Spade & the Grave

death and burial through an archaeological lens

Death & Decay in Cultural Heritage Structures

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This post was written by myself, Robyn Lacy, and my friend and colleague (and often collaborator) Elizabeth Cushing, of Cushing Design Group.

We have worked in cultural heritage together since 2017, and have spent a lot of time discussing the preservation and curated decay in heritage structures. I’ve written about curated decay before on my blog, but today we wanted to discuss decay within structures, and highlight the design and historical significance of this Georgian style home in Upper Canard, Nova Scotia. All photographs in this post were taken by Elizabeth Cushing, unless otherwise noted.

This magnificent Georgian country estate, complete with summer kitchen to the left of the main house, was constructed in 1790 and was the childhood home of Sir. Frederick Borden (no relation to Charles Borden, who developed the Borden System, which is used to define the location of all archaeological sites in Canada). Sir Frederick William Borden (1847-1917) was a physician, businessman, militia officer and politician who practiced medicine in Canning, while also investing in ships, utilities and real estate. He was an investor in the Cornwallis Railway Company Limited, the Canning Water and Electric Light, Heating and Power Company Limited and the Western Chronicle, and owned two 125 to 150 ton vessels. 

Sir Frederick William Borden (Source: Library and Archives Canada)

In 1895, Borden incorporated the F.W. Borden Company Limited, which furthered his ability to own, sell, and develop real estate, lumber operations, and electrical, transportation and communications facilities. The following year he was elected the Member of Parliament for Kings and the company name was changed to R.W. Kinsman Company Limited (subsequently Nova Scotia Produce and Supply Company Limited, then Supply Company Limited). Borden was a prominent public figure, dining with the King and Queen in 1907, attending the coronation of both Edward VII and George V, and made a knight of grade of the Order of St John of Jerusalem in England. He hosted several gatherings at Borden Place, which was served with a rail spur for the ministerial coach. At the time of his death in 1917, Borden’s wealth was estimated to be $300,000 CAD.

Known as ‘The Maples’, ‘Borden Place’, or ‘The Borden House of Upper Canard’, the circa 1790 house has several design and architectural features that reflect its significant history as a grand country estate. I (Elizabeth) have been visiting the landmark property annually with my family (and with the permission of the property owner – it is important to note that it is a private building). The house and its layout has retained a sense of grandeur that one cannot help but appreciate and admire. 

The residence opens into a central hallway with four corner rooms. The more extravagant being the former dining room, which has a tin ceiling, built-ins, dark wood ornate fireplace and bay window providing a beautiful view of the backyard. An addition is accessible from the dining room, which would have been used as a summer kitchen. Off of the kitchen is a small bathroom and a mudroom. The mudroom provides access to the upstairs servants quarters, the basement and a semi-circular back porch. The upstairs has retained its original staircase, wide baseboards and door trim.

While the images below show that the house has retained many original architectural and design features, it is evident that some of these elements are losing the battle against time. Decay is a natural part of any lifespan, living or not, but with various conservation techniques, this decay can be slowed to prolong the lifespan of the piece in question. As I (Robyn) have mentioned before, this is not always the best option depending on the state of the piece, but in the case of a structure with so much cultural heritage value, conservation is the ideal course.

Curated decay and decay by neglect are not on the same side of the scales, and this house does not appear to fit into either category. It is noted by the Heritage Trust of Nova Scotia as a historic property which ‘witnessed’ confederation in Nova Scotia. It is clear that the owner of this property has put love into its care, restoring the foundation of the structure and planning further restoration. However, large projects and properties such as this typically require ongoing maintenance and would benefit from funding incentives from the three orders of government and heritage organizations. 

In heritage, we try to keep the best examples of structure typologies, so that in the future the very best, most diagnostic, well-kept, and unique examples of architecture are still present on the landscape for study and admiration. We don’t need 400 rotting, identical bank barns, but the heritage landscape could keep the best preserved examples while removing others in order to make way for new development. It’s a give and take, and as I (Robyn) have stated on this blog previously, the need to keep every single old building just because it is ‘old’ to our eyes, is a form of death denial in the same way that avoiding making an advanced directive or writing a will is. It forces us as a society to come to terms with the fact that everything has a life-span, and at some point, everything will end. 

‘The Maples’, is a property that deserves to live on within the historic landscape of Nova Scotia and Canada, as a historically significant home with a connection to its property, its environment, and local and national history. In order to help preserve this magnificent structure, it should be designated as a heritage property within its municipality, and/or at a provincial level, to ensure it can be enjoyed for generations to come, and appreciated for the significant property it is.

Resources:

Starratt, Kirk. 2017. Proprietor honoured to have Upper Canard’s Borden House featured in photographic exhibit. [website] https://www.saltwire.com/lifestyles/proprietor-honoured-to-have-upper-canards-borden-house-featured-in-photographic-exhibit-3277/

Carman Miller, “BORDEN, Sir FREDERICK WILLIAM,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003. [website] http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/borden_frederick_william_14E.html

Author: Robyn Lacy

Archaeologist / Cultural Heritage / Burial Ground Restoration

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