The bulldozer effect

My beautiful and historic hometown of St. John’s, Newfoundland is perched on the far eastern shore of Canada, on the edge of the North Atlantic.  Its history goes back well over 500 years to the earliest explorers from Europe, and the summer fishermen who came from Britain.  It is a long and proud history that has left its mark on the landscape, but sadly there is not much left of the early buildings.

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View of downtown St. John’s with the Narrows (entrance to the harbour) and Signal Hill in the background.

The first settlements were seasonal – in fact, year-round living was illegal in the earliest days – and the buildings were temporary. Much of the early construction was wood-framed, with few stone or brick structures until the 19th century when masons began emigrating from Ireland and England.

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The historic Anglican Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, started in 1849 for a parish that started in 1699.  As many as six wooden churches had stood on this site prior to the start of the stone building.

A series of devastating fires in the 1800’s destroyed much of the old town, leaving an historic building stock that is – with some exceptions – dominated by wood-framed homes dating from the 1880’s and later. Next month will mark the 125th anniversary of the most devastating of those fires, the Great Fire of 1892.  These colourful rowhouses have been a hallmark of the City’s tourism campaigns for decades. Obviously, the historic architecture has marketing value, if nothing else.

But keeping the City’s historic structures intact and in use has never been easy.  It has, in fact, become increasingly difficult in the past decade with the recent oil-fueled economic boom that has pushed real estate prices and demand for new homes beyond anything we’ve seen before.

We have never experienced the development pressures of other cities.  But within the historic downtown there has been a demand for building lots which is so intense that developers and builders have targeted some of the City’s oldest homes and their large properties.  This led to the loss of one 130-year-old historic home on Winter Avenue in 2015.

That was the first of at least four historically-significant (but unprotected) single-family homes to be lost in the past two years.  Others are threatened.  And it isn’t just in St. John’s – in a small community in Bonavista Bay, the historic church is  apparently facing demolition because its proposed reuse (as an art gallery, of all things!) isn’t acceptable to the local mayor.

The image of a bulldozer sitting on top of a flattened historic home is heartbreaking for anyone who values historic architecture and loves their community.  But it is becoming a more common scene in my hometown than I ever expected.

Demolition took its most recent victim while I was home for a visit last week.  Richmond Cottage, an 1848 home in the heart of the City, was bulldozed last Sunday morning.  This is apparently the preferred time and day for demolitions:  fewer protesters are out and about early on Sunday mornings.

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Historic rowhouses of downtown St. John’s

Even with the downturn in the Newfoundland economy since the bottom fell out of the oil market, developers and builders are still pushing ahead with projects like this.  It’s surprising that there is still a demand for large new homes in that economic climate, let alone a segment of the market that is eager to live in a vinyl-clad McMansion built on top of the bones of an historic building.

I have not worked in St. John’s in 15 years, so I am no longer familiar with its heritage conservation by-laws and policies.  But from what I have seen over the past two years, they are clearly lacking.  We are very fortunate in New York State to have financial incentives that are essential to protecting historic buildings.  Here in Buffalo, we rely heavily on the State and Federal Historic Tax Credits.  Without them, many rehab and reuse projects would not happen.  Most of the projects that I am involved with in my practice are existing buildings, and many of those are historic.

Before I left St. John’s in 2002, I served on the board of the Habitat for Humanity ReStore, which struggled at the time to find enough salvaged materials to fill the store.  My classmate from architecture school, Jennifer Corson, started Renovators Resource in Halifax, Nova Scotia about 25 years ago, and there are many other architectural salvage outfits across North America.

Here in Buffalo, we have several dismantling operations and architectural salvage stores. Some of them provide valuable on-the-job-site training in deconstruction, and all of them keep good usable materials out of landfills.   This isn’t a new idea.  Why can’t this happen in St. John’s?

Besides the loss of irreplaceable architectural history, there is also the environmental cost.  This heap of wood, glass, and stone has to be carted off to a dump or landfill somewhere.  It is a loss of embodied energy along with the physical materials.  There is an economic value to that.  Is anyone taking this into account when demolition permits are issued?  And it is likely to be replaced by plastic, vinyl, and other modern materials that don’t have the longevity or the environmental cred.

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Historic Benevolent Irish Society building repurposed into residential use, St. John’s.  This has been a registered Heritage Structure since 1990.

If we HAVE to lose an historic building – through demolition, fire, or demolition by neglect – then a bulldozer should never be the first or only option.  Historic materials and building elements should be salvaged, at a bare minimum.  How is it possible that there is absolutely NO value placed on historic buildings and their materials?  We can’t recreate this stuff.  Once it’s gone, no amount of vinyl siding and cheap windows will replace it.

Demolition should be the last resort.  But when it is not avoidable, the opportunity to salvage usable materials – and create jobs in the process – should be the default option.  Sadly, my hometown – whose historic buildings inspired me to become an architect – has a long way to go before its built heritage is fully protected and valued.

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