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‘Original is worth a lot more’: Heritage teacher seeks partnership with Smiths Falls to chronicle historical buildings

Algonquin College heritage students may be in Smiths Falls this summer to help document historical buildings. The Municipal Heritage Committee heard from Shawn Thomson on Jan. 23 about a plan to help the town in its conservation efforts. – Laurie Weir photo

Shawn Thomson, a teacher at Algonquin College, Perth Campus, wants to bring some of his students to Smiths Falls to help with a heritage conservation project.

During a meeting of the Smiths Falls’ Municipal Heritage Committee on Jan. 23, Thomson presented to the members of the committee, a plan that would see him bring four students to town for the summer to help catalogue its historical buildings.

“They would identify properties, complete a history, access and recommend current needs and future conservation items,” Thomson explained. They might also include a general or neighbourhood survey of styles and points of interest.

“This can include an environmental piece,” Thomson said. “While these are not environmental building science students, an initial assessment of options around rehabilitating and conserving a building’s embodied energy would be covered.”

Students would be employees of the college, which would provide workspaces, technology, internet access, printing and most other resources that may be required, Thomson noted.

“I would be their supervisor; try to stay at arm’s length so the students can do the bulk of the work on their own but be there to guide and approve the final version of each property package,” Thomson said.

Shawn Thomson, a teacher at Algonquin College in Perth has requested from the Municipal Heritage Committee in Smiths Falls that he brings four students for the summer to help catalogue heritage properties in Smiths Falls. – Laurie Weir screengrab

The ask of the committee would be for access to archives and guidance as to what areas should be catalogued. He also requested help reaching out to homeowners to let them know that students would be in the area taking notes and photos of the properties, “but nothing invasive,” he said. “They won’t need to go inside the homes.”

Thomson said he’s hoping to access an occasional workspace from the town, “and of course, a financial piece.”

Thomson said after a quick walk through the town, he was amazed at the housing stock, as well as the number of buildings that should be declared heritage.

He said people have a hard time understanding that the original is worth much more than something souped up – like a ’65 Mustang with a rebuilt motor. “That old, original, is worth a lot more,” he said.

“That’s why people like your house,” he said. “It’s not because you put black shingles on something that was a cedar roof.”

Karl Grenke, the town’s senior planner, said the town has a façade recovery program for the downtown, which offers additional funds if someone’s looking to do some heritage work.

“If council decides to go in that direction…we’d be looking at implementation options or certain incentives, either a revised CIP or something like that.”

Grenke said it was too premature to go into great detail, “but every best practice I’ve seen is if we’re going to be introducing a stick, then introducing a carrot to help out with that.”

Grenke said the town has a “fair bit of this done already,” and asked Thomson if this would be a complementary project for the downtown area, or would they be looking at houses outside the heritage conservation district study area.

Thomson said they wouldn’t want to repeat the work if they didn’t have to, “but there may be some buildings that were skipped over or not enough was done. Picking neighbourhoods may be just as beneficial.”

Thomson said that piece would be up to the committee.

Loraine Allen, member of the municipal heritage committee, said it was a great idea to have the students catalogue the town’s historical buildings.

She spoke of the signage on Beckwith Street and how the signs have a more modern feel.

“In my opinion, that’s very sad,” Allen said. As a heritage conservation district, “that’s the first thing that we need to have people aware of.”

If the MHC could have Algonquin students create another resource that shows what the signage looked like in the past, “it would give people an option,” she said, “especially when we know our town is moving toward a conservation district, that’s what we want in it.”

Allen encouraged Thomson to visit town during Porch Fest, “because it would be fun for your students to just walk around that … most of the porches in it are original to the buildings that they’re sitting on. And I love that you still have so many students that are interested in doing heritage studies.”

In terms of financing the project, Thomson said if this is of interest to the committee and council, he could put them in contact with the college team to iron out the details.

“They’re going to pay for most of it,” Thomson said, “if not all of it. A portion (from Smiths Falls) would be lovely … I’ll just put you in contact with the correct people and those discussions can happen.”
A recommendation from the committee will come to a future Smiths Falls council meeting.

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