Ancestral Roofs

"In Praise of Older Buildings"

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Miracle on David Gohn Street

At right is a photo of my dear Den musing about what a pleasant change this vista is, from the miles upon countless miles of newly built subdivisions of no particular pedigree that we have just winced our way past on our trip from Kleinburg to Markham. Oh, and let's pause for a moment to think about the good Ontario farmland that's just been paved over ("if you ate today...)

What LOML is looking at is a small corner of Markham's 42-lot heritage subdivision. Despite being an 'artificial' construct, it has such an aura of authenticity with its houses of beautiful design, fine workmanship - and history. This place has soul in the midst of soul-less urban sprawl. That's due in large part to the ages of the buildings - from 1820's to 1870's. Something like that cannot be replicated, only preserved.

Markam Heritage Estates was established in 1989 by Markham city council as an emergency measure to deal with the loss of built heritage in the conflict between development pressure and heritage conservation. The development is unique in Canada, according to some sources, and I have found few examples anywhere, in my research to date. It 'rescues' dwellings in the path of developments like the 407, where retention on site isn't feasible. Only one building on site was extant - the original farmhouse. All of the other houses, some in pitiful condition, were moved here and renovated; Markham retains control over the types of landscaping and exterior features.

Markham has a good heritage preservation record, including many examples of on-site preservation of historic buildings within encircling subdivisions (again, not ideal, but it would take some kind of superhero to stop development around here.) And Markham downtown, though struggling, is putting up some heritage wannabe designs for new commercial buildings.

The parkette Den is standing in is in the David Gohn Circle, one of the streets in the small subdivision. Sure, it feels a bit like a house sanctuary, a touch Disney artificial. Reading a plaque about the stories of each of the houses is a very nice feature, but a tad Upper Canada Village. But the people were real - I spoke to a fresh faced adolescent skateboarder who bragged about the street hockey games, the safety for the little kids, and the awesome skating rink maintained by the guy in the white house. And the passion is real. Without Markham's early commitment to heritage rescue, prior to the stronger Heritage Act in 2005, these houses would all have been lost. There was concern at the time about the inherent danger of this model as the ideal, rather than an emergency measure, that (in the words of Adam on developers will treat it as "a smiley-face dumpster for those pesky old wrecks they can't be bothered preserving. An architectural version of Springfield Retirement Castle." So far, so good. Good on ya, Markham.

So, I urge you to go visit. Take in the Markham Museum, while you're there - a great outdoor collection of even more local buildings. Just don't venture out on 16th street toward Kleinburg. No miracles there.

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