Written by Asuka Ogawa
“We have to think creatively, or we’ll see these buildings die." This was the theme that emerged on our tour of three adaptive use projects in Niagara-on-the-Lake, led by Leah Wallace, Heritage Planner at the town of Niagara-on-the-lake in Ontario, Canada.
After crossing the American – Canadian Border, we first visited The Rand Estate in Randwood, an amazing 13 acres residential estate property that was the summer estate for the Rand family from 1872 to 1971. The site is listed on the town’s Register of Heritage Resources, and has recently been proposed to be reused as a 106-room inn with a restaurant, spa facilities, a conference center, and artists’ studios.
The first public meeting for this adaptive use was held in September; however, there are still a number of issues to be discussed, including the conservation of cultural and archaeological resources, natural landscape protection, and the impact on adjacent heritage properties and the residential community.
The second site, Fort George National Historic Site was an example of adding a contemporary layer to a historic military site. Fort George played a vital role during the war of 1812, serving as the headquarters for the Center Division of the British army. The War of 1812 laid the foundation of today’s Canada, and the site entails multi- layered values identified by different groups including the First Nations, Canadians, Americans, and the British.
The construction of the four season multi-use shelter “Agora” at the site was approved by The Parks Canada in March 2011. While this new addition would provide further opportunities for cultural tourism and education, our guide from The Parks Canada made note that there are still arguments both for and against this new addition.
The last stop was at Willowbank, an emerging educational institution that hosts academic apprenticeship training in heritage conservation. The school uses Willowbank’s richly layered aboriginal landscape and the Classical revival mansion built for Alexander and Hanna Hamilton in the 1830s as teaching resources as well as the students’ place to study.
Throughout the tour, we encountered numerous issues and challenges in maintaining the intangible and tangible heritage values while dramatically altering the use. What do we want to preserve? For whom? Can a new addition be considered a “contemporary layer?” If yes, how far can we go?
Adaptive reuse is not a simple task. The field trip vividly showed us that our society is made up of many different groups that place value on a place in their own distinctive ways, but also that our society constitutes the environment in which heritage is conceived and managed. These three ongoing projects in Niagara-on-the-lake provided great examples of how we can save underutilized buildings and disappearing landscapes by giving them a new purpose, meaning, and use.
Asuka Ogawa is a second year student in Columbia’s M.S. Historic Preservation Program, has a BA in Anthropology from Waseda University, Tokyo, and worked as a cultural tourism planner in Japan before coming to New York.