Ruins in the Ontario landscape, part three

Bridge abutments with a gravel road between them.Railway bridge abutments, near Milverton, Ontario

The aesthetic value of a ruin is pretty obvious (or, depending on the observer, it isn’t). What about its historical value?

Looking at ruins and how they’re created, we can say they are a result of two, sometimes three, historical decisions. It is these decisions, and the circumstances surrounding them, that give ruins their historical significance.

As with intact structures, the first is the original decision to build the (now ruined) building and use it for certain purposes.

The second is the decision to abandon, responsible for the metamorphosis of the structure into a ruin. As we’ve seen, an apparently “healthy” and functional building is sometimes deserted by its owner, left to fall down and moulder. In other cases a precipitating event such as a fire or other natural or man-made disaster has damaged or destroyed the building. But even here the source of the ruin lies not so much in the calamity as in the failure to repair or rebuild or otherwise re-use the site — to abandon the remains to their fate.

An abandoned mill without roof or glass windows.Mill, Glen Morris, Ontario

In either situation, with or without a calamity, the decision to abandon would almost always have been the result of the owner/user’s determination that the repair and continued use of the structure, or the re-use of the site, was not economically practical.

Behind such a determination would be one or more potentially far-reaching historical factors. These include things like changes in industry conditions, such as depletion of natural resources; technological obsolescence; change in market conditions; decline in population (most likely to affect buildings such as schools and churches – St. Raphael’s, for example); and changes in land use patterns and transportation routes.

Bridge piers in Elora.Road bridge piers, Elora, Ontario

For any ruin the association with these larger social and economic factors — those responsible for the futility or inutility of the old use, as well as any new or adaptive use — are a key part of its story.

The ruin, then, is uniquely the product of both decisions — to build/use and to abandon — and stands as a reminder of the fateful and often poignant change in historical circumstances that resulted in the second decision effectively reversing the first.

Abandoned windmill.Windmill ruin, Maitland, Ontario

For some (lucky?) ruins there is a third decision. This is the decision to intervene, to do something to conserve the structure and its values. Intervention runs the gamut from a plaque or other form of interpretation, to the isolation of the ruin for safety purposes (through the erection of barriers to access), to the stabilization of the structure (by capping and repointing of masonry walls, for example), to selective demolition or re-construction of the structure.

Interior oldest printing office in Ontario, Brock's Monument in distance.Mackenzie printery in ruins, Queenston, Ontario circa ?

In the extreme, very rare case the ruined structure is completely restored!

MacKenzie Printery & Newspaper Museum.MacKenzie Printery & Newspaper Museum today

Intervention, especially in its more major forms, also becomes an important part of the history of the ruin property.

But — and herein lies the paradox of “saving” ruins — just as a ruin is a destroyed structure, so intervention inevitably destroys the ruin qua ruin to a greater or lesser extent. Something is lost.

Roofless mill with a bridge near the entrance.Mill, Rockwood, Ontario

Of course, without active intervention, a ruin, by its very nature, will ultimately disappear, or at least disappear more quickly. So, the question about what to do, or what not to do, must first look at all the values of the ruin site — aesthetic, physical, historical, contextual — some of which will be competing.

To put it starkly, would you rather have hoary remains or an all-cleaned-up archaeological site? A structure melting under the “green waves of time” or one preserved indefinitely? A site redolent with “spirit of the place” or an “open air museum”? (Perhaps my bias is showing.)

In practice, some middle ground can usually be found. But, with ruins, active preservation will mean a challenging compromise.[1]

Church and graveyard.St. Raphael's church ruins, St. Raphael's, Ontario

Note 1: Interestingly, the “Standards and Guidelines for the Conservation of Historic Places in Canada” does not directly mention ruins. The document does address structural remains under “archaeological sites” but little attention is given to above-ground remnants.

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About Dan Schneider

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Dan Schneider is a heritage enthusiast, policy wonk, writer and professional heritage consultant. Formerly senior policy advisor with the provincial culture ministry, Dan has much experience with the Ontario Heritage Act and heritage policy issues. A lawyer by training, he was lead policy expert on major changes to the Ontario Heritage Act in 2005 and 2006. His advice is frequently sought on questions related to Ontario's legislative and policy framework for heritage. Based in St. Marys, Ontario, Dan is Principal of Dan Schneider Heritage Consulting. He can be reached at