Conservation and Construction in the Limestone City

Canada’s first capital is home to historic buildings and a housing crisis. How does this affect Kingston’s tourism and city planning?

By Daniel Rose

On a recent visit to Fort Henry, I struck up a conversation with two visitors from Philadelphia who were astonished by Kingston’s historic charm. From enclaves of private homes in the downtown core dating back to the early 19th century to historic sites such as Kingston Penitentiary, they were surprised that the changing needs of the city hadn’t led to more mishaps. One remarked that, “In Philly, we’d have bulldozed half the city fifty years ago for a freeway, so good on ya!”

The British Whig building, an amalgamation of the Ontario Bank Building (constructed in 1894) and the Daily British Whig Building (constructed in 1895). Photo: Daniel Rose

As Canada’s first capital and home to the highest concentration of museums per capita in the country, Kingstonians often take their immersion in the country’s history for granted. When my family moved to Kingston in 1998, we visited local museums to get a handle on the city. Once we settled in, I didn’t return to most of them for almost twenty years! Many historic areas are more commonly used as points of reference when giving direction to the visiting tourists (or “seeds” as some old-timers call them) that descend upon the city every year. 

For residents, the historic city brings a significant challenge: the lowest vacancy rate in Ontario. Sites along the waterfront, such as the old train yards on “block D”, remained vacant for decades for fear of stirring up industrial waste. Other swathes of the city cater to the need for university and college student housing. There is no easy fix – per municipal regulations, new downtown buildings must maintain Kingston’s skyline. As a result, iconic locations such as the S&R building incorporate their original façade with a modern interior. These changes have not come without drawbacks, as affordable businesses are replaced with upscale boutiques. Once home to a budget department store, the S&R building is now a posh mixed office and retail space, while block D is now luxury condos and hotels.

The Smith-Robinson Building, formerly home to S&R Department Store. Photo: Waymark

One place where concerns for housing and heritage preservation meet is the land around Kingston Pen and the Prison for Women (P4W). Kingston Pen, opened in 1835 as Canada’s first penitentiary, housed offenders of all ages, genders and backgrounds over its 178 years of operation, while P4W was the only prison for women doing sentences longer than two years in Canada from 1934-2000. Ironically, neither site was considered part of the City of Kingston until the 1960s!  

The North Gate of Kingston Penitentiary, 2018. Photo: Daniel Rose

Each site has changed since closing.  Queen’s University purchased P4W in 2008, demolishing the perimeter wall and additions to the original structure. In 2018, a private developer purchased P4W with the intent of building residential, office and commercial properties incorporating the prison. Meanwhile, Kingston Pen is still owned by Corrections Canada, with a partnership with a local parks commission bringing in thousands of visitors every year to attend guided tours featuring testimony from retired staff.

How can places of significant national heritage with a complicated legacy incorporate the memorializing nature of an historic site while accommodating the need for residential space? In some ways, the Kingston Pen tours acknowledge the difficult and dangerous work staff put in during the penitentiary’s operation. Without any inmate testimony, however, the tours can feel like an incomplete picture of operations. Some activists, such as the P4W Memorial Collective, have suggested establishing a memorial garden on the grounds of P4W to acknowledge the hardships encountered by the women incarcerated in the prison. While an intriguing suggestion that holds merit, this decision ultimately remains in the hands of the developer who purchased the site.  

The front entrance to Prison for Women (P4W), 2018. Photo: Daniel Rose

The fate of Kingston Pen and P4W remains in motion. The contract for tours at Kingston Pen is renewed on a year-to-year basis, while development plans for P4W are still in their infancy. The decisions taken on both sites will affect locals and tourists alike.

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