By Ken Henderson
There has been much discussion of late concerning the fate of the provincial Normal College building in Truro. The tenor of much of this discussion might be summarized as “somebody” has to do “something” to save the building. The “somebody” of choice at the moment seems to be the regional library board.
Before the design a new library is compromised, it’s time to raise some serious questions about some of the assumptions around saving this building.
What is it about this particular structure that arouses such passion? What exactly about the building must be saved/restiored? Its form? Its Victorian decoration? It's interior character with its high ceilings? The interior trim? The original exterior iron work? The mill-work (already been removed from its main floor windows)?
At what point does it become so far removed from its original self that it is no longer a restoration, but a reuse of some of its elements? How much cost is acceptable, both in dollars over the cost of a new library, and in ongoing costs over its life in both financial and utility terms?
In dismissing the current library building, some are dismissive of its modern style as an ugly intrusion on the site. We owe to the founders of that style some pithy truths that we now take for granted when developing projects.
One particularly telling to this situation is ‘form follows function,’ a guiding principle of the moderns, among whom was Mies van der Rohe who added to the design lexicon ‘less is more.’
Our Truro-Bible Hill MLA, Lenore Zann, has her office in a building (Bank of Montreal) that applies many of van der Rohe’s design principles (he’d probably not like the back-lit signs interrupting the vertical line though). Truro's heritage plan recommends that it be considered for future heritage designation.
If we are thinking of removing the current library to help justify saving the Normal College, we should research what we are destroying. It is a project to celebrate Canada’s centennial in 1967. Its design was chosen by a committee of well-respected citizens. It was designed by Robert Cassidy, a Truro architect who chose to look forward in developing his design, rather than backward.
His library exhibits many of the defining hallmarks of the architecture of its time – functionality, simplicity in form and design, all materials and architectural elements bare and revealed honestly, linearity , transparency, open adaptable floor plan, and likely others.
In a recnt Truro Daily News column, Joe Ballard posits that the Normal College “looks like a library.’ A 19th century library maybe. Cassidy built a 20th century library. Is Truro to see what a 21st century library looks like?
Truro councillor Danny Joseph quite rightly laments the loss in the early 1970s of the railway station. Was a viable re-use project brought forward at the time, or did people then, as now, say “somebody” has to do “something?”
At the provincial heritage conference in 2008, a well-respected heritage developer and member of the Heritage Trust of Nova Scotia, Michael Tavares, told a session that in his opinion the Town of Truro had done just about all that could be expected to save the Normal College and that it was nearing time for the heritage community to let it (the town) off the hook if a viable use that would justify the expense of restoration was not soon forthcoming.
The Town of Truro has had a sign inviting proposals for the Normal College posted on the building for several years now. A committee put in long hours looking for a plan. The ideas of using it as a arts school, providing court space and perhaps other uses were explored and came to no positive end. It seems unfair at this point to put all the eggs in the basket of the library board.
None of the above is to suggest that either the library must stay where it is, or that the Normal College is not a good site for a new home. I’m not qualified to make that judgement.
My concern is that this community should not rush into a project justified only as a last chance to save one particular building. Doing so with an unsatisfactory result would negatively impact future preservation projects.
There needs to be a broad discussion and clear rationale for whatever direction is taken with the separate goals of building a library and saving the Normal College.
The town has worked hard to deal with a heritage building dropped on it many years ago by the province. Maybe now it's time for the townspeople to become involved in a much wider, much more open discussion.
Ken Henderson is a resident of Truro. He is a former educator and community volunteer with a life-long interest in local heritage issues.