Written by Marilyn Williams, 2010 alumnus
In my previous career as an engineer in new product introduction, I learned all too well that ‘we are living in a material world’ (Madonna’s 1985 song Material Girl). Unlike working with systems or software issues, with hardware, one is up against the laws of nature. There are no workarounds; one has to work with materials, and that means understanding them – sometimes at the molecular level. That is one of the reasons I was drawn to the York conservation studies programme, which balances the theoretical and cultural aspects of conserving built heritage with a practical, hands-on approach and a strong grounding in traditional building materials and buildings crafts (we also say trades in North America). After completing the lime and stone module, I was intrigued about what I had learned, and left with a driving curiosity about the local quarries, stonemasons and quarrymen in my own part of the world, southern Alberta, Canada.
I had many opportunities over the next six years researching various Alberta historic sites to learn more about these and other traditional materials, since understanding a structure’s construction materials, and how they were produced and crafted, is important in determining its heritage value and integrity. Indeed a structure’s materials, construction techniques and workmanship can be as important as its design or historic associations. I thought that this information might be equally interesting and useful to other Albertans, and I personally had a strong desire to raise the profile of traditional crafts for which I hold a profound respect. A forum to share the information had already been established in 2005, when a group of Calgary heritage lovers (calling ourselves the Calgary Heritage Round Tables) began offering free, public educational/networking evenings on a variety of heritage subjects following our simple, no-overhead formula: a single annual planning meeting outlining 3-4 events/year, each with a passionate volunteer organizer who will arrange speakers and sponsors to provide refreshments and venues. I was the organizer for the session this March on Calgary’s early quarries and stone industry, the fourth round table on heritage trades, others including sawmills and woodwork, and brickyards and brick construction during the city’s settlement period at the turn of the 20th century.
Around 115 people turned out for an evening of networking and five talks by presenters with diverse backgrounds, a reminder that heritage explorations are always multidisciplinary. We opened with a talk I had prepared on early quarries, stonemason and stonecutters, pulled together from a variety of excellent community histories, local built history references and research for several former quarries which are now cultural landscapes on the city’s inventory of historic resources.
Archaeologist Shari Peyerl brought to life the daily operation of the historical Glenbow quarry – where an entire workers’ community once existed – as evidenced by discoveries at the site.
Mason Shawn Thibault contrasted traditional and modern stone theory, construction, mortars and methods, and explained the pitfalls of applying modern theory and methods to the repair and conservation of traditional buildings. 2013 alumnus Stefan Cieslik, currently a Heritage Conservation Advisor for Alberta Culture, introduced the city’s legacy of historic sandstone buildings, once so significant that Calgary was known as ‘the Sandstone City’ by the 1890’s.
Stefan also took time to share with the public the Canadian Standards & Guidelines for the repair of stone which was unfamiliar for many. Finally, Calgary City Hall Rehabilitation project manager Eric Brolund spoke in detail regarding the most important stone restoration project happening in our city.
I have already begun gathering information to present at the next heritage trades round table on 19th and early 20th century metal work, steel manufacturing and tin shops. Because ‘I am a material girl’.