Thursday, February 24, 2011

Heritage, Sense of Place, Identity, Culture

This is a picture from today's Record of a school that was torn down in Cambridge this week:

This is where I live (photo from Google Maps): you can imagine why the loss of the school in Cambridge is very sad for me.

A decade ago, my building was saved by the skin of its teeth. After the original school closed it became an adult learning center, then offices... and then the building was condemned.

Developer Shawky Fahel bought the building and turned it into condos. But unlike almost every other historical condo development in the area, he preserved every aspect of the building that could be saved. He preserved the terrazzo floors in the wide hallways, as well as all the doors, stair railings, the little kid drinking fountains, even the original classrooms (although a couple were divided into two units). The birds-eye maple floors, still marked where desks were bolted to them a hundred years ago, were carefully numbered, pulled up, taken away for refinishing and then replaced. All the plumbing, wiring and heating ducts were replaced, but essentially the building was left its charming old self.

Compare that to the Seagram Lofts: only two walls were saved in each building, and otherwise the "lofts" are all new construction, with no historical materials inside. Or the Bauer Lofts, which is just an apartment building that happens to be built next to the old Bauer factory (which itself was completely gutted, with the only original parts being a little bit of the outside brick).

Further afield, sometimes we "save" heritage buildings in a way that doesn't save them at all. The old Toronto Stock Exchange on Bay Street, for example, was a designated building and so had to be preserved, but all that's left is the facade, swallowed up in a glass skyscraper with no attempt to even riff on the style of the original building. Of the fabulous old art deco interior with its pneumatic tubes and brass, nothing remains.

It would have been best if Uptown Waterloo had maintained enough families that the schools didn't have to close, but given the need for finding something else to do with the historic Alexandra Street School, this is about as good as it gets. (Thanks, Shawky.)


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