When I first considered this story, I was leaning toward a high-tech angle. I figured, why not…it seems like a perfect way to end a series. Talk about changes in materials for brick-making, changes in properties, for instance. I looked into that idea, then was struck by a couple of things I came across. I decided on a different angle. The story that ends this series is about the restoration and preservation of lovely brick buildings in Canada, the country to which I immigrated, a love song, if you will. We’ll cover where these structures are located and what has been done to them. I support heritage preservation and I believe it will be a wonderful way to round out our story. In addition, it just so happens that Heritage Day was Feb. 21 and many provinces are celebrating Heritage Week.
1. Evergreen Brick Works, Toronto, Ontario. Evergreen Brick Works is a non-profit community environmental centre in Toronto and a major funder of environmental projects in Canada. From the turn of the century, 1889, till the 80s, it was the Don Valley Brick Works. At one point, it was manufacturing 43 million bricks a year and was considered one of Canada’s major brickyards. Today, the structure remains intact and the grounds have been turned into a lovely park. Last year, Evergreen Brick Works was named one of the world’s top 10 geo-tourism destinations by National Geographic. Its sister site is in British Columbia, Evergreen BC.
2. The Empress Hotel, Victoria, British Columbia. Known world-wide for its high teas, the Empress is a truly lovely place. The chateau-style hotel opened in 1908 and, today, it is a reflection of the height of the British Empire. Two years ago, on Boxing Day, we joined our friends for a little stroll through downtown Victoria, after having spent a storybook Christmas with them. We walked through the Empress, looking at its intricate floors and wall panels, feeling the ambience. Christmas is a perfect time to be there. I remember peeking into the Bengal Lounge, a reminder of Queen Victoria’s role as the ‘Empress of India.’ I was carried away by notes of curry and amazed by the size of the Bengal tiger skin mounted on the wall. For $70 Cdn each, you could be served Afternoon Tea while being entertained by period madrigals. A relic of the Edwardian Era, in 1965, the hotel was prime for demolition, a seedy anachronism. One-time guests had included Edward, Prince of Wales, King George VI, Queen Elizabeth and, frequent guest, Rudyard Kipling. It would have been a travesty to knock it down. They say Victoria is more British than the British and people rallied the following year: Operation Teacup raised four million dollars and the hotel was restored. Then, in 1989, the Royal Room was revitalized for $45 million. The Empress Hotel is now on the Condé Nast Gold List. The number of bricks used to build it numbered 2,750,000, supplied by Humber & Sons of Victoria.
3. Vieux-Québec, Québec City, Québec. You do not have to travel to France to be surrounded by Francophones. Neither do you need to travel there to get a taste of Old France. Go to Québec City! The Vieux-Québec, founded in 1608, was a fortified city on the St. Lawrence River and today it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Mansard roofs, cobbled streets and very old brick and stone. There are different sections, Upper Town, Vieux-Québec or the Lower Town, Basse-Ville and the port, Vieux-Port. Le Château Frontenac, ultra-imposing, quaint shops, ramparts. Brick after brick after brick. Over the centuries, much has been restored, maintained, it is a protected site, so it is little changed and the phone book is full of restoration experts. If you’re interested in more, here’s a time line. Long ago, I remember my Uncle Jim telling me ‘don’t go to Europe, go to Québec City, it’s just as European.’ Of course, French was one of his four or five languages, so he got along fine. If you visit, bring a French speaker or take a crash course. The Québecois prefer that French is spoken.
These three sites represent Canada well, east and west, old and reborn. If you’d like to have a prairies perspective, here’s a glimpse into what is happening in Winnipeg, known for its heritage buildings. If the winters weren’t so cold, we’d consider moving there to buy a mint-condition Craftsman bungalow. Take care and enjoy your Heritage Week, Canadians and, more locally, BCers!
I avoid grandiose plans. I start with a small piece that I can do. I go to the root of the problem and then work around it. It’s building brick by brick.
— Muhammad Yunus, Visionaries by Utne Reader