'Suitcase Stovel' Travelled Globe to Preserve Heritage Sites

Herb Stovel was a renowned conservation expert who left his mark on UNESCO world heritage sites as diverse as the Rideau Canal in Ottawa, the island of Patmos, Greece, and the Nepalese capital of Kathmandu.

During a four-decade career, Stovel criss-crossed the globe in a tireless crusade to save, restore and maintain historic buildings, cities, and cultural landscapes. He gave advice, monitored conservation efforts, and trained people.

"There wasn't anything Herb wouldn't do in the name of heritage," says his wife Meryl Oliver.

There was the time, for example, in 1988 when Stovel leaned out of a Soviet helicopter to photograph a 270-yearold church at Kizhi Pogost, a religious complex in Russia, as someone gripped his belt to keep him from falling.

Stovel died March 14 in Ottawa after a long battle with cancer. He was 63.

"Big and tall and bearded, he could have been intimidating, but in fact he was warm and funny and endlessly enthusiastic," recalls Natalie Bull, executive director at the Heritage Canada Foundation. "He knew that heritage is as much about people as it is about places."

Rideau Canal

Photo by Geoff Steven for Our Place

Stovel carried out some 85 international conservation missions, lectured in 30 countries, published seven books, wrote 800 reports and articles, and made 170 presentations at conferences in 35 countries. His text on risk preparedness has been translated into several languages, including Japanese and Arabic.

In 2004, he joined Carleton University as co-ordinator of the masters' program in heritage conservation at the School of Canadian Studies.

"The world was his arena," says Alastair Kerr, a British Columbia conservation specialist.

"He made friends quickly and had that wonderful ability to draw people of disparate backgrounds together, to talk ideas through, to listen carefully to what everyone had to say, then to synthesize the essence into a common understanding."

At Kizhi Pogost, Stovel played a "pivotal" role in saving the Church of Transfiguration, says Andrew Powter, a Canadian conservation architect. The 18th-century log structure, crowned with 22 onion domes, was at risk of collapse.

The Russians wanted to dismantle the church and rebuild it but lacked skills and material.

Working with a group of concerned international specialists, Stovel "drafted a firm and direct manifesto on how the building should be handled. The gamechanger was to stand up to the Russian authorities and say, 'You shouldn't be doing this.' That was the response that was needed rather than pussyfoot around."

Stovel was born Aug. 16, 1948 in Hawkesbury and spent his childhood in Sudbury. His father, who was in mining, died when he was a teen. Family trips always included stops at old buildings and museums.

Stovel trained as an architect at Montreal's McGill University, graduating in 1972. In 1978, he obtained a master's degree in conservation from Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland. At the time there was a growing awareness in Canada of the importance of built heritage.

Early in his career, in the 1980s, he developed courses for Heritage Canada Foundation's Main Street program, which trained a generation of heritage practitioners and revitalized downtowns across Canada. That's how he met his wife, also a conservation professional. They have two children, Colin, 21, and Ginny, 15.

His travels earned him the nickname "Suitcase Stovel."

Between 1985 and 1998, he set up the first training program for the conservation of federal government buildings. "I watched Herb as a trainer turn roomfuls of reluctant civil servants and property owners into heritage advocates," Bull says.

In the 1990s, Parks Canada hired Stovel to study the Rideau Canal Corridor's cultural landscape, a term for places shaped by humans as well as nature.

That study, which described the Canal's heritage as including natural and cultural features as well as engineering works, helped pave the way to UNESCO world heritage designation in 2007, says planner Jim Mountain, who worked on the study.

The study team, led by Stovel, held meetings along the Canal, including with farmers, boaters and municipalities, bringing "all those players together so that everybody understood they had a long-term role in stewardship and management," Mountain says.

Stovel used the same grassroots approach in Vilnius, the historic capital of Lithuania, where in 1995, shortly after independence from the Soviet Union, he guided local efforts to conserve the city, earning the Lithuanian equivalent of the Order of Canada.

Stovel held positions in every major Canadian and international heritage organization. Notably, he spent six years in Rome, from 1998 to 2004, at the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM), an advisory body to the World Heritage Committee.

Between 1994 and 2003, he was sent to evaluate the world heritage nominations of Edinburgh, Scotland; Alberobello, Italy; Tbilisi and Vardzia-Khertvisi, Georgia; and Patmos, Greece.

At Patmos, where St. John is said to have written the Book of Revelation, Stovel is a hero for helping Greek authorities finetune their application - though as an evaluator that wasn't his job. They made him an honorary monk of the site's 10th-century monastery.

"He was a bit of a rule breaker," says Oliver. "They deserved to be nominated, but the application wasn't quite right. They always recognized that because of him, it was inscribed."

He is credited also with developing key principles by which conservation is carried out. Stovel is co-author of the 1994 Nara Document on Authenticity, which says conservation decisions should be assessed in their cultural context. It is now a standard reference applied to world heritage list nominations.

The family has announced the Herb Stovel Scholarship Fund. "He probably had a student in every country," says Oliver. "He got Israelis and Palestinians in the same classroom to talk about heritage." Details are being worked out but tax-deductible donations can be made through the Heritage Canada Foundation.

In recent years, Stovel was invited to Kathmandu, which was in danger of being removed from the world heritage list due to urbanization and loss of historic fabric. He achieved a management plan that included redrawing the site boundary, and mobilized local people.

"He built consensus about what was valuable and how they were going to look after it," says Christina Cameron, Canada Research Chair on Built Heritage at the University of Montreal. "He always understood in the end that heritage is local."


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