Our cultural heritage places: how heritage buildings adapt

Peel Heritage Complex, Brampton

Photo: Peel Heritage Complex, Brampton


Sean Fraser

Buildings and architecture, Community, Adaptive reuse

Published Date: Feb 16, 2006

Although heritage remains a year-round activity for many of us, Heritage Day is celebrated annually on the third Monday in February. This year’s theme speaks to “Our Cultural Heritage Places,” with an emphasis on museums, concert halls, libraries and galleries.

Most of these unique spaces continue to operate as they were originally intended. Over time, however – and with careful management – many sites have been adapted to bring new life to their activities while maintaining their heritage fabric.

Conservation easements are covenants between owners of heritage properties and groups such as the Ontario Heritage Trust, municipalities or conservation organizations. These agreements are registered on title in perpetuity and are binding on all future owners. Conservation easements conserve the heritage features of the site – ensuring that these features are preserved, interpreted and well maintained.

Many Ontario Heritage Trust conservation easement sites are operated as museums, galleries, libraries, archives, theatres and concert halls. These sites possess inherent architectural and historical value, making them even more precious to those who visit and work in them. In addition, they heighten the cultural experience offered on the premises. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at three cultural heritage places in the Ontario Heritage Trust easement portfolio.

The Ontario Heritage Trust holds over 200 easements on a variety of cultural and natural sites throughout Ontario. Easements offer a flexible, effective way for heritage-minded property owners to ensure the sympathetic care and preservation of these heritage resources in perpetuity. For more information on conservation easements, contact the Ontario Heritage Trust at 416-325-5000 or visit

Ontario Northern Railway Station, Cobalt

Ontario Northern Railway Station (Cobalt). Built in 1910 for the Timiskaming and Northern Ontario Railway, the Cobalt Station is associated with the early development of rail transportation and settlement in Northern Ontario. Designed by prominent Toronto architect John M. Lyle, the station is a long, low brick building with an impressive broad-hipped roof. The interior boasts massive timber roof trusses and a wooden ceiling. Typical of railway stations built during the first part of the 20th century, the station exhibits elements of the Arts and Crafts and Tudor Revival styles. Located along the waterfront in the downtown core, the Cobalt Station is a local landmark. In 1979, the Town of Cobalt designated the station under the Ontario Heritage Act and, in 1993, the Ontario Heritage Trust secured a heritage easement that protects the exterior and main heritage interior spaces. This municipally owned building has been adapted to cultural uses and is now home to the Bunker Military Museum, the Cobalt Welcome Centre and the Mining Exhibit.

Allan Macpherson House, Greater Napanee

Allan Macpherson House, Greater Napanee

Allan Macpherson House (Greater Napanee). This house was built by Allan Macpherson, a leading local businessman, militia leader, magistrate and Napanee's first postmaster. Sir John A. MacDonald, a relation of the Macpherson family, was a frequent guest at the house. The house remained in the Macpherson family until 1896. It was purchased by the Lennox and Addington Historical Society in 1962, restored and opened as a museum in 1967. It continues as a museum today.

The design of this two-storey frame house is a vernacular Georgian form with Neo-Classical features. The interior is arranged around a central hall, also typical of Georgian design. Exterior distinguishing features include: an imposing Neo-Classical front and rear entranceway with wide rectangular transoms; wide six-panel doors and pilasters with decorative moulding; and simple window frames with plain dripboard cornices and a twelve-overtwelve window sash. The house is located in a park-like riverside setting on the banks of the Napanee River. In 1977, the Town of Napanee designated the house under the Ontario Heritage Act and, in 1982, the Ontario Heritage Trust secured a heritage easement to protect the exterior and restored interiors of the house.

Peel Heritage Complex, Brampton

Peel Heritage Complex (Brampton). Designed in 1866 by Toronto architect William Kauffman, the Peel County Courthouse is a remarkable Venetian-Gothic landmark in downtown Brampton. Distinguishing features include: a rusticated limestone foundation, paired round-headed windows, fanlights and broad decorative eaves. Above the classically inspired pediment is an onion-shaped dome rising above the cupola that is unique to Ontario courthouse design. The cubic limestone jail boasts a hip roof and six large brick chimneys. The Courthouse, Jail and Land Registry were Peel County's judicial and administrative centre from their construction in 1867 until 1973, and continue to embody Peel Region’s civic pride. The Region of Peel created the Peel Heritage Complex in 1985 in an effort to save this collection of significant heritage buildings and bring together many of the community’s cultural heritage services on one site. As a cultural heritage landmark, the Peel Heritage Complex offers a concert hall in the former Court Room, a regional museum and archives located in the former Jail and an art gallery in the former Land Registry. The Ontario Heritage Trust secured a heritage easement to protect the exteriors of this complex, as well as the interior of the historic courtroom and entry corridor.

These three sites were converted from their original use to suit new public, cultural functions. Not all easement sites have undergone adaptive re-use in the same way, but these examples demonstrate what can be achieved when we work creatively to retain, protect and celebrate our cultural heritage places.