Save the Gore

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I refer you to Raise the Hammer for information and discussion surrounding the proposed demolition of the historic buildings (18-28 King Street East) in Gore Park. In light of conversations and letters to council surrounding their decision, I've been reflecting on what led me to learn, live in and love Hamilton eight years ago. Born and raised in Hamilton, I moved to Toronto after high school and I thought I would never look back. But throughout my time in Toronto, there were pivotal experiences at historic places throughout Hamilton that kept bringing me back home. Gore Park was one of them. As the demolition equipment arrived two weeks ago to the surprise of many, I stood in Gore Park wondering why council and the developers can't see what it's citizens do when it comes to these buildings. We can't afford to lose these important, historical buildings. 

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After a year studying design at OCAD,  it was during a visit to McMaster University where I truly felt inspired and decided to switch schools. I came across Hamilton Hall or the James Stewart Centre for Mathematics as it is now known. One of the oldest on campus and originally a science facility, the building was Collegiate Gothic in style on the exterior. When I walked inside for the first time I realized how special this building was. Architect Bruce Kuwabara’s revisioning of the building was a beautiful tribute to its history and original function – a science facility. Mathematics is after all the oldest discipline taught on campus and key to scientific discovery. Intended to strengthen the mathematics program and respond to the increasing demand for mathematically trained individuals in technology field, this adaptive reuse project reimagined the building’s interior in a style that would encourage team-based mathematics.

So why would this have mattered to me – a potential humanities student? Too often a building’s cultural capital is overlooked. Historic buildings are records of our past. They communicate where we’ve come from and how we got to where we are today. To me the James Stewart Centre for Mathematics was the perfect example of adaptive re-use. A respectful nod to the building’s original intent but repurposed for modern use. The light and open feel, the combination of interactive and reflective spaces – it was all inspiring. It gave me a sense of place. It felt like a space where ideas and creativity would be embraced. From cultural studies to communications courses, I registered for as many as I could that took place here over my three years on campus.

I continued to live in Toronto, but found myself routinely riding the GO Bus to Hamilton  and transferring to the HSR in Gore Park on my way to McMaster. The more time I spent in Gore Park, the more attention I paid to its architecture and overall landscape. I saw the possibilities for the downtown core and started to witness the subtle changes taking places on James Street North. I embraced the raw feeling of the downtown landscape and began photographing people with the city as a backdrop.

I fell in love with Hamilton. And I decided to move back in 2006. I began to document the positive changes as people here began building the dream community they wanted to live in. Shops, studios, coffee houses and restaurants began popping up. My partner and I purchased a century home in the downtown core.  It wasn’t just the vision of urban planners that brought new life to the streets in Hamilton we love today. It was residents rolling up their sleeves, taking back vacant spaces on streets once thought too difficult to revitalize. They saw potential. They did it without grants or the financial support developers are receiving.

The practice of demolishing and rebuilding from scratch is common these days. Desperate for inward investment, city officials too frequently allow developers to demolish historic buildings and construct larger standardized buildings which are assumed to return greater profits. And despite ecological codes of practice, many developers continue to look for empty sites to achieve a quick return. The re-use of a building should be a major priority. Developers should first and foremost demonstrate how existing buildings can host modern uses while preserving their relevance. It is well known that people are attracted to live, work, visit and return to cities with unique character. 

On a recent trip to Portland, Maine I was thrilled to learn the City of Portland had adopted a historic preservation ordinance  back in 1990 to recognize and preserve its vast collection of historic architecture. A quick walk around town and you can see that change is thoughtfully managed, so that the unique character of these historic areas is preserved. It is well known that there is a market in Hamilton for adaptive re-use of existing buildings. We’ve witnessed the transformation of buildings from places that were ignored to places that are loved. We’ve seen the community connect and work together to make lasting changes in our neighbourhoods. We’ve been admired by other cities for the progress we’ve made. Great examples of adaptive re-use in Hamilton do come to mind: the Lister Block, 270 Sherman, Whitton Lofts, 118 James North, the undergoing transformation of St. Marks Anglican Church. But despite the efforts of citizens, we’ve also seen great loss of buildings with historical significance.

As we continue to revitalize our city, I ask our city officials and property developers to preserve Hamilton’s architectural history and our authentic sense of place. We’ve seen best practices in other cities and we know that preserving historic structures makes sense. Before another building is demolished and a new condo, hotel or big box store is built in its place, consider the social fabric of the city. Consider the vision of architects like William Thomas who built this city brick by brick. Consider the Gore Park civic square, defined by a streetwall with over 150 years of history. Consider the designers, engineers and entrepreneurs who are boosting the creative economy today – their studios, workshops and retail storefronts contribute to the economic development of our city. Consider the long-term residents who paved the way and new city dwellers who are investing in the local economy. Consider makers, urban manufacturers and firms looking for small, independent spaces in the city centre to produce meaningful and quality goods. Consider that the mixed-use districts of our lower city are making Hamilton a desirable location for many looking for complete neighborhoods.

Cities affect all of us and it is up to us to ensure we grow them responsibly. We need the cooperation of city officials, developers and building owners to designate heritage properties so they are protected from demolition and their guarantee that proposed alterations or additions are reviewed to ensure compatibility with a property’s original design. We need to ensure that new construction within historic districts maintain a respectful relationship between new and old. We can't afford to wait until its too late. What we need not is another chapter in the Vanished Hamilton series.