Can’t Touch This!

Misunderstandings about alterations to designated historic resources

Now and again, I receive a call or a question from someone who appears to be under the impression that their Provincial or Municipal Historic Resource cannot be “altered” and that it must be “preserved” as is.  That is not entirely true.  Under Alberta’s Historical Resources Act, “no person shall destroy, disturb, alter, restore or repair any historic resource…without the written approval from the minister (Section 20-9)” if the site is a Provincial Historic Resource.  For Municipal Historic Resources, the written approval must come from “the council or a person appointed by the council for the purpose (Section 26-6).”  To obtain a written approval, the proposed alteration must be evaluated under the Standards and Guidelines for the Conservation of Historic Place in Canada.

The Standards and Guidelines is a pan-Canadian document that is used as a tool to evaluate and sometimes enforce certain principles in the conservation of our historic resources.  There are four major components to the document: the conservation decision-making process, the conservation treatments, the standards, and the guidelines – with each component going into more and more detail.  The most critical of these is the “conservation decision-making process”.  This process involves three stages that I like to refer to as the acronym U.P.I. (pronounced whoopee!) or Understanding, Planning, and Intervening.

The designation of a historic resource implies that we are trying to conserve it for future generations as part of our shared heritage.  Understanding why a designation was put in place is the first step in determining what can and can’t be touched.  This is summarised in a Statement of Significance (SoS).  Each designated historic resource has one.  If you do not know what the SoS for your designated building contains, you can search for it on the Alberta Register of Historic Places.

Planning is the most important part of any project and for historic resources it is critical in order to avoid mistakes and the potential damage or loss of heritage fabric – usually listed as character-defining elements within a SoS.  As a Heritage Conservation Adviser, it is part of my job to help you understand and plan (and subsequently recommend approvals for Provincial Historic Resources) for projects that will affect your historic resource before any intervening occurs.  When someone indicates to me that they will be going straight to an intervention (i.e. actual physical alteration to a historic resource) without any understanding or planning having taken place, I will tend to react like the guy in this video clip.

Ok, well maybe on the inside.  Suffice it to say, that intervening without understanding or planning is not recommended.  Although I did find the guy in the video’s treatment of the new homeowner’s lack of respect for their heritage building interesting – would you agree?!

Written by:  Carlo Laforge, Heritage Conservation Adviser.

SoS Review in Smoky Lake County

On February 9th, I had the opportunity to lead a workshop for the Smoky Lake Heritage Board as part of a Municipal Heritage Management Plan. The project is a unique collaboration between Smoky Lake County, the Town of Smoky Lake, the Village of Vilna and the Village of Waskatenau. The management plan is the culmination of a multi-year project that has surveyed and inventoried hundreds of sites.

Conservation work being completed on the Anderson House, a Municipal Historic Resource located in the Victoria District of Smoky Lake County (November 2011).

Smoky Lake is starting to think about how to protect and conserve their historic places. I spoke to board members about how to review Statements of Significance (SoS) to ensure they accurately reflect the values their community ascribes to a site. We then took a few hours to review some of the statements that they’re developing.

Although municipalities can (and do) hire consultants to do historical research into historic places and draft Statements of Significance based on their opinions, it’s up to a community to decide if they value a historic place and why. Heritage value is subjective: what one community may value another community may not; what one resident may value, another may not. Neither position is right or wrong. A properly trained board, whose membership is interested in local history and that represents the community’s residents is crucial to ensuring that the community’s heritage values are accurately identified and explained in the Statements of Significance for any designated historic resource. We used a SoS checklist developed by Municipal Heritage Services staff to help committees decide if a Statement of Significance properly reflects a community’s heritage values.

Municipal Heritage Services is available to give workshops for municipally appointed Heritage Advisory Bodies and municipal staff on a range of topics related to identification, evaluation and conservation of historic resources. Our Municipal Heritage Partnership Program (MHPP) can help your municipality plan a survey, to identify potential historic resources; an inventory, to evaluate potential historic resources for their significance and integrity; and then develop a management plan, to protect and conserve locally significant historic resources. If you would like further information about the services we offer, take a look at our website or contact Municipal Heritage Services staff.

Written by: Michael Thome, Municipal Heritage Services Officer

Need help understanding your historic place? Develop a SoS

Many municipalities are busily writing Statements of Significance (SoS) for their historic places. Listing Municipal Historic Resources and Provincial Historic Resources on the Alberta Register of Historic Places requires a SoS, but that’s hardly the best reason to write one. Statements of Significance are not online plaques, histories or even calls for help.

A properly written SoS explains why we value a particular historic place, linking these values to physical, character-defining elements that manifest those values. If you would like to see an example of a SoS just look at the entry for any Municipal Historic Resource or Provincial Historic Resource listed on the Alberta Register of Historic Places, such as the SoS for the D.U. Ranchlands Cabin.

A Statement of Significance explains where a historic place is located (a quarter section in the M.D. of Pincher Creek), what you will find at the site (a one-room log cabin) and the reasons why the community feels the place is significant. A SoS does not describe a place’s history (such as who built it), it explains why the community values the place (as an example of an early 1900 homesteader’s cabin). A SoS relates these values to physical elements that must be conserved (wood log construction). Removing these character-defining elements would undermine the place’s significance; without these elements, the site would no longer be a historic place.

Without understanding historic places–why each is valued and how each exhibits its values–nobody can objectively determine how proposed alterations will affect a historic place. Many historic places have been scarred by well intentioned “repairs” that didn’t take into account why it was significant. A Statement of Significance may not be a call for help, but these documents do help in planning for and managing the effective conservation of historic places. 

Written by: Michael Thome, Municipal Heritage Services Officer