program in Environmental Design, to explore how and why professionals in heritage conservation (and potentially in other fields as well) choose which documentation technology to use. Alireza joined the Historic Resources Management Branch as a Restoration Officer in October 2011, and has been in his current position since July 2013, while also completing his dissertation.

After working on ancient monuments and sites in Iran, doesn’t Alberta’s heritage seem rather modest by comparison? Not at all, Alireza insists! “It comes down to a question of values—what you value. Heritage is heritage, regardless of how old a particular structure is. It brings people together, it creates a sense of community, and those are the important factors.

“And the conservation approaches are similar all across the board. For sure, some techniques are different, but the overall approaches are the same, so whatever you do in one part of the world could be adapted for anywhere else.”

Written by: Kerri Rubman.

Paint Analysis for Historic Buildings

Hey, that’s a neat old building. I wonder what it looked like new?”

Gathering paint samples for analysis
Gathering samples for analysis

I recently had the good fortune of attending a course at the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training in Natchitoches, Louisiana on paint analysis for historic buildings. The Town of Natchitoches is in northern Louisiana and is situated around historic cotton plantations. The movie “Steel Magnolias” was filmed in Natchitoches during the late 1980’s.

The course, Paint Analysis for Historic Buildings, was taught by David Arbogast. Mr. Arbogast is a renowned architectural conservator and paint specialist from Davenport, Iowa. During three intensive days we learned a great deal about the history of applied finishes (paints, stains, and clear coatings), architectural paint chemistry, the proper technique to restore deteriorated window mechanisms, how to collect field samples and analyze them in a laboratory and how to write up the findings.

Analyzing a paint sample to identify the paint layers and colours
Analyzing a sample to identify layers  and colours

During the second day, we collected 43 paint samples from the nearby Old Courthouse Museum. Most of our samples were smaller than the diameter of a pencil—more than enough for laboratory analysis. Using an optical stereo microscope, we examined each one. From these tiny specimens we were able to determine the number of layers of coatings applied to a particular area, and the colour of each layer. Observing the microscopic lines of atmospheric deposits (mostly soot and dirt) we established how frequently the building was painted. We documented each colour identified according to the Munsell System of Colour, a standardised colour palette book that does not change with time and fashion. It was amazing to see that such tiny samples could offer so much information about how a building evolved over its life.

It was a very intensive three days, but what I learned will be invaluable to my work as an architectural conservator or to anyone interested in knowing the evolution of coatings and colours used on their historic building.

Written by: Jim Nakonechny, Senior Restoration Officer