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Pioneers in Architectural History at Parks Canada!

Parks Canada is celebrating its centennial this year. While there are only 42 Parks Canada / Parcs Canadanational parks and 4 national marine conservation areas, there are many more Parks-administered national historic sites across the country - 167 in fact! They range from the highest national historic site in the country, located at Abbot Pass  in the Rocky Mountains, to the easternmost tip of the country at Cape Spear  in Newfoundland & Labrador.  These special historic places were protected because the federal government recognized the importance of Canada's shared history. Yet, to protect these places, exceptional and dedicated staff at Parks Canada have worked tirelessly and with passion to help save these places for future generations.  

As an international leader in heritage conservation, Parks Canada holds a rich history of research dating back almost a century. Parks Canada has attracted the best and brightest historians, archaeologists and architectural historians to work in the field and in the archives, scouring to uncover meaningful documents and objects for all Canadians to learn from and appreciate. Without the work of staff historians, underwater archaeologists would not know where to search for Franklin's elusive Erebus and Terror ships in the Arctic; without architectural historians working on research of urban historic districts, communities may lose their cherished neighbourhoods and sense of place; without ethno-historians, Canadians would lose the history of Aboriginal People. This month, the Canadian Register of Historic Places would like to recognize architectural historians at Parks Canada.

As a field, architectural history introduced to Canadians the rich diversity of architecture in their own backyard. Partly born out of a new national spirit in the 1960s, Canadians began to recognize that their architectural history was more impressive than was once thought. From French Regime homes of Quebec's Ile d'Orléans to early skyscrapers in Winnipeg, Canada's older buildings came to the attention of citizens concerned with the rapid pressures of Canada's post-war growth.HSMBC plaque commemorating the Battle of Fort George, Parks Canada / Plaque pour commémorer le champ de Bataille du Fort George, Parcs Canada

In the early 20th century, the federal government recognized that Canada's military and fur trade sites were in need of protection for future generations. In 1919, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMBC) was established to advise the federal government on all historical matters and commemorative opportunities. Parks Canada worked closely with the HSMBC to create the network of national historic sites across the country we now benefit from for understanding our collective national history.

However, by the late 1950s, it was clear that forts and fur trading were narrow facets of Canada's cultural heritage.  In fact, Canadians were becoming more interested in their built history. Beautiful Victorian homes, historic fishing villages, deteriorating canals and neglected farmsteads came to the attention of Parks Canada and the HSMBC by vocal individuals who understood that future generations would never be able to appreciate the beauty and meaning of these places without better protection. Yet, to evaluate and designate sites in the country, there was no clear sense of what existed. How many older buildings were there across the country? What styles were used? What types of homes were built over the centuries? No one really knew...

First Steps...

At the time, there were only a handful of specialists in architectural history in Canada - and it didn't help when a pre-eminent scholar wrote that "you will not find in Canada much of what is commonly considered Great or Original architecture..." (Alan Gowans, Looking at Architecture in Canada, 1958). With a new national awareness in the 1960s, Parks Canada's young architectural historians could see "greatness" from within.

"... you will not find in Canada much of what is commonly considered Great or Original architecture..."

- Alan Gowans, Looking at Architecture in Canada, 1958

Parks Canada spearheaded the first inventory of historic buildings. Unprecedented in the world, Parks Canada initiated in 1970 a nation-wide survey of buildings constructed before 1914. To lead the new Canadian Inventory of Historic Buildings (CIHB), Parks Canada hired architect Barbara Humphreys to manage the program.  Unlike most federal government departments at the time, Parks Canada recognized the role of professional women in its organization. Indeed, for the next generation, a group of dynamic women were hired to help research and educate Canadians about their architectural history.

Barbara Humphreys understood architecture. She was one of Canada's earliest female professional architects, graduating from the University of Manitoba's architecture program in 1941. During the Second World War, she honed her skills working alongside men at the drawing tables of private firms and federal agencies. By the 1960s, she was ready for a change. Parks Canada historian, Jack Richardson, who specialized in Quebecois architecture, knew that there was a dire need for specialists in Canadian architecture.

A pilot project to survey the Rideau Canal corridor was the first step in developing the tools necessary for a larger national survey. As Barbara Humphreys recalls, "no one had any idea of what was out there. No one understood the settlement around the Rideau Canal and there was no overall survey, only a few documents on a few buildings..."  Of course, her pioneer work would one day lead to UNESCO inscribing the Rideau Canal on the World Heritage List!Example of a CIHB index card, 1970/ Example d'une fiche du , 1970

In 1970, the survey program was launched at the national level. Employing students in the summer months to spread out across the country, photographs were taken and detailed description sheets were filled out to document selected towns and cities. To dispel community concerns about young people photographing their homes, commercials were run on television to inform the public that their homes might be surveyed. Sometimes, however, not all went according to plan!

A young member of the survey team, former Director-General of National Historic Sites at Parks Canada, Dr. Christina Cameron, remembers a harrowing experience when she was surveying the Saint-Roch neighbourhood in downtown Québec in October 1970 - at the height of Canada's October Crisis! Camera and notepad in tow, she was suddenly arrested and spent the night in jail. Fortunately, Dr. Cameron ended up leading the program by the end of the 1970s and nurtured the National Historic Sites Directorate into the country's leading centre of excellence in knowledge on Canada's built heritage and history. Fortunately, her work at documenting Saint-Roch led to saving one of Canada's most vibrant urban neighbourhoods!

By the mid-1970s, the CIHB's early phases were near completion with 169,000 buildings documented.  Two thousand of these buildings' interiors were documented in greater detail.  Its primary purpose was to provide a sampling of buildings across Canada that would serve as a comparative basis for assessment The Buildings of Canada, 1974by the HSMBC. Each building was identified, dated and described. Early mainframe computers processed the data for easier selection of information.

Janet Wright, who began her career at Parks Canada, recalls that the CIHB was the first time in Canada that a comprehensive understanding of its rich architecture was amassed in one place. The analysts could see even greater potential use of CIHB. One of the most popular results was the publication by Parks Canada in partnership with Reader's Digest, of "The Buildings of Canada" - a layman's guide to architectural styles in Canada, which went out to tens of thousands of Canadians.  An invaluable resource even today, "The Buildings of Canada" reflected Parks Canada's strength in engaging Canadians and serving their needs.

Parks Canada: A Leader in Architectural History

As Parks Canada became a leading knowledge centre and the envy of countries around the world, a new direction followed the extensive recording projects of the 1970s. It was time to focus on giving Canadians a greater sense of their own architectural heritage. As Janet Wright recalls, "the best approach to writing about Canadian architectural history was through the research of specific styles." In 1979, two pilot publications were completed for the Canadian Historic Sites Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History Series: Second Empire Style in Canadian Architecture, and Gothic Revival in Canadian Architecture.  To date, there had never been comprehensive research on Canadian architecture's popular styles.

Visiting Laurier House National Historic Site, Parks Canada / Une visite au lieu historique national de la Maison Laurier, Parcs CanadaThroughout the 1980s, Parks Canada supported and encouraged a generation of researchers to delve into the work begun by those pioneer architectural historians at CIHB. As a result, many new national historic sites were designated for their architectural style and building type. Fortunately for the work of the architectural historians, Canadians can now visit impressive architectural monuments across the country and read about what makes them special on the Canadian Register of Historic Places (CRHP). All of the publications produced by Parks Canada, including Leslie Maitland's Queen Anne Revival in Canada, Nathalie Clerk's Palladian Style in Canada, and Janet Wright's Architecture of the Picturesque in Canada completely sold out their first print editions! Today, they are now beginning to be available in electronic format for anyone to download.

Laying the Foundations

Parks Canada architectural historians laid the foundation of work which led to greater awareness of Canada's rich architectural history. In one generation, a sea-change of interest in architecture led to greater protection and conservation across the country.  As public historians, these authors connected with the wider Canadian population through accessible reading on thousands of historic places.

Fortunately today, many historic places listed on the CRHP and highlighted by specialists at Parks Canada have become treasured icons for all Canadians. Saving these sites has created a better sense of place in many communities, prevented the loss of buildings, and encouraged creative minds to re-use these places in a new economy.

At 100, Parks Canada's role as a national agency that protects and presents nationally significant examples of Canada's cultural heritage, and foster public understanding, appreciation and enjoyment in ways that ensure commemorative integrity for present and future generations, is reflected in the immense work of a generation of architectural historians who dedicated their careers to serve the Agency's mandate.

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