The Value of Old

The Black-Earle Double House, Brockville

A recent decision by our city council to demolish two buildings has re-ignited a debate about the value of old buildings and whether they should be preserved.

The city owns the buildings and has determined that since it would cost too much to bring them up to current building standards, they should be demolished. Although neither building has a heritage designation, one of them, known as the Black-Earle Double House, dates from the 1860s.

There are those who argue that public money shouldn’t be spent on saving a building that has no special value and no redeeming features. Opponents point to the gradual erosion of local history, especially after the recent loss of an historic church.

Compared to the mansions that line the main street, this is a very plain, wood-frame house covered with stucco. Yet surviving for more than 150 years means it is extraordinary in its own right. Part of this may be attributed to the craftsmanship involved, but I suspect that much of its longevity is because of the materials used.

Coincidentally, our house was built around the same time and in the same way. Although the place was a mess, we recognized that what lay underneath was structurally sound. And where else can you find joists that measure a true 2 x 12 inches, are straight and 25 feet long? Or floor planks 19 inches wide?

The renovation happened very quickly and, as is common, uncovered a few surprises that added to the cost. Even the building inspector thought adding a firewall to a two-foot thick stone wall was redundant, but it was done.

Some of the surprises were far more interesting and didn't cost anything:

We documented the transformation in a book which you can view by clicking the image below.

Was it worth it?

The purchase price and renovations cost us less than building a new home, and a real estate agent commented that there was no reason it wouldn’t last another 150 years given the work done. Contrast that with the words of a well-respected home inspector who once told me that the life-span of a newly-built home is about 60 years.