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Researching the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site of Canada
  Recherche sur la Forteresse-de-Louisbourg Lieu historique national du Canada




Eric Krause

Historical Records Supervisor,
Fortress of Louisbourg

December 1987

(Fortress of Louisbourg Library
Report Number H F 89)


On 17 June 1961, Prime Minister John G. Diefenbaker rose in the House of Commons to announce a recovery programme for Cape Breton Island. Among his initiatives, the partial reconstruction of the Fortress of Louisbourg perhaps presented the greatest challenge. However, as of that date, the Government had not as yet resolved a number of vital questions, including what was to be the final cost for the project itself. Of the other unsettled matters, perhaps one of the most important was that the "Louisbourg Restoration Project" was about to proceed without any detailed historical building guidelines in mind. For example, in one Departmental report, its authors defined an authentic construction as a replicated feature that "resemble[d] the original manner." Even further broadening that definition was the report's view that the restoration had to accommodate concealed modern features whenever common sense deemed it necessary for the purposes of stability, longer life, and reduced maintenance.

Prior to the official announcement of the Louisbourg Restoration Project in the House of Commons , the Minister of Northern Affairs and Natural Resources submitted three funding proposals for Cabinet consideration. In his words,

On March 31, 1961, I submitted three proposals "A", "B", "C", for the restoration of the Fortress of Louisbourg. These proposals would cost roughly $6, $12 and $18 million respectively. The view I expressed last March was that proposal "A" would not vividly recapture the historical lessons of Louisbourg but that proposal "B" would be closer to the mark.

Funding considerations and the need to compromise history were, therefore, concepts that coloured the approach to historical reconstruction from the first days of the project. In 1961, those in charge of the restoration regarded modern intrusions as a necessary evil. As a result, their attitude, in the years ahead, towards any lobby, for a precise definition of the meaning of historical accuracy for reconstruction purposes was to be less than enthusiastic. For one thing, such a benchmark could have limited both their financial flexibility to build and the degree to which they could justify historical compromise.

Consequently, the extent to which developmental and maintenance programmes for Louisbourg skirted historical fact over the next 25 years was to fluctuate widely. The reasons for this inconsistent process were many. Besides the fact that the meaning of authenticity was without precise definition, others were budgetary, its level based on whether the economic times in Canada were recessive or buoyant; the existing park's priorities, whether imaginative or cautious; the prevailing local building policy, whether it was being enforced or not; and the decision makers, whether they were history minded or less than sympathetic.

The critical counterbalance to those who felt comfortable with compromise as a necessary evil were those whose first instinct was to try to minimize the number and effect of such interventions. Among this group, the Historical Research Section was particularly active since its mandate was to discover and disclose fully the true historical record through archaeological and documentary investigations. Although functionally responsible to the Project Manager at Louisbourg, Research was also to work closely with the General Consultant in Ontario.

In a like manner, the mandate of the General Consultant was "to advise the Director [of the Department] as to the overall and detailed means to be taken for a partial restoration of the Fortress of Louisbourg, which shall be as accurate as possible from an archaeological and historical viewpoint." As well, the General Consultant was to pre-approve all construction plans and specifications. Of particular importance, he was to be a signature to "the overall outline master plan for the restoration."

In September 1961, the General Consultant, Ronald L Way, submitted an initial report on the Louisbourg Restoration Project. His views on what constituted proper restoration principles were decidedly succinct:

In the case of a structure, it is the attempt to take it back by rebuilding or repairing to either its original state or to some more desired period in its past history ... for its educational value ... The restored structure ... [is] faithfully presented ... in [its] original condition ... as ... [it] would have appeared at precisely the chosen time.

As a veteran of the restoration process, Way had already contributed considerable energies to Forts Henry, George and Erie, as well as to Upper Canada Village, by the time he came to work on the Louisbourg project. Because of these experiences,his initial report, probably by design, did not give a precise, and hence limiting, meaning for the term authenticity. For him, compromise was the key to a winning restoration team:

A successful restoration of Louisbourg can only result from the close co-operation of the Government, the architects, the engineers, the historians and archaeologists, not to mention consultants .... Government officials, responsible to the electorate are justifiably concerned in securing relief of unemployed along with permanent assets in return for the expenditure of crown funds. The architects, indispensable in the preparation of working plan[s] and the effective supervision of construction[,] must perforce restrain their creative instincts and be content with the role of mere copyists for, in historical restorations, there is a limited scope for improvements beyond the ken of the original builders. Modern engineers, on the other hand, specialists in efficient production sometimes have difficulty in comprehending the necessity of cruder and more laborious methods of construction [i.e. the technological advantages of modern construction techniques must be subordinated and men, rather than machines, should be used wherever possible], solely for the attainment of authentic effects. The historians and archaeologists for their part can be oblivious to costs and adamant in their instance on authenticity, even in minor things completely concealed from the public eye. We all have our limitations and it is not always easy to see the forest for the trees. When serious differences of opinion arise, compromise will often be the only practical expedient.

Despite Way's penchant that "all of the key personnel engaged upon the Louisbourg restoration possess the ability to compromise and are impressed with the fact that they are members of a team," he strongly maintained that "a comprehensive research programme in both history and archaeology ... [was] the only basis for an authentic restoration of Louisbourg." In other words, as Federal and Provincial officials were to carefully point out in a public forum held in the same year, "the mostly important consideration ... [behind] the plans for the phased restoration of the 18th Century Fortress and Port of Louisbourg ... was historical accuracy." In order to achieve this goal,

Meticulous historical and archaeological research was being carried out, including a wide search for manuscript material in the archives of several countries, the study of the typical architecture, furniture, interior decoration, equipment and dress of the period and a study of structures of the period still standing in Europe as well as in North America.

According to various people and disciplines involved with the project, this need to examine "typical" examples of the period was inevitable given the "missing detail[s] ... essential for an authentic restoration of Louisbourg." For some, however, the only problem with indirect evidence seemed to be one of identifying precisely "where good judgment, or the typical (from where?) has had to be used as a basis for design due to lack of, or the inconclusiveness of, historical and/or archaeological evidence." Simply put,

If we can "strike a happy medium" by reconstructing this building [barracks of the King's Bastion] true to the period in which it was designed and close to what it looks like in pictures and descriptions, than we have accomplished all we can expect.

For others, particularly within the Research Section itself, a staid concern with discovering "what actually existed at Louisbourg," elicited a more complex response:

The typical is satisfactory as a second choice when research cannot provide more precise information. There is also a danger in relating the observation of isolated facts to specific restoration problems, because information acquired from observation of the typical is valuable only in relation to all other information gleaned from research sources.

This effort to devaluate the importance of "typical" evidence reflected the strongly held stance of Research that the aim of the reconstruction project "should be the authentic original, not merely the appearance thereof." More importantly, of all its missions, its labours to preserve surviving 18th century walls and similar features in their original locations without taking them down for subsequent reconstruction was to draw the most sympathetic support. For example, according to the General Consultant:

That ... whenever walls are found in reasonably good condition, we should investigate the possibility of preserving such walls in their original location i.e. without taking them down. ... Purists in the field of historical restoration fault the Louisbourg project because it is not restoration, in the sense that the Fort Henry job was, but is, perforce, a total reconstruction. Because of such criticism, it is all the more important that we should be able to say, with honesty, that we preserved all that remained.

At the same time, the preoccupation of the Research Section with the use of original fabric underscored its claim that project designers should be "obliged to prove that each [concealed modern innovation was] ... absolutely necessary, ie.[sic] that the same results ...[could not] be achieved through another technique." In general outlook this position differed little from that of the General Consultant who believed that the degree of historical compromise required in this reconstruction project was dependent upon "what is to be considered the additive," the 18th or the 20th century. For his part, "the 20th century ... [was] the undesirable, but necessary, additive."

By September of 1963, both the senior staff and the general consultant on the project had arrived at an understanding on some of the principles of a restoration policy which they hoped the Director of the Department would approve [formally?]. In summary, they proposed that:

(1) Reconstructed buildings and structures will be authentic with their exteriors allowed to weather naturally and then permanently maintained to reflect their interpreted age (20 to 30 years of age);

(2) Such buildings and structures may contain certain desirable interpretive examples of actual 18th century construction (i.e. sections not dismantled and rebuilt) that are structurally sound but only if the cost to do so is reasonable and/or meets the approval of the Director of the Department;

(3) The standard for determining the reasonable cost of retaining any example of original 18th century construction is:

(a) to examine all possible combinations of original to rebuilt which are structurally sound,

(b) then to note each type of construction method involved and resulting variation from the original 18th century construction, if any,

(c) then to compare the presumed current capital and future maintenance costs of each option to the presumed costs of the same feature completely taken apart and reconstructed in its former location;

(4) Historical compromises which do not alter the visible appearance may be considered under any of the following conditions:

(a) the original 18th century construction, or part thereof, is not stable;

(b) it can be factually demonstrated to the Director of the Department that a change to the original 18th century construction will produce significant savings in capital, maintenance, or operating costs;

(c) a particular 18th century construction material like mortar or cut stone does not meet a modern standard or is impractical from a reasonable cost point of view but can be replicated;

(d) there is a requirement for concealed modern services such as fire and security protection, heating, electrical outlets, waterproofing, drainage (which does not disturb any original french drainage system), telephones, or water distribution;

(e) there is a requirement for easily removable visible lighting in areas of conventional interpretation;

(5) All chimneys and fireplaces are to be operable and fitted with removable caps.

Interestingly, this proposal came during a period when construction was pressuring the Research Section for results to such a degree that questions were being raised both within and without the section as to "what takes precedence and sets the pace: research or construction". The matter also arose at a time when the Research Section was itself pressing for "the adoption of certain guiding principles and methods of action which will give the project the sense of direction which has been lacking." In general, Research thought it was time to define or, in some cases, to redefine the various objectives of the project. In particular, "it ... submitted that the first objective should be: the most authentic partial restoration which can be achieved with the moneys provided."

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