Q & A

Newly-retired heritage planner John Calhoun on the ups and downs of defending Windsor's history

Heritage planner John Calhoun, one of Windsor's more visible bureaucrats and ardent defenders of its history has retired. CBC Windsor reporter Jonathan Pinto sat down with Calhoun this week for an exit interview.

Louisiana-born public servant retired from the city on Jan. 26 after nearly a decade on the job

Former city heritage planner John Calhoun moved to Windsor in 2009. (Jonathan Pinto/CBC)

Heritage planner John Calhoun, one of the city's most visible public servants and ardent defenders of its history, has retired. Since 2009, Calhoun was at the centre of many of the most contentious debates over the city's built heritage.

CBC Windsor reporter Jonathan Pinto sat down with Calhoun this week.

What does a heritage planner do?

The biggest matter is working with owners of heritage buildings to help them work through the issues with keeping them in good repair and good use. As part of this, there's the regulatory system dealing with the designated and listed properties.

So it's providing that framework and working with the heritage committee for their part of the regulatory process and in some cases, trying to discern their ideas as to what are good things to do as projects and where to go with changes to [Windsor's Municipal Heritage] register.

How did you end up becoming Windsor's heritage planner?

I saw the notice on the city's website. I had been looking for planning opportunities in Canada for a while when I saw this ad in June 2008, and so I responded to it. I was phoned in September, came for an interview in October, and in November was offered the position.

You're American?

Yes, though now Canadian also.

Where are you from?

I grew up in the anglophone north of Louisiana but lived most of my adult life in Dallas and Oklahoma City. 

So where were before you moved to Windsor?

Oklahoma City, for 18 years.

Were you doing heritage planning there?

I was. That's where I more or less learned how heritage planning works. I had a planning degree from the University of Texas at Arlington and took the job in Oklahoma City and became involved with heritage surveys which then grew into heritage descriptions and ultimately nine National Register of Historic Places district nominations.

Why did you want to move to Canada?

Looking back at my college years and during the Vietnam War and thinking 'this is not the best approach' to what the U.S. was doing. And so I looked at Canada then. As things went along, I stayed [in the U.S.] and entered the workforce and had a career.

Then 2003 or so, I started looking again. Things were looking crazy again in the U.S.

Because of the Iraq War?

Yes. I [wanted to] move to Canada employed and [knowing] people, so I did things like going to a couple of Canadian planning conferences and looking at opportunities all over Canada.

It seems that heritage issues seem to come up in the news and to council with increasing frequency. Would you agree with that?

Somewhat. However, what you don't see in the news are the dozens of conversations with owners that want to take care of their buildings, that want to keep them in good order. Those matters don't get in the news.

It is when there is a significant conflict, particularly about buildings that are seen and notable and people have concerns about, that do make the news.

We have increased the number of properties on the heritage register, indicating the wide range of buildings and people and workplaces, schools, residential places, churches and synagogues that are important to a wide variety of Windsor's people. So with that increase in the properties, there are more occasional conflicts as a result.

What was the favourite part of your job?

It was researching the buildings for possibility for inclusion in the heritage register. There is officially no legal requirement that we do that research, but it is good practice when you're adding properties and imposing the demolition restriction on somebody that you do have a good reason for it.

And learning about the huge variety of properties. Finding surprises — like most recently finding that a house we were interested in turned out to be the home of a police chief, Preston. That kind of thing.

Those kinds of surprises and drawing inferences and seeing something that I'd learned about on one property having somebody involved with it on another property.

What was the most frustrating part of your job?

Well, it was dealing with demolitions. And those of course, typically got a lot of press. What comes to mind is Abars, where the designation proposed was certainly not for architectural beauty, but for its history and the people associated with it.

Part of the designation, however, is to identify those features that should be kept if the building is to be retained. So we figured out some of those, more or less about the core of the building and the house part that was sticking up out of the centre of it.

So [it was frustrating] having that work essentially not used. Of course, the recognition is that city council has the power to make that decision.

What do Windsorites need to understand about built heritage?

Windsor has a lot of individually significant buildings and those should be recognized. But Windsor also has areas that could be considered heritage districts if there was the interest in making that happen.

The most notable from the past is Walkerville, where that attempt [to make it a heritage district] was not successful 23 years ago.

Many of Walkerville's properties are nice, but not individually distinguished. And this is where a district comes in, where the collection as a whole is important and really more so than the sum of its parts.

Something to guide the changes on the exteriors of the properties, particularly those parts that are visible to the street is important to maintain the character of the neighbourhood.

I don't think the city really wants to have Walkerville torn down one house at a time and replaced — the idea of having somebody that has lots of money coming in, buying up a nice, but not distinctive house in Walkerville, tearing it down and building a brand new house that looks like a nice house in Southwood Lakes.

Those are nice houses, but the way they are laid out and their materials and sizes do not match Walkerville. 

The inappropriate swap out of buildings is a risk that we have now.

What's the biggest misunderstanding people have with heritage designation?

I think the biggest misunderstanding is that the city, or the historical society, is going to come in and tell people how to roll their toilet paper, or otherwise criticize their interior remodeling.

The truth is that only on properties that have individual designations that include interior features is that true. Almost all the individual destinations and none of the district designations have interior features as part of their review.

How do we balance heritage preservation with development?

I wish I had the quote exactly, but it's something like, "If you remove a heritage building, the replacement should be of greater visual character."

So you don't tear down an interesting house to build a plain box warehouse.

I think it was the Vanderbilt mansion in New York City, which occupied a full block of land, was torn down to build the Empire State building. It was not torn down to build a box warehouse.

That's an exaggerated comparison, but if you're tearing something down, [replace it with] a new building that is really significantly grander than what it is you tore down.

What's next for you?

I'll do a bit of travelling — I've now bought myself a cruise for a week in the Caribbean next month. Probably visit family more and do things for my 92-year-old mother in Louisiana.

But I'm staying here. In spite of the [snowy] weather this week, it's been good for me here in Windsor.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

About the Author

Jonathan Pinto

Jonathan Pinto is a reporter/editor at CBC Windsor, primarily assigned to Afternoon Drive, CBC Radio's regional afternoon show for southwestern Ontario. Email jonathan.pinto@cbc.ca.