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Wednesday, June 19, 2024
Arch-i-text: Don’t underestimate the utility of heritage buildings
The Queenston Baptist Church, which has been a mainstay in the village of Queenston since 1845, has served multiple religious, social and educational functions throughout its existence. SUPPLIED

A few days ago, I was privileged to chat with a number of Queenston residents about the history, heritage and unique character of their village.

It was completely apropos that this discussion took place in the historic Queenston Library and Community Centre — a building that has been integral to the community for almost 180 years.

Completed in 1845, it was built by the Baptist congregation of Queenston to serve as its church and was constructed of rough-faced ashlar limestone cut from the nearby Queenston quarry on the top of the Escarpment. 

Architecturally, it is an outstanding example of early Gothic Revival in the province.

Each of the large window openings and its main entry are surmounted by pointed Gothic arches.

The projecting frontispiece gives the impression of a tower and is appointed with a unique elliptical opening vertically aligned with the pointed arch of the main door.

Due to a dwindling Baptist congregation, it ceased to be a place of worship around 1918 and was sold to the Women’s Institute in 1928 to be its local base of operations.

Now, the Women’s Institute was — and is — a fascinating organization.

Founded in 1897 by Adelaide Hoodless in Stoney Creek, Ont., it was originally formed with the objective of educating rural women in “a better understanding of the economic and hygienic value of food and a more scientific care of children with a view to raising the general standard of life of farm people.”

By 1913, the organization had institutes in every province and in 1915, it had jumped the pond to Europe opening the first institute in Sandringham, England, with Queen Mary serving as the president.

At the time the Women’s Institute acquired the Baptist church, the early courses in cooking, sewing, home nutrition, childcare and handicrafts had been expanded to include home nursing, first aid, dairying, beekeeping, poultry raising, banking and business skills.

Key to its success was that each Women’s Institute member society operated at the community level, reflective of and responsive to specific local needs.

The Queenston Women’s Institute operated out of the Baptist Church building until 1954 when the decision was made to sell the property — for reasons I have not been able to ascertain — to one Mrs. A. Anthony.

What purposes Anthony put the building to over the 16 years she owned it are unclear to this writer, however, in 1970, she sold the property to Dr. Djamal Afrukhteh.

Less than 24 months later, Afrukhteh deeded the ownership of the property to the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake on the condition the building be used as a public library in perpetuity. 

The residents of Queenston immediately embarked on a fundraising effort gathering $50,000 in contributions which were used for the restoration of the building and the library opened in December of 1972.

Unfortunately, all did not proceed swimmingly from there.

In 1975, NOTL’s library board announced that the Virgil and Queenston branches would be closed.

Seventeen months of furious negotiation ensued between the library board, town council, Queenston residents and Afrukhteh, finally culminating in an agreement that the building would function as a community centre and library staffed by community volunteers on an “access upon request basis.”

So, it pretty much remains to this day … still serving the residents of Queenston.

If a single NOTL building could be cited as an example of how an historic building has validated its original function as a social anchor to the surrounding community, the Queenston Baptist Church would surely be near the top of the list.

From the church’s original religious and social function, through the Women’s Institute decades with an educational and social purpose to its use today as a social and educational centre, it remains a cultural heritage touchpoint in the village of Queenston.

All this, while standing proud and displaying its truly fine early Upper Canada Gothic Revival architecture for residents and visitors alike to enjoy.

Of course, it is not the only heritage building in Niagara-on-the-Lake to remain relevant through ongoing contribution to the warp and weave of the community.

During one recent sleepless night, I took the opportunity to watch a series of lecture presentations put on by the Nottingham and Derby Society of Architects, out of England.

The content of one presentation in particular stood out to me entitled “Economic, Social and Environmental Benefits of Heritage Restoration.”

While this presentation is couched in the U.K. experience, there are truths that apply to the international theatre and our local context.

Consider that in the year 2018, there were 75.8 million visits to historic venues in England by visitors drawn from international sources (27 per cent), local/day trippers (49 per cent) and vacationing nationals (25 per cent).

The most popular of these venues were historic houses followed by historic gardens.

According to data reported by Historic England in 2020, the direct, indirect and induced economic benefits generated by these visits totalled 36.6 billion British pounds (in Canadian currency, $63.6 billion) and generated 563,000 jobs.

Have you ever noticed where Niagara-on-the-Lake’s visitors tend to gravitate to — where they stop to take photos and selfies?

From my observation, it’s in front of historic plaques, heritage buildings, established gardens and parks.

Whether in England or NOTL, people are drawn to and revel in the sense of connection with the past that only historic streetscapes can provide.

Interestingly, there appear to be health benefits derived by the people who make these treks to historic venues: a lower incidence of visits to doctors and access to mental health services is recorded in this population.

Historic England’s 2020 data suggests that the estimated savings in national healthcare costs as a result of visiting heritage venues equals 193 million British pounds (C$ 335.6 million) annually.

Apparently, the gentle smiles we see on the faces of the visitors as they stroll through town is symptomatic of a general health tonic that is taken home with them.

On the environmental sustainability front, the presentation pointed out that “the energy costs and associated CO2 emissions of naturally vented historic buildings are often 30 per cent lower than those of a typical air-conditioned building.”

Moreover, that traditional architecture is characterized by features such as hood mouldings and sills which protect the walls of the building from weather stating, “These protective features are often very decorative, but their primary purpose is practical.”

Historic buildings were designed and built to last centuries. They incorporated learnings that generations of builders developed to preserve the integrity of the structure.

In part, this is why buildings like the Queenston Baptist Church continue to serve people and the community.

And, it is not alone.

At 7 Queen St. stands the circa 1880 building that originally housed Niagara’s first telephone exchange and has recently been repurposed as the Exchange brewery.

The circa 1890 old cannery building located at 48 John St. was subject to an adaptive reuse project in the 1970s to become the Pillar & Post Inn.

Both of these historic structures have been given a new purpose and, as such, will continue to grace our town and its visitors into the foreseeable future.

Because it is old does not mean it is worthless.

On the contrary, because of its age it becomes more valuable, delivers greater benefits — if only one has the vision to see them.

Brian Marshall is a NOTL realtor, author and expert consultant on architectural design, restoration and heritage.

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