What, precisely, do we mean by the term, "heritage" houses or buildings? Are we referring to their age? Their historical significance? Their architectural style? The fact that they’re visible leftovers of an earlier time and place? A heritage structure, socalled, can be any or all of these things. In the most accepted sense, heritage houses or buildings are those that represent a personal/professional, societal, cultural or even a national character; they’re the icons of past times, purposes and lifestyles.
To those who appreciate them, they’re more than the survivors of what we term progress; they contribute something unique and tangible to their existing environment. Older homes usually mean mature landscaping and tree-lined boulevards, an ambience of peace and quietude by which many of us measure livability. Psychologically, they can serve as anchors in an ever-changing world.
In short, many people regard heritage as being more than a nostalgic or a sentimental yearning for an idealistic past – those so-called good old days that never were as rosy for those participating in them as they are seen to be by those of us who follow.
A city setting, of course, is denser – the maligned asphalt and concrete jungle. Which only makes those buildings of an earlier age and time frame in a city’s history all the more essential to maintaining that city’s character. They look different, most of them are different to contemporary building styles. It’s inevitable that buildings come, buildings go. Usually, however, citizens recognize the aesthetic and ambient values of keeping and maintaining the best of the old. It’s what gives cities and communities their character and makes them, by most definitions, livable.
Speaking of definitions, that of cultural inheritance, as given by one dictionary, likely comes closest to the mark. Our cultural inheritance is our history at the community level. It’s part of our DNA as Canadians. No, we can’t save everything just because it’s old. Nor should we try. But we should, we must, endeavour to save those houses and buildings which we recognize to be architecturally or historically significant, as symbols worthy of note of our march through time.
Hence the Cowichan Heritage Society has commissioned a two-volume architectural and social history of the Valley’s most outstanding "heritage" houses and buildings. Volume One, covering Duncan, is to be published this year, Volume Two, covering the balance of the Cowichan Valley, in 2015. It’s an ambitious project, one that has taken years to bring to the point of near-completion by a handful of dedicated volunteers.
One of the first to take up the cause of Heritage was the late Elaine Holm. Formerly of Scotland, Victoria and Parksville, with a background in library work and professional photography, she began work as a realtor here in 1973, 26 years after her arrival in Canada, and after years of working for a government travel bureau. She first set eyes on the Cowichan Valley in 1967 while attending a nephew’s wedding. Upon becoming interested in numerology she changed her name to Alisen Bonn, the byline that appeared with her photographs published in the Duncan Pictorial, 1968-72.
After working as manager of the Duncan Tourist Bureau she turned to real estate: "I found I had a sense of a house," she told the Pictorial’s Barb Park in 1994. "I could tell whether it was wellconstructed. I’d avoid selling houses if they weren’t reliable."
Following her instincts, she bought an old house without basement, foundation, cupboards or a heating system and set about improving and repairing it through her own labour and with the expertise of hired craftsmen. Years after, she regretted having sold the house that she’d come to love and which had become "part of my psyche".
She also found that selling real estate and her background in photography went hand in hand and, upon retirement in 1984, she hosted shows related to heritage on Shaw TV and contributed to the publication of Memories Never Lost, a history of pioneer women of the Cowichan Valley. She then decided to complete and update an inventory of older houses in Duncan that the CVRD had commissioned in 1983.
"I took the basic form and made a few alterations for the city. I photographed the ones that still exist and made up a new file while another volunteer, Doris Benjamin, investigated [related] historical information" through the CVRD and by interviewing relatives of the homes’ builders.
"If there’s a question about a house, the city can see what is historically important. It may help them to make decisions. At least they’ll know the houses which [were built] between 1910 and 1920."
One house, circa 1881, that she didn’t identify, was dated through her conversation with the builder’s granddaughter and illustrated the problems with accurately dating structures without building permits or other civic records. The granddaughter’s Uncle Phil had been born in the house in 1884, hence, Holm reasoned, "it was definitely built by that time. We took 1881 as the more or less confirmed date that it was built."
Subsequent research has shown that Elaine Holm wasn’t always right – but she did set the ball rolling.
At the time of her interview with the Pictorial, Holm expressed the hope that an inventory would be made of homes built prior to 1940, something she was unable to do herself as research was challenging and time-consuming, even with the assistance of the late Cowichan Station historian Jack Fleetwood who was renowned for his phenomenal memory.
She was willing to carry on photographically: "If downtown business people will check out dates and any history on buildings they own, I will come and photograph [them], but [the research] is too much for me."
Elaine Holm moved to Cranbrook in 1999 where she died two years later. Her groundbreaking work of the ’80s and early ’90s has contributed greatly to our knowledge of Duncan’s older houses.