The Goderich story: A lesson in survival

50 West Street, following the tornado (Photo courtesy of Bob Davis)


Denise Van Amersfoort

Buildings and architecture, Community, Tools for conservation

Published Date:10 May 2013

Photo: 50 West Street, following the tornado (Photo courtesy of Bob Davis)

For the past 18 months, West Street in Goderich has been as much a construction site as it has a place of service and retail business.

On August 21, 2011, an F3 tornado devastated the Town of Goderich. At the epicenter of the damage were the town’s two heritage conservation districts (HCDs) – The Square and West Street. The damage to Goderich’s HCDs is considered by heritage professionals to be unprecedented in the history of the province.

Eighteen months later, Goderich has replanted, rebuilt and moved forward. This article opens a small window into the amount of dedication, hard work and energy that private landowners, the Heritage Committee, town council and the community at large have put forward to rebuild “Canada’s prettiest town,” and West Street specifically.

West Street has been home to many success stories following the storm and, as the town planner, I am happy to share my perspective on a few of the many inspiring stories.

Found at 37-41 West Street, the Masonic Lodge has presided over West Street with a stately and impressive presence since 1913. On August 21, 2011, one-third of its three-storey Italianate façade was torn away from the building, with bricks scattered up and down the street. Interestingly, the Lodge was one of the properties that had opted out of the HCD in 1993 and yet, despite the lack of designation, the caretakers of this building applied for heritage permits, consulted with the Municipal and Marine Heritage Committee, and demonstrated a genuine commitment to the heritage review process. The restoration of this building included restoring the street façade, re-creating the corbelled brick cornice, installing a new roof, conducting significant interior renovations and making other structural repairs. The result is stunning. The masonry is perhaps my favourite detail as the owners opted to retain as much of the original brick on the façade as possible, creating a distinct line between the old and new. In doing so, they have enabled the building itself to tell the story of the destruction and resilience that occurred throughout the town

50 West Street, following the tornado and since it was restored (Photos courtesy of Bob Davis)

Across the street, two other examples of jobs well done can be found. While 46 West Street suffered the collapse of a chimney, roof damage and severe interior damage, 50 West Street was pummelled with debris from neighbouring buildings, causing extensive damage to the side of the building in addition to broken windows, destroyed signs and significant damage to the interior. The restoration of both buildings has significantly contributed to the streetscape in that high-quality examples of both Second Empire and Georgian styles have been maintained.

A further highlight of the transformation is that of the north streetscape of West Street, where, prior to the storm, four one-storey buildings lined a section of the street. These buildings predated the HCD District Plan for West Street, which supports two-storey development for the traditional commercial district, as does the town’s zoning bylaw. Three of the four one-storey buildings were demolished as a result of the tornado and, while there was certainly a will to put everything back as it was before, an opportunity was recognized and town council and property owners stood together behind a recommendation for buildings along West Street to be rebuilt at two storeys, not one. Today, two of the three sites are home to new, two-storey buildings and the owners of the fourth building, which was not demolished, have opted to add a second storey to their building. The skyline of West Street has been transformed and the heritage character enhanced despite the massive loss. This example shows how a combination of HCD planning, land-use planning and the will of property owners have resulted in a significant win in the aftermath of a natural disaster.

So, what’s next for the West Street HCD? In March 2013, town council – with the help of a Creative Communities through Prosperity Fund grant from the provincial government – has initiated a new HCD District Plan and Study project for downtown Goderich that proposes to encompass the two existing districts and potentially expand into other areas of the downtown core.

It’s my opinion that the significance of the heritage conservation districts and heritage planning in general have been recognized and promoted in the months after the storm. For the town of Goderich – and for West Street specifically – the results are nothing short of incredible. Come and see it for yourself!