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COLUMN-Past brought to life in Olde Towne

Unlike a lot of towns, Okotoks has done a good job of finding a second life for many of its heritage homes.
Okotoks Olde Towne Plaza is one of the locations Warner Brothers will film a scene for the movie Flora’s Letter this summer.
Olde Towne has historic charm thanks to heritage preservation efforts. (Western Wheel file photo)

Regardless of the town in question, there’s typically widespread support among residents for preserving those stately, historic homes that help connect us to our past.

The tricky part of the equation has always been to turn that desire into a reality that makes financial sense. 

As towns grow and their commercial areas expand, the residences of yesteryear that were built on the original townsite often fall victim to that progress as they no longer fit among the strip malls that provide the shops and services required by a burgeoning population.

Beyond that, heritage homes can be costly to renovate and maintain, particularly to preserve their original character, to say nothing of the fact they’re devoid of open floor plans, ensuite bathrooms, walk-in closets and other features that have become standard in today’s homes. 

Add it all up and far too many of these statuesque structures end up meeting the wrecking ball, often times after years of abandonment so even the staunchest of heritage supporters can’t justify the investment to bring them back to their former glory.

It’s a situation I’ve often seen referred to as “demolition by neglect.” 

It’s become an unfortunate reality in a great many towns, so I was pleasantly surprised to see the number of homes from a century ago not only still standing, but thriving, in Olde Towne Okotoks.

Kudos must certainly go to town planners, heritage advocates and the business community for embracing the past and making it work today. 

The key to preserving a historic structure has always been to give it function, and the simplest way to achieve that is to keep it as a home, but given the substantial challenges to do so, it takes a certain someone to make that happen.

And, frankly, there are simply not enough of those people to go around. 

Some heritage homes can get a new lease on life by becoming public amenities, but there are only so many museums and meeting spaces a town requires, which means the rest need to become something else, and because they’re often located in the commercial district, some kind of business makes the most sense. 

As simple as that sounds, it happens far less often than it should.

That's why I was so heartened to see all manner of shops, galleries, restaurants, professional services and more housed in the historic structures along McRae, Elma and North Railway streets. 

As someone who previously worked at a newspaper that was located in a century-old church, I’m aware of the challenges these old buildings can pose when transitioning to a new role.

Despite some top-notch renovations, we found the acoustics were so good they were actually detrimental to office culture and the mezzanine that was built to accommodate more workstations didn’t play nice with the downstairs’ heating/cooling system, leaving us a little too toasty in both summer and winter. 

There are bound to be obstacles to repurposing any older building, but overcoming them can result in untold benefits.

Not only does it allow us to stay connected with our past, but we create an experience that simply couldn’t be achieved through any other means. 

Edward Murphy

About the Author: Edward Murphy

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