Days Gone By: Built Heritage and Church Closures

Memories can be deeply connected to a specific place or building. When a place that is the foundation of many memories is closed, dismantled, or significantly changed it can be challenging for those who hold the place dear.  Last week I attended the closing service a local united church.  It was an emotional and moving morning that highlighted the power of place to invoke collective memory.

The closure of this church is not unique – United Churches (and churches of all the main stream Christian denominations) are struggling across Canada with declining membership and declining financial resources.  The closure of United Churches is currently so common place that the United Church of Canada (UCC) has published a Liturgy for the Closing of a Church and has openly discussed how to support congregations that seeing their church building being closed.

The service I attended borrowed bit from the liturgy published by the UCC. There were many opportunities for people to share memories about the building and much laughter and a few tears were seen throughout the morning.  The building was full to capacity with extra seating added in the aisle and people standing at the back.  A stark change from the average Sunday of recent years where 15-20 people in attendance was the norm.

The huge number of people who returned from far away or who came from neighbouring communities to attend the closing speaks to the importance of place and how memories are often intertwined with built heritage.  Churches were once meeting places for communities, locations where all important life events were marked, and central in the day to day functioning of communities.

As congregations dwindle or amalgamate the question of what to do with the church building comes to forefront.  Deciding the fate of a building that is so connected to a community’s identity is not an easy task.  Discussions around church closure can divide congregations and be emotional for all involved.  Place is a powerful thing.

In the case of the little white church in Little Rapids the congregation has amalgamated with another local United Church and will worship in a larger church ten minutes away.  These two congregations had been part of a two-point pastoral charge for a number of years and have been holding joint services for the past few years.  This may not make the loss of a building any easier but it perhaps makes the congregational transition easier.

For now the  church still sits intact – the portable furnishings will be re-purposed -but the exterior of the building remains untouched.  A for sale sign sits on the front lawn and the future of the building sits in limbo.  For now the closed church sits as visual reminder for the local community of days gone by.

Built Heritage in Montreal: Churches

One of my favourite parts of the built heritage landscape that I explored in Montreal was the old churches that are located throughout the city.  These churches are often tucked in amongst office buildings, hotels, and other modern day amenities.  Additionally, a number of the churches have multiple buildings on their properties such as: a rectory, lodging for religious orders, and office space in addition to the sanctuary space.  The pure size of the church properties often surprised me.  I had thought that many of the churches would have given up land or been torn down to make space for development.  I was also happy to see one church that was in the process of being renovated (with keeping the great architecture in tact) for adaptive reuse as a condo and recreation facility.
I also loved the decorative copper sculpture and roof work that was prominent on a number of the Catholic and Anglican churches in the city. Here are photos of some of my favourites.  The first two photographs are of Cathédrale Marie-Reine-du-Monde, which has been designated as a national historical site. Photo credit goes to Andrew MacKay. 

Preservation of the Northern Michigan Asylum

One of the highlights of my recent trip to Traverse City was visiting The Village at Grand Traverse Commons.  The built heritage preservation and adaptive reuse of the buildings contained in the 63 acre site is amazing and serves as a reminder of the possibilities encompassed by built heritage.  The Village is built on the site that was home to the Northern Michigan Asylum, later known as the Traverse City State Hospital from 1885-1989. 

The site comprises a large complex of buildings, with the main building being surrounded by cottages and smaller out buildings.  The main building (Building 50) is the last remaining Kirkbride style building in Michigan and large portions of it have been renovated and turned into public and private spaces.

The renovated building features a Mercato market space which features shops, restaurants, and  hallways filled with artwork.  The building also includes a number of residential spaces and office space.  During my visit the space was also home to an indoor farmers market.  The variety of adaptive reuse options that have been used on this one building are amazing, historical spaces have been converted to a variety of modern uses that have broad appeal and sustainability. 

In addition to the amazing adaptive reuse the site is located amongst 480 acres of preserved parkland.  The village grounds also contain a  heritage arboretum.  This arboretum developed out of Dr. James Decker Munson’s belief in beauty is therapy, which resulted in a variety of beautiful trees being planted around the Hospital. It’s nice to see a space preserving aspects of the natural landscape which complement the built heritage features.  

Overall, the site is an amazing preservation project that has garnered tremendous local support and inspired contemplation of the history of the site.  Visitors to the Village can’t help but notice the rich history of their surroundings.  During our visit I heard more than one person talking about the social history of the site and explaining aspects of the local history–the space is a great model for communities looking to reinvigorate unused heritage buildings. 

December #builtheritage chat

This month’s #builtheritage twitter chat focused on preservation and the holidays.  There was an abundance of good festive promotion ideas,  examples of seasonal events, and

First portion of the chat focused on the question, How can you use the holidays to promote your historic site? Some of the proposed activities included:

  • Displaying old holiday photos on site or on social media
  • Holding seasonally themed events -teas, crafts, tours, etc
  • Holiday snacks! 
  • Holiday theater stage at the heritage site, eg. the Christmas Carol
  • Combine with other local events your activities with other local holiday events
  • For example, the distillery district in Toronto christmas market, draws thousands 
  • Watson’s Mill in Ottawa hosted a Christmas Fair and Art Show this past wknd.
  • As a backdrop to other heritage events, or as a venue for private holiday functions
  • Family ornament decorating activities

Second question of the chat, what is the most successful holiday program you have been to/organized at an historic site? Favourites included:


Third segment of the chat dealt with, How can we encourage people to shop locally in historic main streets?

  • Combine moonlight madness with other activities such as skating, caroling, etc.
  • Hold a Christmas festival downtown, and encourage all shops to decorate windows 
  • The main streets are just perfect for decorating – light it up!
  • Provide more parking
  • Ask the community what they want

The chat concluded with a discussion of How do you make sure your holiday activities are as inclusive (and/or multicultural) as possible?

  •  Heritage groups, municipalities should encourage all constituencies to celebrate their holiday traditions.
  • Having personalized items that can be customizable for any holiday
  • The new inclusive is to do lots of niche activities
  • Let the historic places speak for themselves. The best places evolve and change with the times if we let them

There was also some discussion about what topics participants would like to see in the 2012 #builtheritage chats.  Some suggestions included focusing on main street design issues, preservation 2.0, or the integration of youth in heritage groups.

Heritage Gift Giving

Tree of books

It’s that time of year where many of us are scrambling to find the perfect gift for a loved one.  Recently, a number of blogs and organizations have been posting gift suggestions for the heritage lovers in your life. Some of my favourite posted so far, include:

  Additionally, any of the heritage aficionados I know would love:

  • A subscription to Canada’s History Magazine.  It’s a great read for people inside and outside academia interested in Canadian History.
  • An annual membership to a local museum, art gallery, or heritage site. 
  • For the archival minded: a copy of Closed Stacks, Open Shutters. 

 Photo credit: flickr (shawncalhoun)

American Heritage Vegetables

Last week’s #builtheritage twitter chat on food and preservation provided an abundance of interesting resource material. This week I stumbled across another great food history resource.  American Heritage Vegetables is a great database of historical vegetables created by the Center for Digital Humanities of the University of South Carolina. The site focuses on cultivation practices, popular varieties, and recipes for vegetables found in American kitchens and gardens prior to the twentieth century.

The site is searchable and is a great resource for anyone looking to integrate food heritage into their programming.  My only complaint is the way in which the recipes are laid out on the site – they are written in paragraph formatting which seems a bit daunting to someone looking to try cooking something in 19th century style.  

November Built Heritage Chat Summary

This month’s #builtheritage chat topic was the integration of food and heritage.  Prior to the chat actually starting @lloydalter posted a great link to food posters from the past.  The slide show is well worth a look if you’re interested in the evolution of commercialism, food history, or just need a laugh.

The first portion of the chat focused on the question In what ways do you see food/foodways intersecting with preservation? There were a lot of interesting connections made between food and preservation during this portion of the chat, including:

  • The idea that everyone needs to eat and drink, and that looking at food trends and changes throughout the past is an interesting way to approach heritage.
  •  @stevemouzon suggested that historically market squares and gardens were the focus of towns
  • wanderu noted that farms are cultural heritage landscapes, barns, silos, cheese factories often have heritage value. 
  • It was also suggested that food is an element of cultural heritage that’s often strongly place-based but also has lots of border-crossing potential
    • Additionally food and food smells have the power to conjure up personal and family memories

The second question of the chat was How have/could you use food in your programs? Responses included:

  •   @jonaskayla: mentioned that @historicplaces has food app that includes recipes from across Canada, some date from as far back as the 18th century
  • Designing menus based on period foods or demonstrating period cooking methods was suggested
  • @delaneyhf suggested checking out the  Brooklyn Historical Society fall programs as examples of involving food in programming 

The third segment of the chat highlighted the question How do we protect our agricultural heritage when it is in working landscapes? Some of the highlights were:

  • There was a general theme that continuing to work the land and keeping it farmed traditionally helps preserve this part of our heritage.
  • Reusing agricultural buildings such as barns and silos for other purposes instead of demolishing them.
  • Need to recognize agricultural heritage in our urban landscapes – old wells, old houses, old roads.

The chat concluded with a discussion of How does and #preservation intersect, if at all, with sustainability?  Some of the intersections thought of were;

  • @delaneyhf noted that “Sustainability is most often achieved through the use / promotion of local resources, be that buildings or food”
  • The idea that cultural heritage is about ideas and concepts and goes beyond physical heritage. 
  • Overall there was a general feeling that history, preservation, heritage, and food are integral parts of how we should live our lives.

The next #builtheritage chat is on December 7th at 4pm and will deal with holiday promotion in the heritage field.

Photo Credit: United Way of the Lower Mainland 

Update: Today the National Museum of American Heritage Blog featured an interesting  post on “American History told Through Squash.”

August 2011 #builtheritage Chat Summary

August’s #builtheritage twitter chat focused on under-served communities and how to reach those communities.  The chat included great discussion and a couple of interesting side debates about the term preservation.  The complete chat transcript can be found here.  Next month’s #builtheritage chat is slated for September 7th at 4pm and the tentative topic is collaboration.

The first portion of this month’s chat focused on the question Who are preservation messages/sites/programs usually aimed towards?  A lot of the responses suggested that preservation messages are often aimed towards the previously converted, and those already interested in preservation. There was also a discussion of what age groups of people are generally involved in heritage preservation.  Some of the comments suggested that a lot of the ‘official’ type groups are aimed at retirees.  However,  @Wanderu noted that “Community blogs have resulted in a big increase in awareness of heritage and history amongst younger folks”

The second part of the chat dealt with What communities are being under served by the preservation movement? Responses mentioned immigrant communities, youth, rural populations, and low income areas.  It was also pointed out that heritage and preservation needs to be made relevant to these communities and that appealing to emotion, telling a story, and engaging communities is essential.

The third segment of the chat highlighted How can you determine what will best serve that community? Suggestions included: listening to the community, being sensitive to needs, and combine education and consultation.  A number of participants (@delaneyhf, @BuildingRevival, and @chouse17, @uglyshirt) also mentioned the importance of community engagement and the need to to include heritage in the planning stages).

The conclusion of the chat focused on the question of How can you connect with these groups?  The responses in this section mirror the discussion earlier in the chat.  Responses reaffirmed the importance of education, consultation, making people aware of resources, and finding common ground.  The rural area of Tamworth Ontario was put forth by @ Wanderu as an example of engaging rural communities. @PresNation also mentioned the work that @laconservancy is doing at Wyvernwood as a good example of engagement. 

June’s #builtheritage Chat

The topic for June’s #builtheritage twitter chat was heritage tourism.   The chat was moderated by @PresConf and @jonaskayla.  The chat provided an interesting look into the planning, organization, and success of heritage tourism.

The first portion of the chat focused on the question What tips do you have for starting a heritage tourism program in your community? Some of the suggestions included: starting by hosting an event that will engage the local community, gain the support of the local tourism board, and strive for inclusiveness of organizations in your community.  @lloydalter brought forward the example of the Doors Open events as a successful heritage tourism program.  This example created an interesting side discussion about what causes Doors Open to be so successful and how to raise money for a free event.

The second segment of the chat focused on the question What strategies do you have for building out your heritage tourism program?  Some suggestions included working with the chamber of commerce, partnering with regional tourism programs, and promoting diverse programming.  @jonaskayla mentioned Heritage Toronto’s great walking tour program that is run entirely by volunteers.  This walking tour program is a great example of a grassroots and low cost heritage tourism effort.

The third question in the chat was What is your favoruite heritage tourism place and why? A lot of great examples of heritage tourism sites were brought forth in this section, including: the Byward Market in Ottawa, the Rideau Canal in Ottawa, the distillery district in Toronto, and the Toronto railway heritage centre.

The final section of the chat focused on the question How do we ensure that heritage tourism is authentic? There was a ride range of responses to this question, but a number of them emphasized the need to find a balance in authenticity and accessibility. One of the more intriguing points in this portion of the chat was the idea that the authenticity of a building isn’t always the same as an authentic visitor experience.

 The next #builtheritage chat  is scheduled for August 4th at 4pm, the tentative topic is under-served communities.