It’s called crisis management, and it’s been practiced a lot in Hamilton on the heritage front.

Yesterday, it was councillor Jason Farr convincing his colleagues at City Hall that several historic buildings on Gore Park deserve a 60-day stay of execution if the owner tries to knock them down. Meanwhile, the wreckers are already at work next door.

Always seems to be the 11th-hour. We need a plan, a strategy.

And tomorrow, Wednesday, July 10, at LIUNA Station on James North, the city will ask for your help in putting that plan together.


One of the industrial gems in the core is the Firth building at Hughson and Cannon, still occupied and earning its keep. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

It wants you to take part in a project that’s been years in the making. It’s called the Downtown Built Heritage Inventory. From 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., there are staff on hand and displays. From 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., there will be a presentation and round-table discussions.

There is an unwieldy list out there of all the properties in Greater Hamilton of historical and/ or architectural interest. A long list got even longer after amalgamation, with the five outlying communities adding their candidates.

List doesn't mean much

This list offers no protection from demolition whatsoever – which is why there’s a problem on Gore Park right now. There are some 7,000 properties on that old and mostly meaningless list.

Several years ago, Hamilton council voted to fund a project to get that list under control. The idea was to bite off one chunk of the list and analyze it, update it, whip it into manageable form.

It made sense to use the downtown portion for the project, with lots of old buildings in a compact area – Cannon to Hunter, Queen to Wellington.


On King East in the core, Forbidden City does business in a brick fortress built in 1893. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

And then the baton was passed to a woman with a good pair of walking shoes, a sturdy constitution and a passion for history.

Alissa Golden, 30, is from Ottawa. She came to McMaster to earn her undergraduate degree in engineering. She went off to Queen’s for her graduate work in planning, but was glad to return to Hamilton.

She lived downtown while going to Mac. It is quite a different place from Ottawa, "but I think that’s why I like it. There’s a distinct character to Hamilton."

Where's Alissa today?

She says she has many friends interested in heritage architecture too. "I think there’s a repositioning of what’s important... they see value in reinvesting in these buildings."

The inventory project was no desk job. Each morning, Golden would leave a where’s-Alissa-today note at City Hall detailing where in the core she was going to be.

She had a backpack, clipboard, camera, water supply, granola bars. At each stop, she would note all details of the building. She would sketch its footprint and take a picture. She started in the middle of 2011 and finished a year later.


The Copp Block has provided a beautiful streetwall on King East since 1881. (Local History & Archives, Hamilton Public Library)

She tracked 1,800 properties. About 1,300 of them had been on that list of historical interest. About 450 are no longer there. Blame parking lots for some of that.

Golden’s clean and careful data is now in the hands of Ian Kerr-Wilson, the city’s manager of heritage resources, and curator Sonia Mvra, manager of this file. They say Wednesday’s open house is key to the process.

"We’re asking the fundamental question of what history is and why it matters to Hamiltonians," Kerr-Wilson says. "What do people value?"

This project will cost about $35,000. It also involves E.R.A. Architects, which has been doing similar work with other communities.

Still time for those facades?

All this, of course, comes too late to save a pair of 1870s buildings that are moments from demolition on Gore Park. Or does it?

David Blanchard, partner in the development company taking those buildings down, told CBC Hamilton in May that he was open to saving the facades of the two structures – but the expense of doing that would have to come from the city, and he would need to hear fast.

A few weeks ago he declared that time was up. "No one came forward to say anything about it," he said. "There were no monetary offers."


In this shot of the Baker Exchange on Jackson Street in 1929, there were just two storeys. It's the Bell building today, five storeys tall. (Bell archives)

Yesterday Graham Crawford, owner of the Hamilton HIStory + HERitage storefront museum, proposed in an open-letter to council that the costs of saving those facades be split three ways – the developer, the city and the people. He offered to put up the first $1,000.

Step one, of course, would be to get a proper estimate of what such a job would cost.

And E.R.A. Architects, already in town on the inventory project, would be just the outfit to determine the costs. The firm is now saving the facades of five storefronts on Yonge Street in Toronto. City Hall there told developers demolition was not an option.

As for City Hall here, it’s to have the results of the heritage inventory by the end of December. Then the politicians will vote on a recommendation that lists properties to protect. They’ll be doing that in an election year. Grant them strength and wisdom.

Paul Wilson is a member of the Hamilton Municipal Heritage Committee.

Read more CBC Hamilton stories by Paul Wilson here.