Opinion: McGill is committed to stewarding its heritage buildings

Attitudes toward preservation have changed dramatically since the 1960s and ’70s, in the community at large and at the university.

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McGill’s renovation of historic row houses on Pine Ave. to create a state-of-the-art sports science institute has provoked questions about the university’s track record in protecting and preserving heritage buildings. A recent opinion piece in the Gazette by Jeffery Vacante, an assistant professor of history at the University of Western Ontario, stated that the university “has traditionally shown very little interest in the heritage value of the buildings that it owns.”

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Aside from the row houses, the author cites examples from more than 50 years ago, a time when heritage conservation wasn’t part of the public’s consciousness, which Vacante acknowledges in his piece.

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Attitudes toward the preservation of Montreal’s rich physical heritage have changed dramatically since the 1960s and ’70s, in the community at large and at McGill. Montreal’s historical buildings and green natural spaces are now seen as a defining feature of the city, one that captivates visitors and citizens alike. At McGill, our built heritage is also valued as a core part of the university’s identity.

McGill’s master plan lays out a vision of how our physical surroundings and buildings can evolve in a way that supports a strong academic environment that nurtures our nearly 40,000 students and 1,800 faculty members. And one of the fundamental guiding principles of the plan is an imperative to steward the historic treasures on our campus in a responsible manner.

This task is not easy. Sensitively preserving and renovating heritage buildings adds a substantial price tag to renovations. Doing so in a way that meets the 21st century needs of a world-class university is even more costly.

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And then there is the sheer scope. McGill owns the third-largest portfolio of heritage buildings in Quebec. For decades, funding to keep post-secondary buildings in good repair could be at best described as woefully inadequate. The Quebec government provides some funding for all its universities to address the problem of maintenance long deferred, but there is still a significant gap.

As the federal government plans a new strategy for infrastructure, we hope that it will take advantage of the opportunity to help Canada’s universities enhance and preserve their heritage.

McGill’s vision is to breathe new life into the row houses by linking them with a new state-of-the art facility for labs, research and exercise science, the Sylvan Adams Sports Science Institute. Through a painstaking preservation process, the renovation will restore more than 60 per cent of the space of the Pine Ave. houses. It will provide accessibility to people with mobility issues and equip the spaces with HVAC systems that are more sustainable.

Perhaps the highest profile example of how McGill is seeking to preserve heritage architecture for future generations is the New Vic Project. McGill is redeveloping a portion of the former Royal Victoria Hospital site into a state-of-the-art research, teaching and learning hub dedicated to sustainability systems and public policy. The building itself will seek to protect the built heritage of the site while integrating sustainable design and systems. It will also offer a new access to Mount Royal, one of Montreal’s most iconic landmarks.

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McGill’s reputation is rooted in its research and teaching history, and also its physical heritage.

As we balance the best of the past with the needs of the present and future, we will continue to protect our physical heritage for all to enjoy — now and in the future.

Christopher Manfredi is provost and vice-principal (academic) and Diana Dutton is interim vice-principal (administration and finance) at McGill University. 

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