Conservation in Canada: Adaptive Re-use of Company Houses at Cape Breton

Cape Breton historic lighthouse travel Nova ScotiaNoted for its culture and scenic beauty, Cape Breton of Novia Scotia, Canada, has long been a destination for tourists (just check what National Geographic has to say). Off the northeast edge of North America, Cape Breton may look isolated and desolate, but it has seen centuries of history. John Cabot reportedly visited the island in 1497, a visit which is commemorated in the naming of Cape Breton’s Cabot Trail (which is over a hundred miles long). Since then, Cape Breton has seen Portuguese fishermen (sixteenth century), French colonizing (seventeenth century), and in the last few centuries, coal mining and steel-manufacturing.

Recent history, however, is a sad story. The century-old “company houses” of Cape Breton have fallen into disrepair. In fact, they made the Heritage Canada Foundation’s 2010 list of the 10 most-endangered historic places in Canada. But help is on the way.

Adventures in Preservation is one of several important groups working together to save the houses. AiP is partnering with Cape Breton University, Nova Scotia Community College, the HomeMatch program, and community members in a project called Historic Housing for the Near Homeless.  Connections formed with schools and students have proved invaluable as collaboration continues; students who worked on previous AiP projects have stepped into leadership roles in this new one.  (See the Cairo, Illinois, project, “Creating Affordable Housing From Shotguns”.)

historic house undergoing preservation and reuse as affordable housing Cape Breton

One of the houses benefiting from this new preservation project Photo: Tom Urbaniak

The house the AiP team will be working on is located in the Kolonia section of Whitney Pier, a multicultural community established in the early 1900s around the former Sydney steel plant. There homes were constructed from the dismantled Breton Hotel, which housed the workers who built the steel plant in 1899-1902. Preservation of the company houses is a nod to an important piece of Cape Breton’s history. This project will also provide affordable, durable, adaptive re-use homes for local families at risk of homelessness.

Take this exciting opportunity to join in the efforts! Learn more and join the project at our “upcoming adventures” page!

— Susie Trexler

One Tome or Two? Tea with a Side of History

historic buildings Bristol England

A "folly" built in the 1700s remembers an era when castles were actually lived in. Blaise Castle, Bristol. Photo: Susie Trexler

England is a country steeped in history. You can hardly walk a hundred feet without running into something that is older than the United States. In Europe, this is average. To a Nevadan (a state since 1864), this is fascinating. On my flight home I was sitting next to a young man from Stockholm, Sweden, who confessed that his parents had just bought a summer house that was three hundred years old.

And that was normal. Adaptive re-use of historic structures seems to be a burgeoning trend in the United States, where buildings are for the first time phasing out of their original uses. In Europe, adaptive re-use is not a preservation choice, it’s a lifestyle.

adaptive reuse, trail conversion, England heritage travel

A canal tow-path has become a walking and bike trail for locals and visitors. Near Bath, England. Photo: Susie Trexler

Reusing buildings that are already there is a given. They’ve served several different purposes since their construction; what’s adding another?

On my visit to Bradford-on-Avon, we ate at a tea house  – the Bridge Tea Rooms – that has been standing (impressively) since 1675. The building had the appearance of being duct-taped together with pieces of metal. When we stepped inside we were offered space upstairs. I was not only impressed that the second floor could sustain a group of five, I was giddy at the thought of being in a building that was 336 years old. If there is anything that old on the West Coast of the United States, I can assure you it’s off-limits. You can’t touch it, and you certainly can’t use it.

historic buildings, Bath England travel

A 18th century statue commemorates the earlier Roman presence in Bath, England. Photo: Susie Trexler

The tea and scones at the Bridge were delicious, but I will always remember the building, itself. There is forever a debate in preservation, whether it is best to stop the historic clock to preserve its gears or keep it running… whether to let people walk on floors, touch things, use things. There is something to be said for continued use: these buildings were meant to be used, and it’s only through their use that you can fully appreciate them and the history they have witnessed. In a way these buildings have become windows, windows that let us leaf through the pages of history.

Author Susie Trexler is an ace intern at Adventures in Preservation.