Below is a letter from Karl Kessler sent on November 21, two days after the Council decided to allow demolition of the Sear Building at 200 Fairway Road, Kitchener. Images of the former and proposed building are above.
Comments on the question of the Sears Building are welcomed in the area at then end of this post. Should you wish to write a long response, please send your comments to email@example.com
I attended the meeting of Kitchener City Council this past Monday out of an interest in the future of the former Sears building – out of a personal interest, and also a professional interest as Doors Open Waterloo Region coordinator for the past sixteen years. I also contribute a magazine column on our local architecture.
The constructive tone and the thoughtful, probing Q&A between council and the delegations was encouraging – thank you for that.
But I believe a few points are worth emphasizing.
Also, some statements were made that I believe should be challenged, and more importantly, re-examined in future discussions around built heritage.
Please take a few moments to read through these, with my thanks for your time.
I welcome your thoughts.
- It’s typical, almost to the point of being a rule, that during any given period in the past century or more we feel (often strong) disaffection towards architecture that is about 50-60 years old. On Monday, some delegations alluded to this. Lately, in both my professional and volunteer work, I’ve witnessed a slowly growing interest in, and affection for, mid-twentieth-century buildings. This kind of increasing appreciation also is typical – for example, decommissioned industrial buildings were usually demolished until they, more recently, became coveted. In light of this, it’s worth noting that the newly restored 1960s Waterloo County Courthouse at Weber and Queen streets welcomed hundreds and hundreds of curious and enthusiastic visitors each of the two times it has participated in Doors Open.
- Not only are there very few opportunities for designating important buildings in general, but intact examples of buildings similar in style and period to the former Sears are very rare. We are fast approaching a situation in which good examples from this important, striking architectural era have mostly vanished, creating a conspicuous gap in our cultural heritage.
- One or two councilors suggested, and one repeated, that Heritage Kitchener considers cases such as the Sears building only with heritage conservation in mind. Of course heritage is their lens, but the goals of municipal heritage committees everywhere exist in, and are tightly constrained by, the “real world”. These committees were deliberately created to speak to situations exactly like that of the former Sears building: to inform us with their expertise and particular perspective, and to help prevent the kinds of infamous losses that were common in the middle of the last century, of which there are numerous local examples. And so to imply that because heritage committees have a vested interest, they should therefore be taken with a grain of salt, is puzzling.
- Further, if heritage committees come at these kinds of issues leaning towards conservation, property developers in possession of identified heritage assets have often leaned demonstrably, and just as heavily, in the other direction. In order for city staff and council to strike a balance between the two aims, the longstanding tendency towards demolition should be acknowledged just as frankly.
- Conserving intact the very best of our built cultural fabric has often been framed as antithetical to the aims and health of commerce. On Monday, this again was the case. Generally, this assertion has not been borne out by results where a bit more imagination, will, and resources are brought to the table.
- Discussion on Monday referred often to the grim challenges facing storefront retail in general, and malls in particular. Their future was characterized as fragile at best, imperiled at worst. Why, then, permit the demolition of an already existing heritage façade, recognized as culturally significant, if that demolition is only to serve something identified as so changeable?
- Increased costs and logistical difficulties are ALWAYS stated as main objections against the case for heritage designation, as no doubt they will be in the future. If these continue to be given primacy when the case for designation is strong, it will also continue to be that little of the best of our built heritage will make the grade for meaningful conservation, and having municipal heritage committees in place may increasingly seem to be without merit.
- Several of the logistical objections to designation, such as the poor insulating characteristics of the historical precast façade panels, seemed a bit disingenuous. Interior work could address many such issues.
- I may be mistaken, but I believe the original architect was not discussed on Monday evening. If a full consideration of the building’s significance is to be claimed, it seems to me that this item should have been part of the public record.
Many thanks again for your time, and for your ongoing consideration of the challenges facing our built heritage.