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About 170 years ago, Berlin townsfolk got sick and tired of traveling all the way to Guelph to accomplish official business at that city’s courthouse. They thought to themselves, as Jean Haalboom supposed, “We should have our own county seat!”

This is how Haalboom started our tour of the Civic Centre Heritage District, a large area of downtown Kitchener that is roughly outlined by Weber, Victoria, Queen and Frederick Streets. The District features a lot of unique buildings and homes, built especially during the “busy berlin” era — when the small town of Berlin emerged as a major economic exporter in early Canada.

Haalboom knows a fair bit about this area’s history. Over the past three decades she has chaired three different heritage committees. She was also a regional councillor from 2000 to 2014, a position she ran for specifically because of her desire to preserve the region’s unique heritage.

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We started our tour at the Waterloo County Gaol (an old spelling of jail), located at 77 Queen Street North, which dates back to June 1852, when Berliners decided to bid for a county seat.

“To become your own official county you had to have symbols, symbols that demonstrated you knew how to administer justice, and the symbols were a courthouse and a jail,” Haalboom explained.

“Frederick Gaukel had farm land here and he was the local innkeeper. His inn, little tavern, was down where the Walper is… He donated the land [for the county buildings] and we still have the two and a half acres that he donated.”

Anyone who has visited the downtown Kitchener Public Library or The Registry Theatre has unknowingly stepped onto this parcel of land bordered by Weber, Queen, and Frederick streets. Seven months after the land was acquired, in January 1853, a courthouse was completed facing Weber Street and also a jail behind it, facing Queen Street.

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Standing in front of the old jail, amidst a beautiful garden surrounding the building (another one of her efforts), Haalboom launched into a description of its architecture.

“The style of the jail is what we call classical revival. And why is it classical? Well, you think of Greek architecture. Note the triangular pediment supported by the cubic base. And also the classical style is very formal.” By formal, she means that the architecture abides by standard rules of symmetry and ratio. The top windows perfectly align with the bottom ones, and they are also identical. Each segment of the building has its equal and opposite part.

In 1878, a large mansion was built in front of the jail to house the jail’s chief administrative officer, otherwise known as the governor. Tucked between 20 Weber Street and the Kitchener Public Library, this fancy house is easy to miss, but worth pausing for a gander.

In 1988, Haalboom helped found and then chaired Friends of the Governor’s House and Waterloo County Gaol. Back then the Region’s vision for the site did not include the two buildings; they wanted it flat and suitable for parked vehicles. Because of the group’s efforts and ability to stoke community support, the buildings were spared from demolition and eventually restored and renovated.

“The tendency is away from the classical style,” Haalboom said as we turned our attention to the governor’s house. “We’re now into what we call Italianate style. You see under the eaves they have what you call brackets.” Italianate homes typically have elaborately carved brackets under the eaves, a design feature that makes its way into many different styles of homes.

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“You still have symmetry of windows but it’s not as rigid and structured. The design is more flowing and of course by the 1880s homeowners had more wealth and the invention of new equipment to make decorative woodwork.”

No one has occupied the governor’s house since 1978. Back then it was covered with “pinkish-red paint” and the porch was nearly collapsed. During its restoration, much of the decorative woodwork was reconstructed from old photographs, including the entire railing of the second-storey front porch.

Haalboom could not help but remark on the indulgence of such a house meant for the overseer of the jailhouse, not to mention its unusual proximity to the jail itself. One historic photograph captures the governor’s wife enjoying tea on the back porch, the stone face and dark windows of the prison her backdrop. The house and the jail were even once connected with an enclosed link, presumably so that the governor didn’t have to brave the elements to visit the institution he administered.

It seemed that this extravagance was a common theme on our tour of the District. Berlin was really beginning to thrive in the late nineteenth century and people evidently felt a need to display all their new wealth. One good example of this is a unique house at 55 Margaret Avenue. It has two entrances, one onto Margaret and another onto Maynard Avenue. It contains all the features of the Italianate style, plus many more: fancy woodwork, brackets under the eaves, triangular pediments, circular windows.

“A statement about your wealth,” is how Haalboom interpreted the original homeowner’s intentions.

Across the road is 54 Margaret, built for a family profiting from the booming Berlin furniture industry and designed according to a Queen Anne style, a less popular style in the District. Its walls feature timber and stucco, harkening to Tudor architecture, and the windows include stained glass. It has large and defined bays and a giant turret on one side, adorned with decorative shingling.

Haalboom repeated many times that there is no such thing as a “pure style.”  All the heritage homes we looked at were a little bit of this and a little bit of that — different styles coming together in different ways. The resulting architecture is an interplay of ideas (or memories), local expertise, and the materials that were available to use. This is where the term “vernacular” comes from. Vernacular architecture is a product of local tastes and local materials. “Berlin Vernacular” refers to a popular style of home that emerged in those days and can be found all across KW; it was the house of the worker.
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As we further explored the District, Haalboom pointed out signs of a tumultuous history during the mid-twentieth century. There’s a large vacant lot spanning the east side of Margaret Avenue. In the 1970s, before this area was designated a Heritage District, it was re-zoned for high-rise apartment buildings. Developers quickly bought up the properties and started making plans for their towers. Since most of them intended to demolish the homes eventually, they had no incentive to upkeep or renovate. Before long the neighbourhood fell into disrepair. To make matters worse, a recession hit soon after. The result was that only two towers were erected and many old mansions were needlessly demolished either in preparation for building or because they were neglected and then condemned.

“Thank zoning,” Haalboom said with disappointment. “It’s been [vacant] like this for thirty-five years. And due to zoning. Because if you know you can build a high-rise, you know you can multiply your money. Unless you’re sentimental, you’re not going to keep a heritage house and redo it.”

After our tour of the District, it became clear that the old houses, tall buildings and empty lots all tell a weaving story about the past.Understanding the architecture and its context — from nostalgia for Europe to economic depression and modern “urban renewal” — has a way of making this normally impressive neighbourhood even more interesting.