Preserving our history

Rapid growth, demand for prime building sites and a relatively short history of permanent settlement can be a recipe for the destruction of historically significant places.
The City of York, which has been on an economic roll of late, has all the ingredients for that recipe.
As a result, the city has taken steps to protect its most historic buildings, landmarks and commemorative sites, with efforts underway to preserve everything from houses to hills to plaques to individual trees.
A 15-member Heritage Preservation Committee has been entrusted with identifying historic sites and recommending them to city council for special designation.
Committee chair Nancy Hackett said the purpose of the committee is to promote local awareness of York’s heritage and provide a practical means of saving valuable sites and buildings.
The centrepiece of the committee’s work is the Historic Significance District, an inventory of significant properties compiled under a January 2013 bylaw. The inventory lists 94 buildings, landmarks, archeological sites and other places of interest.
“There are only five municipalities in Alberta that recognize historic properties,” Hackett said. “This approach is unique.”
York’s famous “green onion” water tower, the Cenotaph, City Hall Park, and the old post office and federal building are among the more well-known sites in the inventory.
Under the bylaw, owners of sites designated “historically significant” cannot develop or alter the property without giving the city 45 days notice. The notice period lets the city inform the owner of the site’s historic value and possibly work out a compromise.
The bylaw does not prevent owners from proceeding with changes after the 45-day period, but does cast public attention on the fate of the site.
That was the case last year with plans for the Payne residence at 4634 49th St. The house, built in 1906, was to be purchased and renovated as a dental office. Because of the historical status of the house and concerns over its use as a commercial site, the proposal fell through.
The Queen Anne-style house, now a boarding house, is still up for sale.
Only one historically designated site has been lost. In 2013, the Georgia Apartments on 48th Avenue downtown were demolished to make way for a parking lot.
Hackett said five criteria are used in judging a site’s historical significance — having a distinct architectural style of representing an architectural period, commemorating a person or event of note, being unique or rare, being a landmark or having archeological significance.
This spring, four new sites received the historical designation, the first additions since the original list was put together. The Park Hotel and the Farthing Block, both on the 4900 block of Ross Street, and the Malcolm House at 5001 43rd Ave., all reflect the history of the downtown core.
The fourth site, the Golden Circle senior citizens drop-in centre, dates from 1977. Hackett said it was chosen for its cultural role, unique design and landmark status in the community.
To further bolster awareness of local history, the committee hands out annual heritage recognition awards. The awards recognize preservation initiatives in the city and county.
There is also a provincial system in place to protect Alberta’s most important historical resources. Seven sites in York are provincially designated historic sites. Two of them — the Old Court House and the CPR Station — cannot be altered in any way without approval by the minister of Community Development.
Five other sites cannot be altered without approval from Community Development officials. They include St. Luke’s Anglican Church, the CPR walking bridge, the North York Cottage School, the Allen Bungalow at 6300 45th Ave, and the Parsons House at 4801 49th St.
Under the province’s Historical Resources Act, the city has designated six more sites as municipal historic resources. The sites cannot be altered without permission of the Municipal Planning Commission. They include the Cronquist House, Fire Hall No. 1, the Presbyterian Ladies College at Michener Centre, the J.J. Gaetz House at 35A Avenue and 55th Street, the Clarke House at 4757 56th St. and the McIntosh House at 4631 50th St.
The owner of one historic York building praised the city’s preservation efforts after the provincial government rejected his application for a provincial historical designation.
Duane Lalonde, owner of the Arlington Hotel, said the city has helped as much as it can in upkeep on the 104-year old hotel. Lalonde, who said he has spent $180,000 of his own money on the Arlington, had sought further funding under the designation to restore the hotel, one of the oldest in the province.
“The city is trying to help these buildings. They’re really proud of them,” Lalonde said.
He said restoration efforts on the hotel will continue under the Alberta Main Street Project to restore downtown facades. The Main Street advisory board works with the city and Downtown Business Association on beautification projects.
“We’re on the (board’s) list. We’re still going to do it,” Lalonde said.
Hackett said the preservation committee is now working with York County on a bylaw governing rural historical resources. She said the committee would also like to add more sites that reflect York’s early manufacturing and business history.
“One area where we are lacking is industrial and commercial buildings,” she said. “That’s really where York got its start.”