Of dumbwaiters and wraparound porches

Monday marks the beginning of heritage week in B.C., and while New Westminster’s kids sharpen their pencil crayons to colour in Victorian homes, I’ve been waxing nostalgic about the city’s history and reflecting on the importance of preserving our urban heritage.

Galbraith House, located at the corner of Queen's Avenue and 8th Street in New Westminster, was built in 1894. Once decaying and in a state of collapse, Galbraith House has since been bought, renovated and turned into office suites and a conference centre.

There are around 1,000 registered heritage homes in New Westminster, and in my own neighbourhood, Queen’s Park, weekend warrior types have lovingly restored many of the area’s 100-year-old homes to their former (and in some cases, probably better than former) glory.

(If you’ve got some spare time to kill and are as fascinated by “old stuff” as I am, the Heritage Resource Inventory — an unofficial list of heritage properties drawn up by the city and some summer work students in the 1980s — provides hours of cheap thrills.)

Growing up in New West, servant stair cases, milk doors, laundry chutes and fold-out ironing boards made my childhood environment every bit as stimulating as my friends who grew up in more rural areas, building forts and playing games of their own invention in the woods.

After it was abandoned but before it was torn down, my brother and I spent our summers playing hide-and-go-seek in the overgrown gardens and empty swimming pool behind the A.M. Parsons house down the street (that’s what the HRI calls it — we, for some reason, called it the boat house).

"The boat house," captured sometime around 1985 as it appears in the Heritage Resource Inventory.

Over the years, we’ve dug up countless treasures in our backyard, including half a dozen ebony piano keys, a collection of  glass medecine bottles and a ladies boot that I would expertly carbon date to the “Barkerville era”.

Aside from the fact that I still have nightmares about the bullet lodged in the doorframe at Irving House, growing up in a place so steeped in and proud of its heritage as New Westminster is has contributed to my curiosity and my appreciation for this place.

Kids in most cities don’t get much of an education about their city, but events like May Day and girl guide trips to the old penitentiary (now home to my physiotherapist’s office) meant that I did.

Two years ago, the city introduced a unit on the civic history to the grade 5 social studies curriculum with the interactive book, My New Westminster: A Neighbourhood History. Elementary students now get the unique opportunity to learn about New Westminster’s beginnings as a Gold Rush pioneer settlement, to its regal days as the capital of British Columbia, to the Great Fire and the ensuing rebuild.

When so much of our attention is drawn to what is new, it’s important to take the time to think about what came before. Buildings, monuments, cemeteries, street patterns and homes are all important reminders of our city’s remarkable achievements, conflicts and changes. I’m grateful to live in a city that understands and values that.