Canada's First Restoration Architect

Photograph of streetscape featuring modern buildings in MontrealMontreal streetscape featuring modern buildings from "The Image of Montreal"

After teaching in England, touring with a theatre company, working as a draftsman at an architecture firm, and opening his own industrial design office, Jacques Dalibard was hired as an exhibit designer for the Canadian Pavilion at Expo 67. His knowledge of architecture, design, and history, as well as his command of French and English made him an ideal coordinator for this extensive project.[1]

Later in his career, Dalibard would reflect on this experience as pivotal, turning him away from futurist and international style architecture, and towards Canada’s historic buildings. Experience with Expo, Dalibard would state, gave him “an overdose of ephemeral architecture.” He observed that modern architecture disregarded longevity and continuity: “the reason I became disenchanted all those years ago with contemporary architecture is that I felt it didn’t connect with the world around it. Those buildings, much acclaimed by the critics, were separate from the world: they were showpieces but they had little relevance in real people’s lives.” The sudden radical redevelopment of Montreal for Expo 67 played a big part in bringing Dalibard to the conclusion that futuristic architecture did not take into consideration its geographical context and its own longevity. He would later reflect, “the future of architecture could not be found only in futuristic forms and in the search to accommodate new economic forces. I felt that architecture had no future if historic continuity and the rational use of our existing environment were ignored.”[2] As he would later summarize, his experience at the Canadian Pavilion brought him to the conclusion that, in architecture, futurism “has no future”.[3]

Following his work on the Canadian Pavilion, Dalibard was employed as a Restoration Architect by the Engineering and Architectural Division of the National Parks and Historic Sites Branch at the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs. At the time of his hiring, the federal government had acquired historic buildings across the country built for military, industrial, religious, residential, and commercial purposes from eras ranging from the seventeenth to the twentieth century. These buildings were constructed by diverse ethnic groups and had been allowed to fall into various states of disrepair. They required restoration that met the standards set out by the newly minted preservationist profession, while at the same time not conflicting with priorities of individual municipalities and provinces.[4]

Sketch of Fort Chambly from Jacques Dalibard's personal portfolioSketch of Fort Chambly

With the federal government as the owner of these buildings, the National Parks Branch, under the direction of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board, had been charged with the immense task of restoring centuries-old structures and converting them into tourist destinations. The sites in question consisted of fortified settlements and outposts, such as the Fortress of Louisbourg, Fort Chambly, and Lower Fort Garry as well as significant houses and buildings related to Confederation and former Prime Ministers such as Province House in Charlottetown, Bellevue House in Kingston, and Sir Wilfred Laurier’s birthplace in St. Lin-Laurentides, Quebec. To tackle these projects, the National Parks Branch had grown in size and become increasingly decentralized as work was undertaken at multiple sites throughout the country. Dalibard participated in many of these projects, approaching them from a restoration perspective with special attention to authentic methods and materials. Care was taken to relate buildings to historical trends in global architecture.[5]

Photograph of Bellevue House, home of Sir John A. Macdonald restored by the National Historic Sites BranchBellevue House restored by the National Historic Sites Branch

At the National Parks Branch, Dalibard experienced the full scale of the preservation boom of the 1960’s and 70’s in Canada. He participated in and guided restoration projects across the country, many of which have since become iconic Canadiana. He contributed his specialized knowledge of restoration and preservation, historical research, and architectural experience. Later, he would also develop standards for government restoration architects.[6] He also participated in the creation of a network of national parks throughout Canada, taking part in the establishment of the necessary federal, provincial, and municipal agreements. His work also involved the creation of a national network of heritage waterways, most notably the Rideau-Trent-Severn Waterway.[7]

Photograph of restoration work being performed on a lighthouse. One figure is climbing a ladder while another is at the base supportingRestoration work on historic lighthouse

The era of “big projects” at the National Parks Branch also saw a broadening of the definition of a national historic site. The focus on houses and forts expanded to historic districts, perhaps the most ambitious being Dawson City. The Dawson project expanded beyond the Palace Grande Theatre to consist of a network of Gold Rush-era buildings.[8] It was while working at the National Parks Branch that Dalibard came to the realization that the preservation of Canadian heritage needed to be very different from that of other countries such as Great Britain, the United States, and France.

Most architectural preservation projects Dalibard undertook while employed with the federal government were architectural anomalies, or as he would later refer to them,moutons aux cinq pattes (five-legged sheep). Buildings highlighted for preservation usually dated to pre-Confederation and consisted of fortifications and lighthouses or were related to the most prominent Canadians. Dalibard would come to argue that the best examples of Canadian architecture are in fact its vernacular buildings.[9] As he would later explain, most Canadian settlements were not founded for ideological or religious reasons, but for utilitarian purposes: “we are a down-to-earth, work-a-day country and our built environment reflects those facts.”[10] This vision of heritage was best reflected in projects where entire districts were named historic sites, such as Dawson City and the Halifax Waterfront.

Photograph of a historic stone building at the Halifax waterfrontHistoric buildings at the Halifax Waterfront

Halifax Waterfront

In 1968, when he was Chief Restoration Architect, Dalibard was contacted by the City Planner for Halifax, Nova Scotia. The city wanted to demolish a group of eighteenth century waterfront buildings to make way for a wide traffic artery. Local preservationists opposed this project, and Dalibard was brought in to assess the value of preserving the buildings. It was on his recommendation that the Halifax Waterfront came to be designated a National Historic Site. Dalibard later reflected that this project was an ideal and rare example of conflict resolution at a heritage site. The buildings were preserved and converted to a complex of offices and shops in order to better contribute to downtown Halifax’s business and social life. The project offered a holistic approach to conflict management during urban development projects.[11]

Columbia University

While employed at the Historic Sites Branch, Dalibard attended Columbia University’s School of Architecture and Planning to build on his skills. This program brought together social historians and art historians with architects to share aspects of each discipline and better understand the field of heritage restoration. Dalibard’s class was comprised of architects who wished to practice in American cities and towns with historic downtowns, such as New Orleans, Savannah, Charleston, and Boston. They wanted to learn primary source research methods that would support their work. For Dalibard, the restoration issues faced by these American cities would arise in certain Canadian historic districts such as Quebec City. At Columbia, he studied how to facilitate the continued use of historic building without destroying the character of the areas in which they are found.[12] He also learned about the need for preservation architects to be versed in social history, as well as a broad range of building techniques employed over the past 400 years. This meant that a project must take into consideration the building techniques used in specific regions of Canada by tradesmen from particular immigrant populations.[13]

At Columbia, Dalibard was under the tutelage of James Marston Fitch, architect and central figure in the American preservationist movement. Like Dalibard, Fitch took issue with the urban renewal programs of the 1950’s and 60’s, arguing that historic structures should be preserved as a valuable representation of the cultures that erected them. Fitch developed a multifaceted approach to architecture, encompassing material information, history, politics, and real estate. He also considered environmental forces, along with historical forces, to be the main factors in shaping architectural expressions and argued that the true goal of architecture is to benefit humanity. Throughout his career, Dalibard would build on Fitch’s ideas while advocating historic preservation in Canada. Graduating from Columbia in 1970 with a Master of Science in Architecture degree, Dalibard would be the first Canadian architect formally trained in the emerging specialization of heritage preservation.[14]

Historic district of a Canadian cityIn a letter to Fitch in 1971, Dalibard reflected on experiences gleaned during his time at Columbia. He remarked that his training illustrated the boundlessness of architecture; that the built environment is a basic environmental, economic, social, aesthetic, and cultural issue, and thus it is “the problem that any architect interested in a modern environment must face.”[15]

Upon Fitch’s retirement in 1977, Dalibard was contacted to replace him as Director of the Historic Preservation Division at School of Architecture and Planning. Dalibard held this position for a year before returning to Canada to serve as Executive Director of the Heritage Canada Foundation. While at Columbia, Dalibard was impressed by one of the graduate students who had begun working on a storefront revitalization program by opening an office on the main street of a community and working directly with the merchants. As Dalibard explained, “that made me realize that an on-the-spot co-ordinator was necessary to provide a focus for a revitalization effort.” This student’s project would lead Dalibard to establish the successful Main Street Canada program.


[1] CV, Jacques Dalibard Papers and Articles, A-981

[2] Jacques Dalibard, “Starting another Century: More than ever, we need Parks Canada’s leadership”, Canadian Heritage, May-June 1985. A-981

[3] Unknown Author, “The World of Conservation: An Interview with Jacques Dalibard”, A-973

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Subject Files, Research Papers, Memo, Reports, Correspondence 1962-1964 (2 of 3)”, A-725

[6] “Chief Restoration Architect”, Public Service Commission, Job Application (Includes Resumes) Correspondence, 1967, A-981

[7] CV

[8] C.J. Taylor, Negotiating the Past, (Montreal: McGill-Queen's U.P., 1990), pp. 170-175

[9] Dalibard, “Student Lecture – Notes from Meeting” (n.d.), Jacques Dalibard Papers and Articles, A-981

[10] Ibid.

[11] Steven Thorne, “Policies for Preservation: The Heritage Canada Foundation, 1973-1993”, (Univserity of Waterloo Thesis, 1994), pp. 94-96

[12] “The Restoration Architect”, National Historic Parks News, (vol. 5) Winter 1971, A-971

[13] Ibid.

[14] “World of Conservation"

[15] Letter from Jacques Dalibard to Professor James Marston Fitch, School of Architecture, Avery Hall, Columbia University, March 5th, 1971, A-981

[16] “How Main Street Canada Began”, Main Street Place, (The Heritage Canada Foundation, January/February 1989)

Fortifications and landscape of Fortress of Louisbourg
Morse's Teas storefront at Halifax Waterfront
Waterfront at the Fortress of Louisbourg with crane in background
Brickwork at the Halifax Waterfront
Restoration work at the Fortress of Louisbourg
Fortifications of Fortress of Louisbourg in winter
Historic buildings at the Halifax Waterfront
Historic building, Donald C. Keddy Ltd., at the Halifax Waterfront
Workers digging trench outside of scaffolded stone buildings
Historic buildings and skyscraper at Halifax Waterfront
Aerial shot of Dawson City and environs
Historic stone building at Halifax Waterfront
Restoration of Halifax Waterfront with Morse's Teas in background
Halifax Waterfront, a view from the harbour