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At Ontario restoration school, students train to protect our past

The Architourist

To conserve and protect

The facade of the 1914 school.

Willowbank School of Restoration Arts may be small, but it punches above its weight: most of the students who've graduated have gone on to work on important heritage buildings in Canada and other countries

It's graduation day at Willowbank School of Restoration Arts in Queenston, Ont.

While the ceremony is still three hours away, the excitement on campus is palpable. Timothy Vine, director of operations, readies hard hats for a visitor tour of the estate built in the 1830s for Alexander Hamilton – the son of one of the founders of Upper Canada. As he rushes around, he's mindful not to disturb the table containing a tiny plaster army of acanthus leaves in the main room, a room that was enlarged by the Bright family when they took possession of the home in 1934.

And speaking of the Bright family, standing under the portico trying to determine if rain will ruin the festivities is Vikki Broer, chair of Willowbank's board of directors. Her mother grew up a stone's throw from this house on Princess Street, and she would often visit her uncle here.

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Standing under open sky in what will eventually become a blacksmith's shop, instructor Geordie Manchester inspects the dry-stacked stone walls students built in 2013 under the guidance of master-wallers from Britain. while, inside the woodshop, carpentry instructor Bill German tries to avoid getting sawdust on his good shirt as he shows second-year student Peter Corfield the new, wooden storm windows graduating student Stephen Telford worked on as part of his final studies.

Bill German, right, shows student Peter Corfield wooden storm windows.

In the Lower Campus auditorium – really the basement of the 1914 two-room Laura Secord School that Willowbank was fortunate enough to acquire in 2012 – the big, shiny coffee percolator is being plugged in as co-valedictorians Hallie Church and Mark-Anderson McGaw pound away on laptops next door in the Willowbank library, which is situated in the low-slung, 1953 Modernist addition.

When the two valedictorians speak this afternoon, they'll represent 20 per cent of this year's graduating class.

Willowbank may be small, but it punches far above its weightclass. And besides, says director of education Nancy Oakley, "there's something about a small group of people going through a thing together, brothers-– and sisters-in-arms by the end of it."

Indeed, most of the 54 "brothers and sisters" who've graduated since the school first welcomed students in 2006-07 have gone on to conserve and protect the most important heritage buildings in this country and a few other countries to boot. And they've done it with newly acquired – yet very old – skills that aren't taught anywhere else: "The students do everything by hand," Mr. Vine explains. "It's chisels and mallets, and while they might end up on a site using power tools, our instructors are firm believers that you have to know your materials."

The school’s woodshop. Students learn old skills that aren’t taught anywhere else.

The instructors, all 50 of them, aren't academics; they're more comfortable in plaster-caked denim than brushed wool sport coats sporting elbow patches. And while some teach theory and policy and how to prepare a conservation management plan, all get their hands dirty. Mr. German, for instance, owns his own sawmill; often, it's his trees that students turn into things. Mr. Manchester runs an architectural restoration business in Hamilton. Toronto-based John Wilcox, a glass restoration expert and artist, recently designed two new rose windows for St. Michael's Cathedral.

Students, too, have gotten dirty this year. In the centre of one of the tidy 1950s classrooms – which still has pupil's names above coat hooks three feet from the ground – a mock plaster-and-lathe wall system allows for construction and deconstruction along with practising moulding techniques. Beside the big drafting studio housed in one of the 1914 classrooms, students ripped out cloakroom walls and a drop-ceiling to reveal a perfectly preserved pressed tin ceiling. And thanks to a grant from Parks Canada, Mr. McGaw, as part of his final project, was able to oversee conservation and modernization of the neoclassical estate house; in order to ready it as a rental space for private functions, sprinklers and an elevator have been added whilst carefully preserving 1930s wallpaper and paintwork from the 1830s.

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The drafting studio is housed in a classroom in the 1914 building.

"The challenge was, in the estate building, we were doing classes and drafting and things, but it became clear that if we're going to be sustainable, we're going to have to have some rental capacity," Ms. Broer explains.

And there's the rub: money. Big schools need it, certainly, but little schools need it even more, especially when they don't align with "traditional" educational models and, further, might even be considered "unusual and suspect" says former Willowbank director Julian Smith.

"It fits neither the university nor college nor apprenticeship models of training," the Order of Canada recipient says. "Currently Willowbank's approach to heritage conservation is considered provocative, in that we support the integration of heritage issues into broader discussions of design and development. We are suspicious of closeting the heritage field through designation and protection measures rather than integrating heritage, planning and environmental issues in a single framework, with healthy communities as the goal."

This mistrust might be why, last month, town councillors voted against a five-unit townhouse complex Mr. Smith designed for vacant land on the school's Lower Campus. While it would've been the first multi-unit dwelling in the village, the heritage-accurate building would not have looked out of place … and it may have generated more funds than the three single-family homes council has pressed hard for.

Facade of the 1834 Willowbank estate.

But "heritage" is changing as Canada matures; density via townhouses would have brought life to these streets. And, elsewhere, as big cities transition from façade-only projects to saving entire buildings and sites – sites that often have thousands of years of human history underneath them – there will be a greater need for unique, out-of-the-box thinkers who can juggle the myriad details.

"You can teach people how to draft, to restore windows," Ms. Oakley says, "but to cultivate a sense of stewardship and sense of respect for yourself, your tools, your materials, the people that came before you, the people who come after you, that's a little more difficult."

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Difficult? Not at Willowbank. On graduation day, it's all too easy to see who will protect our past in the future.

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