Culture  The heritage imperative

Historic Redpath House promotes discussion over the importance of architectural history

Historical buildings. If you’ve ever taken a stroll within the parameters of downtown Montreal, you’ll rarely fail to notice one. Ghoulishly grey, sometimes with oxidized green roofs, ornately Victorian… A stubborn mass of stone full of character, like your 99 year-old great-grandparent who refuses to give up independent living for a nursing home.
Redpath House is one of these buildings, standing ever so still in the wealthy area on the southern slopes of Mount Royal, generally known by natives as the Golden Square Mile. Once a striking but now matte red hue, the house was built in 1886 for a member of the affluent Redpath family. Characteristic of its age, the house is deemed to be one of few buildings in Montreal modeled on the Queen Anne style, an architectural aesthetic popular toward the end of the 19th century. Several decades following its construction, the house was abandoned, leaving it entirely deprived of interior or exterior maintenance and subject to menacing threats of demolition from its owner.
This is where The Héritage Montréal stepped in. The non-profit organization that seeks to protect and preserve “the architectural, historic, natural, and cultural heritage” of the city and its outskirts – intervened to defend the house’s continued existence, opposing impending plans for condominiums in its place. For more than twenty years, the organization has been involved in relentless back-and-forth negotiations between Redpath’s neglectful owner and the City, ultimately culminating in a victory for Héritage Montréal.
However, when we pass by such decrepit, idle structures, we may wonder – and quite reasonably – at the practicality of maintaining their existence. They may possess historical, emotional, and symbolic significance to their city and its inhabitants, but is it callous or shallow to ask that they also serve a practical purpose? In his Masters of Architecture thesis at McGill, Preserving Old Buildings: Adaptive Use for Residential Purposes in Montreal, Milenko Vujadinovic observed that from the 1980s onward, a greater awareness and appreciation for the city’s architectural heritage arose. Inhabitants sought a happy medium between heritage and usefulness by using outdated, abandoned buildings for residential or commercial purposes without demolishing them. He calls this repurposing of historic buildings “adaptive use.”
Prospects for the Redpath House will likely follow the same trend of being adapted for “usefulness.” Dinu Bumbaru, policy director at Héritage Montréal, commented in an email that he is “quite confident that an interesting residential project can be devised for [the Redpath House] site that would respect the scale, character and heritage of the Square Mile, even enrich the area’s architectural heritage while meeting fair and reasonable business expectations.”
The importance of preserving historical buildings as heritage sites lies in the maintaining of architectural diversity in metropolitan areas. It is possible to make abandoned buildings useful again, repurposing rather than demolishing them. McGill Architecture professor Annmarie Adams also explained in an email that “in addition to the obvious ‘charm’ that older structures can bring to a city, the presence of historic buildings connects us to historic ideas, events, and people. They can be both explicit and subtle evidence of the ways people once lived; of the priorities societies set; of past standards of beauty. They are often comforting.”
However, she continued that, “Preservation is an expensive business. It can be difficult to decide which buildings should be kept and which can be discarded… Older buildings often need to be brought up to the building code; they are notoriously hard to heat and maintain, and it is a tricky ethical issue to decide how much ‘modernization’ is the appropriate amount. Some cities have very strict historic preservation guidelines which can sometimes hamper development. To draw the line between preservation and so-called progress is a tough ethical issue today.”
These difficulties are reflected in the proposals for the Redpath House site – conversion into condominiums is potentially easier and more profitable than retaining the 150 year-old original structure. Nevertheless, the preservation of historical buildings does not have to be viewed as a fruitless endeavor, devoid of any practical purpose. While the city asserts a strict view of heritage preservation, including that of old, abandoned “historic” buildings like the Redpath House, it aims – alongside organizations like Héritage Montréal – to render them “useful” (however usefulness may be judged) for the benefit and enrichment of the surrounding community and city at large. In coming up with a solution to Redpath House’s future, Héritage Montréal reflects a wider trend across the city: a growing realization of the importance and feasibility of preserving historical buildings.