The County has a special list of 226 buildings deemed to be of special historic, architectural, and aesthetic value. It’s a bit of a distinction to be on the list. Such places have names. The Waring House. The Armoury. The Claramount, still standing at the center of Port Picton. Listed buildings dot the County. The Little Stone Jug – Ketchum House on County Road 18. The Outlet Log Cabin. The Salmon Point Lighthouse. Knox’s Store on County Road 10.
The new Gazette offices at 100 Main, we have just discovered, are in a listed building, the George MacDonald House. No relation to the McDonalds across the street.
Listed properties are just that. They are not actually designated under the Ontario Heritage Act. Being listed means you cannot demolish your property without giving 60 days’ notice of your intentions. That is pretty much all it means.
Designated properties, on the other hand, are official heritage structures. They are fairly rare in the County, considering its extensive inventory of historic homes, barns, churches, town halls, cemeteries, hotels, museums, libraries, and other meeting places, which together create what can be called nothing less than a splendidly preserved architectural heritage. The County is rich in a historical vernacular most of us take utterly for granted. Its architecture tells us of the sheer hard work of the early Loyalist settlers, as well as of the lives of those who were here before and alongside them, in frame houses and meeting places. Yet fewer than 100 of these properties are designated.
Picton has a good number. The Regent. The Picton Branch Library. Merrill House. There are a handful in Wellington — the Historical Museum, the Town Hall (and former school.) In Bloomfield, the whole Saylor Block is designated, but not much else.
Designating our rich historical inventory might be an underused tool. It is, however, an official imprint that creates an understandable concern about municipal scrutiny. Owners worry both that they won’t be able to renovate or extend their officially designated property as they wish, and that the process will be more costly and cumbersome. They worry about property values. They worry about insurance.
Soon, however, property owners are going to receive a letter from the Heritage Designation Working Group suggesting they work with the County to do precisely this, designate their listed property.
Premier Ford’s Bill 23, the More Homes Built Faster Act, introduced a set of amendments late last year that undermine heritage conservation across Ontario and challenge the ability of municipalities to conserve their cultural heritage. The County has until December 2024 — that is 18 months away — to either designate its listed properties, or have them removed from the register.
Revered old buildings are now to make way for more houses built faster. The idea that infill development – in the gaping holes created by the destruction of history – is somehow superior to what is already there is nonsense. As is the idea that demolishing and building new are somehow a better practice than conserving and adapting. Across the province, towns, villages, and cities are fighting back, struggling to protect the listed-but-not-designated heritage buildings that keep the past part of the present.
The Heritage Working Group is going to have some work to do to get property owners on board. One thing it might point out is that owners of designated properties can still undertake renovations. The Picton library, the Regent, and the Royal are pretty high- profile cases in point. You need a permit.
The designated and listed appellations have to do with the exterior qualities of a building, in general, the parts that people can see. Fan windows, gracious wrap-around porches, mansard roofs, gables, fine brick and masonry, and the like. These are the special features that have become, over time, in indelible part of the character of a place. Owners of both listed and designated properties undertake to preserve these obvious historical features. Only designated status, however, gives access to a pool of grants set aside for the purpose.
Heritage conservation is difficult. It requires individual citizens to step up, to preserve the taken-for-granted architectural and historical texture of their towns. While most agree with the general outlines of this vision, it is difficult to enlist everybody in the actual enterprise. On the other hand, making preservation a case-by-case effort might be just as, if not more, effective a strategy as the large-scale designation of Heritage Conservation Districts, a notoriously fraught process. The uncertain fate of the effort to preserve the distinct character of the village in Wellington’s Heritage Conservation District, now under appeal, makes this clear.
The County is embarking on an ambitious and idealistic effort to counter Ford’s wrecking ball. If you own a listed property, rather than have it automatically de-listed, and that much easier to destroy, it asks that you consider this extra step. Think of the benefit. Like Macaulay House, Shire Hall, and the Crystal Palace, once you are designated, you are here to stay.