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Heritage Preservation

by Pierre Berton

MHS Transactions, Series 3, Number 32, 1975-76 season

MHS Transactions were originally published by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make online versions available as a free, public service. As an historical document, Transactions may contain language that is no longer in common use and which may offend some readers. They should not be construed to represent the views of today’s Manitoba Historical Society.

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Mr. Premier, Mr. Chairman, fellow governors, ladies and gentlemen. First, let me thank Professor Thompson for that graphic introduction. I don't know that I've ever received an introduction quite that kind before. And I must tell the Premier that, though I'm sure that Farley Mowat is more prolific in a literary fashion than I am, he has two children, I have eight.

Now it's great to be here in Winnipeg. Although I do not know modern Winnipeg very well, I feel I know this city because I have some nodding acquaintance with historic Winnipeg. When I was doing my researches into the great adventure of the Pacific Railway I spent many, many months closeted with the Winnipeg newspapers of the '70s and the early '80s: the Manitoba Free Press, the Winnipeg Times and the Winnipeg Sun. I got these in the Toronto Library on microfilm and I'd go there in the morning and I'd work until the evening. It's really a curious experience to do that, because when you work through a newspaper of the time you begin to become part of that period. Then you emerge into the sunlight of the twentieth century, and there's a kind of culture shock. But the newspapers aren't all that different today, you know, tension in Europe, villainy in Ottawa, Yankee domination, crime in the streets. It's just about the same thing. But I do have a great interest historically in Winnipeg. So much of the West began here. This was the spot, and I don't have to tell members of the Manitoba Historical Society this, in which the CPR was telegraphed out from a single spot. Something that The Times of London, incidentally, said could not be done. They said you couldn't telescope a railway out from a single marshalling area. Van Horne said it could be done and it was done.

It's pleasant to see that a good deal of the 1880s, even the 1870s, is still with us in Winnipeg. It's sad to see that some of it has gone. It's sad to note that the Gerrie Block, which went back to 1880, is gone. Even sadder, I might use the word scandalous, to see that your City Hall, which was the most remarkable building I think I ever saw, has been demolished to make room for another building which is, I'm sure, more remarkable in a different way. I remember when I was at Maclean's magazine we commissioned an artist to paint the City Hall of Winnipeg as a cover because we thought it was a striking building even then. And it's sad to see that you have lost it. It's sad to see Market Square gone, and it's sad and salutary to note that a good deal more in that area is threatened.

We haven't in this country, until very recently, paid too much attention to our history. I absolve all of you for that, but the average person until recently hasn't really worried about the history of the country. It's probably because we are so close to it. I'm sure that most of the members of this historical society have known sometime in their lives people who were part of the beginnings of Winnipeg, so we really can, all of us, touch the past. I know I can: the history of the Klondike Gold Rush, which I wrote, was part and parcel of my past. I knew literally hundreds of people who were in it, including my father, and I didn't think as a boy, there was anything to it at all. I had to read, to direct my whole self to understand that it was history and interesting history at that.

When I was a newspaper man in Vancouver we used to run a feature, about once every two years, of a little building on the waterfront near the Marine Building called Spratt's Oilery, just a little shack. The reason we ran the feature was that this was the first building ever built in the City of Vancouver before the railway reached there. If you look at an old picture of Granville, or Gastown as they called it. you will see this little shack standing there and that was Spratt's Oilery. And in the postwar period in the 1940s, when I was a newspaperman, it was still there. It isn't there now! One day somebody came along and tore it down. And the terrible thing wasn't just that it was torn down; the terrible thing was that hardly anyone, including the newspapermen who had been writing about it. lifted a finger and said. "Just a moment. It may be an ugly little building, it may look like nothing, but damn it all, it was the first one. This is the beginning of Vancouver and we are destroying it."

We suffer, I fear, to this day from the cult of newness. It's a North American kind of cult. That everything must be brand new or it's no good. Those of us who have travelled to Europe know that that's not true. In 1965 I visited Hungary, of all places, with a friend of mine who was a Hungarian. I will never forget driving out of Budapest for about two hours and driving into a beautiful little town, crammed with buildings which belonged to the past - the 18th, the 17th, the 15th century, and my friend. George Fairis, said, "I can't believe it." I said, "What can't you believe?" He said, "These buildings!" and I said, "Well, it's nice they preserved them." He said, "No! This town was flattened during World War II by the Russians, by artillery fire. There was nothing here in 1945. I was here and look at it now!" They had rebuilt it from the plans of the past with the texture of the past because to them it was important. And this has happened. We sneer at the Iron Curtain and the satellite countries - it happened all through Poland, all through Eastern Europe.

In Amsterdam, where I was last summer, I was surprised and delighted to find that 10,000 houses, private homes along the canals, were preserved by government edict. The people who owned them weren't allowed to tear them down or change them in any way, at least the facades of them, because they were National Historic Sites. We get upset here if you change about four or five houses or bring in any kind of legislation. Ten thousand homes bordering the canals and if they weren't there nobody would go down those canals, except for business purposes, and they wouldn't have a tourist industry. Nor would they have much of a city.

Now, I'm not suggesting here, and nobody in Heritage Canada is suggesting, that we can save everything, that every building has to be preserved. It can't be! But I suggest to you that there are four areas which we ought to consider when we demolish or contemplate demolishing something that's part of our past and those areas are the area of waste, the area of texture, the area of history and the area of architecture. This is a commercial message which I bring to you tonight from Heritage Canada, because this is propaganda I'm giving you. although not for you because I'm preaching here to the converted. These are arguments I hope you will use when you go back to Winnipeg and the various towns you've come from to convince other people like yourselves or the local politicians that there's something in this business of heritage.

Let me take waste first. About fifteen years ago I remember being appalled and disbelieving when a businessman, in the business of putting up buildings, told me that modern buildings are built to last 30 years. That is the amortization period, maybe a little longer, a little less. After that, having been written off by the company that owns them, they can be torn down and replaced by another modern building. The waste involved in that staggers me. And I did not believe it then but I find it is happening; it's happening in my own city. The Toronto Star Building, which is an example of 1920 architecture and a perfectly sound building, has been torn down. The Globe Building, which is one of the best examples of '30s architecture in the City of Toronto, built in about 1937 or '8, was torn down the other day. Nobody protested very much because these buildings are very new. If we tear down every building after 30 years we will have no history at all. But it's not the history here that concerns me as much as the idea that all the man hours and all the energy that went into these and other buildings, perfectly good buildings that could be used, pleasant buildings to look at, wasted after 30 years. Ye gods! We just can't afford to tear down buildings every 30 years no matter whether they are amortized or not. If the real estate values, and this is what happened in the City of Toronto, are inflated so falsely that it becomes more practical to tear down a building than to keep it when it's in sound condition, there is something terribly wrong with our way of life, our society and our whole economic system. We're just, I think, beginning to understand that buildings which were built some years ago, can last for centuries. They're made of steel and concrete and impermeable material, and we're beginning to see this idea beginning to seep down and there's some pretty good examples of what's happening. The one that's usually quoted is, of course, what happened to the warehouse-wharf area in Vancouver, now called Gastown, which is economically and commercially viable. It was an area which 20 years ago nobody would have thought much of and would probably have razed for some other development. It's saved now and Vancouver is grateful for it.

This kind of recycling of areas, especially of historical areas, is going on all over the world. It's, as we know, going on in Yorkville and Toronto, in Montreal and the old Montreal area, in Chicago, about a mile of Chicago called Old Chicago. I was interested when I went to Tel Aviv in Israel to find that Jaffa, which is the old town of Tel Aviv, has an area just like Gastown, called Old Jaffa I believe. It's perhaps best expressed in this country in the City of Victoria, B.C. I happen to be rather partial to Victoria. I spent my teenage there after I left the Yukon but I never thought that those buildings were very much. In fact, as a kid I thought they were pretty stodgy and old fashioned. It's a delight to go back and see that somebody with an eye has looked at these buildings which we couldn't really see because of the grime and because our eyes weren't attuned to notice that if we clean them up a little bit and repaint them and bring out the features that they're delightful. The Government Street in Victoria is a delightful street to walk down. Bastion Square and Centennial Square and Trounce Alley and the new areas where they are recycling old buildings are not only charming but they're the salvation of Victoria as it depends to a very large extent on the tourist industry. I'm delighted to see that in Winnipeg this kind of thing is happening from time to time. Renovation of the Curry Building here is something I think you all ought to be very proud of.

Remember late in the '50s there was a phrase we all were glibly mouthing called urban renewal. And we young journalists - we always felt we knew everything used to write about urban renewal and you know what we meant by urban renewal. We meant that you go in and you just raze everything. You go into some so-called poor district in downtown Toronto or Philadelphia or somewhere and without a "bye your leave" or asking the people that lived there you'd announce that this is no good and you'd tear down all the buildings and you'd bring in the bulldozers and level everything flat. Then you'd put up new hideous brick structures like Jamestown or Regent Park in Toronto (it's got its counterpart everywhere) and you'd expect those people to be happy with that and expect the city to be happy. Well, of course, it didn't work. It didn't work in other cities and it hasn't worked here in Winnipeg.

Look at your old business district which is the subject of the study which we have helped to finance. A lot of buildings there go back to the very beginnings of this city, the 1880s and before. The Gerrie Block is gone, I think, hasn't it? Razed, replaced by civic structures. Everybody I'm sure, now agrees that the urban renewal in that area has not worked. It hasn't worked, because, first of all, it has destroyed irreplaceable heritage buildings that could have been cleaned up very cheaply and saved. It hasn't worked because it has destroyed a low income neighbourhood, forced people to move out and inconvenienced large numbers of people. It hasn't worked because it's undermined the city's commercial heart. It hasn't worked because the new buildings that have replaced the old ones have never been concerned with the total environment of that area. They are each concerned with their immediate sites and their immediate sites only. Little attempt is made to fit into the surroundings.

I saw the most dreadful site I've seen in Canada in your City. I don't know what the building is because I don't know Winnipeg that well. I saw a beautiful old classical building on one side of the road and on the other side of the road I saw a beautiful new modern building, and then! Joining one building to the other I see this glass tunnel. And I tell you ladies and gentlemen! I couldn't believe my eyes! They had poked this huge gargantuan phallic symbol right in the middle of this gorgeous classic edifice. I don't know, if they wanted to join them, why didn't they dig a tunnel under the ground? Anyway, for an awful lot less money and an awful lot less energy and man-hours we could be doing a better job in our cities than we're doing by tearing everything down and rebuilding.

Fortunately, in towns like Winnipeg it's not too late. There's lots of it left and we saw some of this in the old Market Square Area when we took our walk through there the day that we arrived. Some buildings are endangered. I urge you, if necessary, to march on the City Hall carrying your placards and not too many sticks of dynamite and prevent the desecration of this historic prairie capital. Because if everything is new, everything is dull.

I always like to tell my own personal conversion to the heritage movement which occurred in the City of West and East Berlin in 1961 just after the Wall went up. I was sent over there as a journalist to report on it. Berlin, of course, at that time was an exciting city because things were happening but I felt there was something wrong about Berlin and it took me several days to figure out what it was. Postwar Berlin has some exquisite pieces of architecture Mies Van der Roes, Gropius, Le Corbusier - I think they've all been there and done their job. Why then was I left with a feeling of hunger? I'll tell you - everything in Berlin, because it was levelled by the Russian artillery, was post World War II. The downtown of Berlin, practically every building, was brand new and therefore there was no texture of the past, no change of pace, no classical design, no Renaissance, no Gothic, nothing that we've become accustomed to in the great cities of Europe which gives you a feeling of time passing, a feeling of the heritage of the country. Everything was shiny and everything was flat like the city of Calgary today. The worst example I can think of.

Now, do you really want this? I don't in my city and I hope you don't want it in yours. In this area in which we are interested, you have various examples of various designs, some of them kooky but nonetheless interesting. You've got the Romanesque Revival, and you've got Italian Renaissance and Victorian Gothic and Neo Palladine and everything else. You'd better keep some of it and keep it grouped.

I find it intriguing that businessmen who put up the new buildings and tear down the old ones will pay almost any sum in their own homes to purchase antiques and paintings and so on, but they don't seem to give a damn about the antiques on the streets around the buildings they're putting up in the very area where they spend most of their time. All of us who are in any form of the professions or business, really we spend more time in the downtown area, in the office buildings and on the streets, than we do in our own home environment. Yet we fail to lavish the care on this second home than we do on what we call our home. But the city is our home. Until it has a lived-in look, a home has no texture and you can't give a city a lived-in look if you keep tearing it apart. You know what they say about New York City ... It'll be a great city once they get it finished.

Now let me talk about the history having talked about the texture. I see every city, or every great city, as a living history lesson. That's why the European cities are so interesting. Can you imagine Rome without the Forum, without the Coliseum, without St. Peter's, without the Piazza Navone, without the Trevi Fountain and so on. You couldn't. Suppose it was all levelled and new buildings. Who'd give a damn about Rome? Can you imagine anybody moving into Trafalgar Square, and buying it up and razing it and putting in a beautiful Trizec type of building. Of course, you can't, but we Canadians have this inferiority complex. We don't think of our cities as the Rome, or the London or the Paris of the future but, by George, they are, and one day if we do the job right, our children's children's children are going to be welcoming visitors from all over the world pointing to the Fort Garry Hotel. Maybe we didn't think much of it when it was built, but it's beginning to look pretty good, isn't it, after the Holiday Inn?

This is the richness of the past we need and the past is very close to us but sometimes, the past is going to be a long way away and we're going to be sorry. Not us, we're not going to be here, but somebody is going to damn the hell out of us for doing what we did. A city should tell something about the people who came before. And there are two kinds of history involved here. One is the obvious kind of history, the significant political history. Restoring John A. Macdonald's son's home, that's an obvious thing to do, and it's very well done. We were right to congratulate you all for having the good sense to do it. We don't generally tear down our most significant buildings. We're not going to tear down the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa. Some Westerners I know would like to have a go at that, but I think common sense will prevail. Although you tore down your City Hall, we almost did, we came within an inch of tearing down the City Hall of Toronto because everybody said it was ugly. It turns out to be one of the best Gothic buildings in North America. Victoria, B.C. kept its City Hall and integrated it with modern buildings. They did a wonderful job. But people you know are remarkably blind.

Let me tell you that 15 years ago in the City of Toronto they were going to tear down or move, if you can believe it, Old Fort York to make way for the Frederick G. Gardiner Expressway. Now when you think of that today, the mind just boggles because Old Fort York is to Toronto what Fort Garry, both Fort Garry's, are to Winnipeg. I mean, imagine if somebody wanted to put a gas station in front of your Fort Garry here, there'd be a hell of a row wouldn't there? Somebody jokingly said that was going to happen here but I simply don't believe it. But in Toronto Fort York goes back before Fort Garry, it's the oldest building in Toronto. Fort York is the most significant site in the City. It sits on what was once the lakefront and when you stand there you can look out and see how much land has been filled in to make room for more of Toronto. It has barracks as you have here in Lower Fort Garry (this beautiful Parks Canada enterprise which we visited this afternoon, the people dressed up to tell the tourists what it's all about). Archaeologists digging below the site can find all sorts of things because, of course, this was the scene of history. This is where General Pike, for whom Pike's Peak was named, was killed in the War of 1812 when the Americans almost took Toronto, and so on. Now can you imagine that the City of Toronto quite coldly considered trying to move Fort York? It's like moving Batoche, you know, or the Plains of Abraham. It was a nutty idea. And I have to tell you that though some of us fought the good fight to keep it, that wasn't the reason it was saved at all. It was discovered that it would be a million dollars cheaper not to put the Frederick G. Gardiner Expressway through Fort York, so it was saved by accident. I may say that it's one of the most commercially successful tourist attractions in the city today although I do not think myself that that should be the main reason for saving it.

So much for the obvious history but I must say that I think there is another kind of history and that is social history which is terribly important when you are trying to preserve the heritage of the past. Jails, I think, for instance, have to be preserved to some extent. We have just lost in my town a battle to save the 999 Queen Street West, a mental hospital, which was a remarkable piece of architecture and is really very much a part of our past.

Buildings can be uniquely historical for a variety of reasons. Heritage Canada visited Dawson City last year at this time. When I grew up in Dawson I didn't realize I grew up in a heritage town which it certainly is. Today everybody goes to Dawson and says, "This is a Heritage Town." I guess I thought it was a lousy little town which I wanted to get out of to go to the big city, where the shiny buildings were, but that was my own ignorance. Now I go back and see it through different eyes. We were driving through town on the bus and there was a man giving us a rundown on the historic buildings in Dawson, several of which are being saved, and he said for instance, here is an example of a little snug Yukon log cabin which is being saved as a reminder of the way people lived in the old days and then he turned to me and said "that was Ruby's place, you'd remember that!" Well, of course, everybody in Dawson remembered Ruby's place, if only vicariously. And it was certainly a significant example of a certain kind of institution which is also part of our past and I was delighted to learn that a much larger establishment down the street, known as Bombay Peggy's and which only closed its doors a few years ago, is also being preserved in Dawson City as a national historic site, as indeed it should be. This is part of our history too.

Back in 1962, the most interesting building that's been preserved in Dawson, renovated and rebuilt, has been the Palace Grand Theatre. There was a hell of a row in Parliament in 1961. The Liberal Party was out of power and the Conservative Party under John Diefenbaker was actually charged or blamed for building this and that. Several prominent Liberals got up and announced that the Conservative Government under John Diefenbaker was renovating a brothel in Dawson City. Now it's a tourist attraction. I may tell you that it was never a brothel. It was a dance hall. If certain assignations took place within those walls they were consummated outside them.

We have to preserve a little bit of everything: we have to show the brothels and the jails and the big homes, the homes of villains as well as the homes of the saints. One of the reasons given for tearing down the Van Horne House in Montreal, was that Van Horne was a man who was a union buster who paid his workers very little money. Well, of course, they were all union busters in those days, but so what? He was a significant historical figure. Ye gods! If we only preserved the homes of the saints there would only be about four buildings in Canada we could save! Damn few politicians would be preserved.

And we must save the railway stations, at least some of them. I hope you saved yours. Ah, beautiful buildings! But it's more than just that they are beautiful buildings. More than any other country in the world the railways were socially and historically significant. If nothing else, they tied the nation together as broadcasting does today and to knock them down, as has been suggested in every major city in this country would be a sacrilege akin to knocking down St. Peter's. These were the temples in which we worshipped in the 19th century and that's why they look like temples, most of them.

They were built like great temples. For the same reason that the Muscovites worship their subway stations, and hang chandeliers in them, we put murals in our railway stations. I think we've saved Union Station in Toronto. I don't know if Windsor Station's been saved. I think there's problems here with the C.N.R. Station at the end of that little street. It would be ghastly if it went. They tell us something about the kind of country this was and you cannot afford to tear them down.

Now there are architectural considerations and this is very difficult. Every time some group wants to wreck an old building, they say well, it isn't architecturally significant. What is architecturally significant? I am damned if I know and I don't think there are many architects that know, because architecture to a great degree is fashion. What looks good now may look terrible twenty years from now, nutty forty years from now, charming sixty years from now, and brilliantly beautiful a century from now. That's how fashion goes. There are, of course, examples of very great architecture in this country and they must be saved. I don't think this is the problem. Really, the problem is that we mustn't consider that there are unique immutable rules about architecture.

I used to think that the Toronto City Hall was ugly - that was the last one, the one they saved. I wanted to tear it down at one point, a dreadful old Gothic building. I was just dumb that's all. Now I look at the end of Bay Street next to the new City Hall and I am beginning to like it a little better than the one that won the $25,000.00 award. When I was a young reporter in Vancouver, I thought the Birks Building there was a pretty bad building, but it's unique. A building covered in white tile, unique for that city. It's gone! Ripped! You've got one like it here. I hope you keep it. The Mowat Building in Kingston, one of the finest limestone structures in Ontario was demolished a year ago by the Bank of Nova Scotia. And here, here you have the Empire Hotel. I took another look at it today. What a gorgeous piece of work it is, cast iron front, impressive building, indeed! I don't want to suggest that you all resign from the Great West Life if they tear it down but you might threaten to take a policy out with another insurance company, if they commit that kind of sacrilege. It's a kind of building that we want to remain as a link with the past and a kind of living history lesson. Are you going to keep it or is it to be replaced by faceless concrete? That's the question that you face here.

Cities are homes. Let me repeat that statement. When you first build a home, a brand new house and you enter it, possibly carrying your bride over the threshold, it has very little warmth because it isn't lived in. It hasn't what they call the lived-in look has it? It's only after many years that a home acquires a kind of an atmosphere, and the keepsakes and the souvenirs and the favorite chairs and the books that line the walls, begin to come in and everything in that house takes on a certain significance, and is warmed by the glow of the past. We wouldn't dream of destroying in our home the grandfather's clock in the hall. Or the easy chair that a favorite uncle always sat in which reminds us of him whenever we see it. Or the shelf of leather bound classics that we read as a child. Or the old photographs of days gone by that are on the wall. Or the trophies that we won as children or our grandfather or mother won when they were young, or their children have won. Or the scrapbooks or the mementos from foreign countries which we hang up, each of which tells a story. We wouldn't wreck that. The city is also our home. If we wouldn't do it in one home why would we continue to commit these acts of vandalism in the other. That is the question you have to answer. Thank you.

Page revised: 22 May 2010

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