What message would preserving McLuhan house send our city (Edmonton)?

27Jan12

Never mind your city (Edmonton), which is not exactly known for its rich artistic life or cultural heritage, what about the message sent to the rest of Canada and the world? Edmonton is known for only two things to the wider world, its Edmonton Oilers that won the NHL’s Stanley Cup five times during the early ’80s (and nothing since) and the West Edmonton Mall, the largest shopping centre in North America: in other words, hockey and commerce. Nothing else. Edmonton could use some celebration of culture, intellect and heritage………AlexK

 

This home at 11342 – 64th Street was once the home of famous Canadian media visionary Marshall McLuhan. It is now up for sale. Photo by Alex Kuskis.

EDMONTON — The medium is the message, said the great media pundit and prophet, Marshall McLuhan.

McLuhan is, quite arguably, the most famous, most globally influential person ever to be born in Edmonton, a philosopher and theorist whose views on culture, communication and community seem more and more prescient, every time another global villager picks up an iPad or tweets a tweet.

The question is — via which medium should we send the world the message that we, in Edmonton, are staking our claim to McLuhan as our native son?

On Wednesday, city council’s executive committee voted to recommend to council that the city to buy McLuhan’s boyhood home in the Highlands, so the Edmonton Arts Council can convert it into a writers centre, for local and visiting authors. The current owners of the well-preserved little 1911 house are anxious to move. The small home sits on an attractive lot, which could be suitable for building a new and larger house. To prevent that, the owners are offering the city the chance to buy the McLuhan House, before it goes on the open market, for between $450,000 and $475,000. (That’s the city’s assessed value — but it’s about $100,000 more than the average assessed price for the neighbourhood.)

At first blush, this seems quite an enchanting prospect, a cultural triple-play — a chance to protect a lovely heritage structure, to honour a hometown boy, and to support local and visiting writers.

“This is about taking advantage of an opportunity that’s come up for us,” says Coun. Ben Henderson, who supports the proposal. “It’s an opportunity for the city to take ownership of McLuhan and the fact that he was born and grew up here. And it’s an opportunity to create a space for writers, aided, in intangible ways, by its connection to McLuhan. It’s a space that can feed off that energy.”

Let’s just step back a moment.

McLuhan was born here in 1911. His parents moved into this house in 1912. But the family relocated to Winnipeg in 1915. McLuhan lived in the house for less that three years, when he was a toddler.

Buying the house would mean a serious financial commitment. Not only would the city have to pay somewhere in the neighbourhood of half-a-million dollars to purchase the house, it would then assume the costs of preserving a 101-year-old home.

The proposal from the Edmonton Arts Council is predicated on a cost-recovery model, which assumes that organizations such as the Writers Guild of Alberta and the University of Alberta’s Festival of Ideas, would lease space in the building, paying enough rent to cover the costs of heating and maintaining the facility. But it has no firm commitments from any future tenants. No other group has offered to contribute anything toward the purchase price, nor toward the costs of converting a private home into offices, meeting rooms, and residential suites.

At Wednesday’s executive committee meeting, Mayor Stephen Mandel added a rider to the motion, suggesting the Edmonton Arts Council raise the money from donors to buy the property back from the city. But at the moment, the EAC has no plan in place to make that happen.

If the home were to be run as a writers’ retreat, for one lucky fellowship winner at a time, like the Wallace Stegner retreat in Eastend, Sask., or the Pierre Berton house in Dawson City, Yukon, that might make sense. But the Edmonton Arts Council is proposing to rent out offices to several local writers, for $150 a month, and to use the bedrooms as a sort of hostel space for visiting writers. It’s a rather odd model. Writers don’t need offices, much less a busy clubhouse, to write. As for Festival of Ideas guests, would literary celebrities on par with Salman Rushdie, Michael Ondaatje or David Sedaris really want to be put up at a sort of writerly frat house, rather than a downtown hotel? If there’s a solid business case to be made for this kind of cost-recovery writers’ centre, councillors didn’t get to see it on Wednesday.

But for me, the main objection to executive committee’s recommendation is that it sets a troubling precedent. The city simply cannot afford to buy every noteworthy heritage house or public building that it would like to preserve. Normally, it has to negotiate with property owners, coaxing them to accept heritage designation in return for financial consideration.

The city’s heritage planner has an annual budget of just $900,000, a small pot of money it uses to provide matching grants, to a maximum of $75,000, to homeowners who want to do heritage restoration.

If we buy McLuhan House outright, how many other owners of historic buildings will want the same deal? That’s the real danger here: if the city swoops in to buy this home, which is not under imminent threat of demolition, it could actually undermine its own heritage preservation initiatives.

The largest amount of money the city has ever spent on a heritage restoration project was $550,000 in matching funds toward the renewal of the historic Garneau Theatre. It also kicked in $525,000 to help restore majestic 1911 McLeod Building, off Rice Howard Way. But those were two large and important public buildings, with rich social histories and striking architecture. It’s hard to argue that McLuhan House, no matter who lived there, or for how long, has the same social value.

If city council wants to safeguard the house, it could simply use its legal power to designate it as a heritage resource. Ben Henderson says that’s still an option — but argues the city would still have to compensate the owners for any lost resale potential.

“That would also cost the city money, and all we’ll end up with is a plaque on the door.”

Certainly, I’d like to see McLuhan’s boyhood home preserved — not just because he briefly lived there, but because it’s a charming piece of pre-First World War architecture, and one of the original Highlands homes. And yes, this is a nice piece of real estate, one with potential to increase in value over time. Still, I fear executive committee, exhausted by a long day debating everything from cellphone towers to rave regulation, rushed into this recommendation, without considering all the long-term costs and consequences.

“A point of view can be a dangerous luxury when substituted for insight and understanding,” said McLuhan. That’s useful wisdom for newspaper columnists and politicians alike. Before city council makes its final decision, I hope councillors will think hard about whether this is actually the right strategy to protect Edmonton’s architectural heritage, to serve the city’s literary community, or to manage public dollars.   http://tinyurl.com/7u35cah

Edmonton – no cultural mecca

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