11 . 26 . 2018

UW architecture prof argues mid-century buildings, including former Sears store, are worth saving

AUTHOR James Jackson

When Rick Haldenby looks at the former Sears building, he doesn’t see an ugly, grey monolith deserving of the wrecking ball.

He sees dignity.

He sees rhythm.

He sees history.

It’s time to re-evaluate our perception of what a heritage building is and how old is old enough to warrant conservation, he said.

“I’m extremely interested in preserving that generation of architecture that was really associated with tremendous transformation in the region,” he said of the mid-century design.

Haldenby, a professor at the University of Waterloo School of Architecture, worries municipalities across this region — and the province — risk repeating the mistakes of the past by demolishing swaths of buildings because we don’t yet recognize their historic value.

The mid-century buildings that popped up in Waterloo Region from the early 1950s to the early 1970s are representative of a booming era in local history, and should be protected, Haldenby said.

That includes the facade of the 53-year-old former Sears store at CF Fairview Park mall in Kitchener.

City council voted Nov. 19 to reject a recommendation from the heritage committee to preserve the facade. Property owner Cadillac Fairview wants to demolish the facade and part of the building as part of a major redevelopment project.

Haldenby said the era of mid-century growth that occurred in this region included new university buildings, new highways, new shopping malls and new apartment buildings to accommodate an increase in population, and architectural artifacts of that era need to be preserved.

“It represents the most dramatic transformations of the region in at least 50 years after the factories that came at the end of the 19th century,” he said. “If that’s not heritage, what is?”

Council voted 7-3 Monday night against protecting the unique concrete facade of the former Sears building with a heritage designation.

Earlier this month, the heritage committee supported heritage designation for the building, which would prevent any alterations to the building’s heritage elements without council approval.

Finley McEwen, Cadillac Fairview’s senior vice-president of development, urged council to vote against the heritage designation.

It would “essentially render the property undevelopable,” McEwen said. “It would essentially tie our hand and prevent a one-in-50-year redevelopment opportunity from progressing.”

Phase 1 of Cadillac Fairview’s redevelopment plan would add four storeys of office space and two standalone restaurants — a $74-million investment, McEwen said.

Future phases would add more office and residential space and be worth $360 million; between 5,000 to 10,000 people would eventually live or work there.

Cadillac Fairview’s plan would demolish almost the entire facade, but preserve a section on the north side of the building. Cadillac Fairview said it would be willing to save a larger section of the original facade.

Haldenby said the rush to demolish the Sears building and other mid-century buildings around the region is repeating the mistakes of the past, when developers demolished turn-of-the-century factories and homes in the name of modernization.

Haldenby, director of the school of architecture at UW from 1988 to 2013, said efforts to reverse that demolition trend emerged during the 1970s and 1980s, when heritage committees in Waterloo Region worked to preserve buildings that were 50 or 60 years old.

But our interpretation of “heritage” has not kept pace in the decades since, he said, and many don’t consider mid-century design old enough, or beautiful enough, to protect.

“It may not be to everyone’s taste, but compare it with the average power centre mall today and this is actually architecture,” he said of the Sears building, which has a distinctive facade of ribbed, precast concrete built in the Kennedy-era International style.

It includes 20-foot high moulded panels atop an eight-foot wall of dark green antique glazed brick.

“It’s got dignity, it’s got rhythm, it’s got grace,” Haldenby said.

The 67-year-old is a third-generation architect, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, but it’s not just nostalgia for the building style that drives him.

Haldenby initially rejected the mid-century style, calling it “shallow” and “abstract,” but he now appreciates its importance.

“We should be celebrating it, not tearing it down,” he said.

On Dec. 8, the Ontario Heritage Trust will host a panel discussion and tour of local mid-century modern buildings at Martin Luther University College, 75 University Ave. W., Waterloo (corner of Albert Street and Bricker Avenue).

Haldenby and Globe and Mail architecture critic Alex Bozikovic will speak at the event, which starts at 10 a.m. and is free. Tickets are available online at www.eventbrite.ca by searching “mid-century modern talk and tour.”