“We wanted to work with that language,” Gagné says. “We wanted to
express, of course, our time, our epoch. But, keeping the same old materials,
which are almost eternal. Since the building hadn’t changed much, we
wanted to maintain the spirit of it. It was bare of any ornament. We wanted
to keep it very clean, very Zen as an interior atmosphere.”
This transformation is just one example of the value of historic preservation
and the opportunity offered to design professionals to channel the design
language of one era into a repurposed future. Yet, each project is fraught
with challenges. A historic building nearly always reveals surprises with
regard to its structure and material condition. There will be a host of
restrictions, be they local codes or national protections of its historic value.
And, from modern heating and air-conditioning systems to restrooms to an
added sense of transparency, modern needs have to be accommodated
without diminishing the building’s historic integrity.
Yet, old buildings have an intrinsic value. Particularly structures built before
World War II tend to be built with higher-quality materials, such as wood from
old-growth forests that no longer exist. Prewar buildings also were built by
different standards. A century-old building might be a better long-term bet
because of its solidity and craftsmanship than its brand-new counterparts.
Legendary urbanism activist Jane Jacobs in her landmark 1961 book,
The Death and Life of Great American Cities, also has impacted a generation
of designers by characterizing old buildings as places where the culture that
enlivens us—bookstores, ethnic restaurants, antique stores, neighborhood
pubs, and especially small start-ups—can best thrive.
That said, no old or historic building can simply be brought back to its original
condition without considering new purposes and programs. “Every building
requires some modification because there’s been a pattern of use since it
was opened,” explains Julia Gersovitz, a founding partner of Montreal- and
Toronto-based architecture firm EVOQ. Gersovitz leads the firm’s large-scale
heritage projects, including the award-winning Hôtel Gault, a 19th century
Montreal commercial building that now, like Le Monastère des Augustines,
operates as a popular hotel, as well as a restoration of St. Patrick’s Basilica.
“Every building will require change. What we do is manage the change
intelligently. Fitting functions into space for which it was not intended. The
challenge is to do it in a way that’s appropriate and marries to the building,”
“Every building will require change.
What we do is manage the change
intelligently. Fitting functions into space
for which it was not intended.
The challenge is to do it in a way
that’s appropriate and marries
to the building.”
—JULIA GERSOVITZ, EVOQ
Guests at Le Monastère
des Augustines can choose
quarters (pictured here) or
authentic rooms that reflect
the spirit of the former nuns’
(Image: Le Monastère