The Cookstown Collaboration: A Heritage Consultant Opportunity at a Glance

By Evan Karl

The April edition of the ACO NextGen newsletter brought with it genial wishes for a happy spring and an unexpected prospect: An emerging heritage consultant opportunity. It was a request for applicants on behalf of a concerned community group – the Cookstown Community Development Team (CCDT). 

The focus of their concern was a 2-storey, brick commercial building located in the heart of Cookstown, Ontario, (now part of Innisfil). The building is located in a heritage conservation district (HCD) but remains oddly conspicuous due to its “modern” façade – courtesy of the 1950s. After decades of housing local businesses, the brick duplex at 15 Queen St. was purchased in 2018 by a large developer. It has since sat vacant and disconnected from power. In an effort to spark revitalization of the abandoned property, the CCDT and ACO NextGen invited emerging professionals to propose a redesign and new use. I decided to toss my hat in the ring.

Team 2’s renders of 15 Queen St. This team was made up by Joshua Chan, Jenna Philbrick, Zakary Jacobi & Rylee Lachance Linklater.

I was invited to a virtual meeting with representatives of the CCDT and ACO NextGen at the end of April. As a pleasant surprise when I logged on, I found my screen full of 10 other emerging professionals who had also signed up and were champing at the bit. Because of the overwhelming response, the project was expanded to offer 3 distinct proposals by 3 separate teams. The project was broken down into 3 sections: History and Context, Planning Considerations, and Design/Suggested Reuses. Each team had a member  who specialised in one of the categories: a planner, an architect/technologist, and a heritage conservation professional/historian. We had 4 weeks to research and re-imagine, to debate and develop. It would culminate with a short presentation to members of the CCDT and the ACO on May 31, 2021, accompanied by a written report.

My group’s primary objective was to understand the building’s original design and role within the community. We hoped that in doing so, our later discussions respecting design and new uses would be grounded in historical precedent. Our research started by examining historic photographs and local histories provided by the CCDT, but quickly expanded to include directories, newspapers, and a particularly helpful 1885 fire insurance plan for the village. The latter offered tremendous context for the building’s early environment and provided a link between the building’s design and its role as a fire-stop in a vulnerable wooden village.

Archival building and city plans helped the participating NextGens to understand the historic existence of 15 Queen St.

With inspiration in the form of history and original architectural detailing, we set to work discussing our plans for the structure. Our suggestions were guided by the planning regulations that exist for the HCD of Cookstown and the building’s current mixed-use (MU) zoning. In addition to this, we reviewed planning documents for the community of Innisfil and solicited additional insight from residents to align our design with municipal goals and community needs. Every new idea for the design required digging and consultation with these sources to determine its feasibility and relevance. Consequently, our planning considerations and design sections became almost inseparable but ultimately balanced to support each other. We elected to keep the MU classification and enhance the building’s offerings via a residential addition; a design we felt complemented the planning goals and surrounding built environment of Cookstown.

Team 3’s renders of 15 Queen St. This team was made up by Andrea Bickley, Alex Larose, Liam Ryan & Wesley Wilson.

On presentation day, we joined the other two groups assembled in a virtual meeting to present the fruits of our labours. The analyses, designs and reuse opportunities were equally informative, diverse, and imaginative. Given that the assignment was limited to one building, it was shocking to me how unique each proposal was.

Each group employed vastly different methods in the building’s analysis, and offered more details and insight into the property’s history, condition and significance. The audience of about 20 was treated to beautiful renders that captured the vision of each group’s design, ranging from complete renovation and landscaping to very minimal yet thoughtful intervention.

Team 1’s renders of 15 Queen St. Faizaan Ali Khan, Mackenzie Crumb & Evan Karl.

The proposals ranged from a retail space, restaurant, or gallery, with additional design elements like a solarium, events space, or rental units. The 11 of us who took up the challenge to reimagine the old duplex on Queen St. showed it could be many things. We hope we presented evidence that the building is anything but a burden or lost cause. The property has a myriad of stories that could be told and innumerable designs that would befit and enhance its place in the village of Cookstown.

The building doesn’t lack potential, only gumption.

As a young professional, the adaptive reuse of 15 Queen St. project was a unique opportunity for me to exchange ideas, be creative, and contextualise my own knowledge and skills within a realistic and meaningful project. I gained a better understanding of how I can communicate and collaborate with professionals in related fields. It was inspiring to see so much interest from NextGen people across the spectrum of heritage and construction – and from across the country. I hope the success of this initiative promotes the continuation of such useful and engaging projects in the heritage community so the NextGens of today can help save architectural gems for generations to come.


Evan Karl is an emerging heritage professional currently working as a stone conservator. He is a member of ACO and a contributor to the NextGen Blog.