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
Photo by Geoff Steven for Our
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
"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
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
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
"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
"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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