A Pillar of Conservation: Barbara Humphreys (1919-2017)

Barbara’s encouragement and support was an inspiration to me over the past fifty years. (Stuart Lazear)
We had wonderful and exciting years working together on the Canadian Inventory of Historic Buildings. (Meredith Sykes)
She was a consummate professional, a gentle mentor and a friend. (Christina Cameron)

In recent years, we have sadly lost several pioneering heritage conservationists in Canada. Last week, Barb Humphreys, who was one of the pillars of heritage conservation in Canada, passed away at 97. An important figure from the first wave of Canadian conservation, she laid the foundation for future work on protecting Canada’s built heritage.

Her career began as one of the first female registered architects in Canada, graduating from the University of Manitoba when modernism was in ascent. She first worked for Defence Construction Ltd. designing for military bases, moving to the Department of Public Works and then to private practice. She understood architecture: her Manotick home, built in 1953, reflected her exceptional facility for design.

Ottawa_Journal Article
“Architect wife of Dr. Humphreys” The Ottawa Journal, November 28, 1959

Surrounded by historic buildings along the Rideau Canal, Barbara was drawn to the emerging field of heritage conservation. Her first foray into the field was to document historic sites along the Rideau Canal in 1967. In turn, this work led her back into public service, where she spearheaded the creation of the Canadian Inventory of Historic Building (CIHB).

In the wake of centennial celebrations, the federal government acknowledged that there was a poor understanding of the country’s built heritage. With only one architectural historian on staff at Parks Canada, a larger team was required.

Barbara’s survey work on the Rideau Canal corridor gained her invaluable experience in understanding historic structures. Her work brought her to the attention of Jack Richardson, who hired Barbara, along with Ann Faulkner and recent Columbia graduate Meredith Sykes to develop the CIHB. As Christina Cameron remembers, “they were the triumvirate of women who led the innovative Canadian Inventory of Historic Building programme.”

Barbara had a central role in designing and implementing CIHB at a time when Parks Canada was at the forefront of research on Canada’s built environment and protection of historic sites. Along with Peter Stokes, Hazen Sise and Jim Acland, she and her colleagues created the world’s first computerized database of historic buildings. It contained over 150,000 buildings and remains an accessible resource in the Documentation Centre at Parks Canada.

Its success spread around the world, and it was eventually used by New York City and at UNESCO. Barbara’s work on CIHB resonates well with today’s sustainable heritage – shifting away from monumental architecture to the streets of every town in Canada.

Barbara fostered the second wave of heritage conservationists in Canada – the ones who would create the framework, policies and legislation for heritage conservation in the 1970s and 1980s. Early on, she hired students to assist her. Stuart Lazear helped with documentation on the Rideau Canal and would later be a recorder for CIHB. Students hired as heritage recorders fanned out across the country to document buildings. The work brought a new awareness to the variety and complexity of Canada’s vernacular architecture and created a broader appreciation of what was of value. As Christina Cameron recalls, “Barbara and I toured the Île d’Orléans together [in 1970], scouting out 17th and 18th century farm houses and sharing a picnic lunch along the way. With her experienced architectural eye, she helped me to see the similarities and differences between the typical maison française and British stone houses along the Rideau Canal.”

More a seasoned practitioner than a self-promoter, Barbara brought architectural history to the public. As she said, “buildings around us reflect what we were, how wealthy we were, how we lived and [our] cultural influences.” She developed a training module called “Architecture as Living History” in association with the National Film Board; she prepared “The Buildings of Canada,” a style guide published by Reader’s Digest. Reaching out beyond academia and her profession, Barbara was a true public historian.

After retirement from Parks Canada in 1981, she remained involved in many organizations and continued to teach architectural history at Carleton University. As a founder of the Society for the Study of Architecture in Canada, the first organization in Canada to study the history of the built environment, she remained involved and recognized for her early role. In later years, she worked to protect her beloved Watson’s Mill in Manotick, and published Legacy in Stone: The Rideau Corridor (1999).

Aside from her many recognitions, including the Gabrielle Léger Medal and Queen Elizabeth’s silver and golden jubilee medals, it was her inspiration and role in Canada’s conservation movement that is fondly remembered by us. She had many protégés who went on to work in the field of conservation across Canada, but her legacy stretches to all generations. I once had the privilege to spend an afternoon with her recounting stories when I was the Canadian Registrar. She was, for me, a living legacy of what began as a national project in the 1960s and continued with the creation of the Canadian Register of Historic Places. Her foundational and visionary work will always play a central part of the story of heritage conservation in Canada.

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