The time has come for the Public History students to embark on our first major project of the year: the Heritage Designation project. Each of us is responsible for evaluating a property in either the Old South or Blackfriars/Petersville areas and deciding whether or not it merits designation.
Part 1: Methods and Myths of Heritage Designation
Successfully assessing a property requires some detective work. It’s not enough to say that a house is old; we need to make a case for its historical/associative, design/physical, and/or contextual value. The methods that we need to use are slightly different from property to property.
For my house, I started by looking at London fire insurance plans. My building is in Old South, in the district called Wortley Village. The initial information I was given said the house was built in 1929. However, I made an exciting discovery when I noticed its appearance on fire insurance maps from February 1912. Although the 1912 map has revisions from 1922, my address doesn’t appear to be a part of the 1922 revisions. It is officially more than 100 years old!
Yesterday I drove down to Wortley Village to see the neighbourhood for myself. My house seems to have acquired a few new outbuildings, but other than that it hasn’t changed much. It has a pretty front porch and a small gable, but it doesn’t seem to exhibit as much of the Tudor Revival architecture that characterizes other homes in the area. In order to find out more I will look to other resources like assessment rolls, city directories, local histories. My house happens to be for sale at the moment, so I plan to consult the realtor’s website for information as well.
What is the point of evaluating these houses? In a word: protection. Heritage designation prevents the destruction of houses that are crucial to the character of London districts. Simply being listed in the inventory of houses being considered for designation is enough to delay the demolition process. To a historian, this sounds great, but not everyone is so enthusiastic about the possibility of their property being designated. I have noticed a lot of anger and controversy surrounding this topic on the comments sections of municipal websites. However, I believe that some of this controversy could be cleared up when we dispel the myths about heritage designation. I know I learned a lot when our group of M.A. students got to meet with representatives from the London Advisory Committee on Heritage (LACH) and the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario (ACO).
The most important thing I learned at this meeting was that heritage designation does not prohibit homeowners from making any changes to their property. Homeowners are still perfectly able to make changes to the interiors of their houses. Exterior changes are also allowed, so long as the street appeal of the house is not altered. New businesses and homes being built in such districts don’t need to have the exact specifications of their next-door-neighbours, as long as the design complements their surroundings. The real concern for heritage advocates is that the historic districts of London maintain an integrity of character. I think this is something that all London homeowners can understand and support. When major changes happen in your district and out-of-character complexes start crowding out your streets, the importance of heritage designation is easier to understand – which is exactly the case for many of the residents in Blackfriars and Petersville.