Gary Chen, Heritage Conservation Adviser for Northern Alberta
Gary Chen’s first job, after earning a diploma in Architectural Technology from the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, was for the Government of Alberta providing technical advice on the conservation of heritage buildings. That was back in 1976; he’s never left. “If you don’t love the job, you probably won’t be there that long,” he says.
Originally, he worked on both privately owned and crown-owned properties. When the Historic Places Stewardship Section was established in 1999, Gary became one of the advisers working in its Conservation Advisory Services, which provides help to private owners of older buildings, especially those that are designated as Provincial Historic Resources or that have the potential to be designated.
Originally just two advisers covered the entire province. “So we’d be traveling all over, but mind you, in those days, we didn’t have that many sites designated,” Gary recalls. “One day I could be way up north in Fort Vermilion and then the next day I might be down in Medicine Hat.” Fortunately, Gary has always enjoyed the travel that is a big part of his job. He says, “I’ve been to almost all four corners of the province…I learned a lot about Alberta history and the local history while doing the work.” Today there are five advisers, and Gary covers the northern part of the province.
The kinds of projects he advises on vary widely. His latest involvement with a major restoration project required attending biweekly meetings with the conservation architect and others responsible for a multiyear restoration of the Alberta Grain Company and Alberta Wheat Pool grain elevators in St. Albert: “We would discuss and explore anything, and sometimes even climb up the scaffolding and help look at it, and if they had some specific technical question we would try to find a way to get the work done.” He is now making frequent trips to Athabasca to discuss the conservation and continued use of a vacant school building and an old train station that are landmarks in the community.
St. Albert Grain Elevators, before and after restoration
Much of what he does is respond to requests for help from owners or stewards of individual properties—mainly homes but also churches, community buildings, and commercial structures.
“My job is partly just to help people to conserve their old buildings,” whether or not they are able to meet the criteria of being designated as historic, Gary says. Sometimes he discovers that a building has hidden potential. For example, it might have been covered by modern siding, but if that can be peeled back to expose the original facing, “the building will go back to its old charm,” he explains.
Even if an older building has been too greatly altered over time to meet the “integrity” criteria for heritage designation, Gary is still happy to visit and advise the owners: “The building may be carried down from their ancestors. I always regard those as their own history. I can still help them, give them advice so that they can be able to preserve their own history.”
The Heritage Conservation Advisers will get involved in a project at several stages. Sometimes owners of older buildings just want advice on how to solve a specific problem, such as a leaky roof. Often owners want to find out if their property might qualify for historic resource designation, which would allow them to apply for conservation grants from the Alberta Historical Resources Foundation. If the buildings are already designated, any changes to them must adhere to the Historical Resources Act and the Standards and Guidelines for the Conservation of Historic Places in Canada, so the advisers will provide pre-project guidance, monitor the work, and verify that it has been carried out appropriately. (The introduction of the Standards and Guidelines in 2003 greatly helped in explaining conservation principles and practices to the public, Gary notes.)
Requests for advice on repairs will almost always require a site visit for a “hands-on” look at the problem—climbing up ladders, crawling under floor joists, whatever it takes. Gary continues: “A lot of times we just use our trained eyes to catch the problem… Just based on my education, what I’ve learned, I could tell the owner ‘This beam is overloaded.’” He might send the owner a useful technical report. Sometimes the advisers will recommend that the owners hire a restoration architect, structural engineer, or other specialist. In that case, “our major job is to monitor… to make sure the work will be done properly even if they hire a professional.”
Back in the 1970s, when Gary started out in this field, there was little professional training available in the technical aspects of heritage conservation, so he learned on the job and through review of professional publications. “And in fact even today, I’m still learning because all these building technologies and materials change,” he says.
There have been many new tools for documenting and analyzing the buildings, notably digital photography. There are new materials available to replace or repair original historic fabric, and changing understanding about what methods and materials work best. For example, it was once considered a good idea to cover sandstone with sealant to stop it from weathering. But over time it was seen that this trapped moisture in the stone, leading to spalling (chipping or flaking) and other kinds of deterioration.
“Sometimes the challenge is to find new technology to help the old buildings continue to survive,” Gary says.
An even bigger challenge—and a fairly common one—is persuading owners to make the effort to undertake appropriate conservation of their historic buildings. Owners will wonder, for example, why they should try to retain their original wood windows, instead of just buying vinyl replacements from a hardware store. Or they’ll want to tear down walls to make rooms bigger. Or they’ll assume that it will be easier and cheaper to just demolish an existing building and design something new.
“If you’re willing to spend the time, you should be able to preserve what is there,” Gary says. And it’s important to try, he points out, “because, after all, it was a pioneer who came up with the idea, the design…and we have to respect their design…Sometimes you have to look at it almost like an antique…The rooms are maybe smaller and you prefer bigger, but you still respect how it was built.”
“You try to convince them, a lot of times, by slowly using different examples,” he says. “Sometimes I have to be flexible too. Basically, you allow them to make certain changes but maybe, with my advice, the change that they make is still sympathetic to the historic building.”
One of Gary’s favourite, but most challenging, projects was the restoration of the Grande Prairie High School—one that called for much consultation and compromise.
The two-storey brick Collegiate Gothic school was built in 1929 and converted to an art gallery in 1975. In 2007 a heavy snow storm caused the roof and a portion of the building to collapse. At that point, the City (the building’s owner) considered tearing it down and replacing it with a purpose-built gallery, with appropriate climate controls and other modern features.
Grande Prairie High School, with collapsed roof
But “because a portion of the roof has collapsed it doesn’t mean the building is totalled,” Gary says. “So we hired an architect” to show that the building could be repaired and retained. “Because of the [building’s provincial heritage] designation, we had to stand firm and say, ‘Preserve whatever is possible. It’s your history. If it’s gone, it’s gone. People can only remember by pictures.’” Many local citizens agreed. “After all, they don’t really have that many historic buildings in the city of Grande Prairie.”
The architect hired by the City proposed building a new structure that would enclose the old school building. “I look at it and I say, well, why don’t we do it the reverse way?”
And that’s what happened. “At the end, this building was preserved, but only the building shell….They designed a steel-frame building inside the brick building. Now they do have a [modern] art gallery, and I think they’re proud that the people can still be able to see what the old high school looked like.”
“It might not be the kind [of project] that we really like,” Gary concedes, since historic interior features were not retained, but it did succeed in saving and giving continued life to a significant community building.
Grande Prairie High School, with building shell preserved
This is what has kept Gary engaged in this work for nearly four decades. “We’re not only preserving a building, we’re preserving the history,” he says. And one learns about history “not just by reading a book, [or] looking at pictures. Sometimes we have the physical evidence right there, that really helps for future generations.”
Written by: Kerri Rubman