LETTER: Protect the Waterford Hospital

The Waterford Hospital is part of the province’s architectural and social heritage, and it should be preserved and repurposed once it closes.

The Waterford Hospital is one of my favourite buildings in St. John’s. The oldest part is 165 years old and, when you walk around the site, it looks almost like each extension was built in a different decade. It’s a patchwork of local architectural history. And of our social history. As an embodiment of our heritage, its value is not just huge—it is irreplaceable.

But, despite having served the people of the province for such a long time and having built for us a complex and nuanced heritage, it is now in danger of being lost. The site is a public one now and, although it soon will no longer be needed for its present purpose, there is no reason to heave it away to “the developers.” We can thoughtfully develop it ourselves, as a province, and for the benefit of all the people. Together with the large green area that surrounds them, the hospital buildings are a jewel in the public’s hand; let’s not drop the jewel. 

Some time back, I posted on Facebook that the Waterford Hospital site is endangered and that it should be developed into a public, community resource serving artistic communities, start-ups, community groups, and even come-and-go government needs. There was an immediate flurry of likes and comments of support. That on-line support tells me there is a huge population of citizens who want the site preserved for community use. Certainly, it no longer is a very good building for a modern hospital, but it can serve lots of other purposes after the hospital leaves it. And keeping in mind environmental concerns, reuse of existing building stock will always be a better and greener approach than to destroy what we have and then to build with modern materials. 

The wing near the northwest corner of the complex is the one people often point to as being dilapidated. Its southwest-facing windows are in hard shape—but they can be replaced or repaired; the walls are good. Unseen from the driveway running along the building, it has large northeast-facing windows (equally in need of replacement!). That wing, partly for its good light, has served for decades as workshop space both for maintenance people and, earlier, for crafts programmes. It would equally make a great space for visual artists or rehearsal space for actors and musicians.

The smaller and other large rooms through the complex would make excellent work and office spaces for community groups, start-ups, and cooperative ventures. It is ideal space for creative writers of fiction, drama, and even university theses. The chapel—with its famous labyrinth floor—could be a performance space for music and theatre. 

It’s a solid building that has some minor façade problems, and some over-heating problems, but it’s fully wired for modern purposes and has lots of running water. It’s on bus routes and near the cross-town arterial. It has plenty of parking. 

Despite the numerous parking spaces, much of its lawn—originally meadow—still exists; that could be very easily turned into increased community gardens for the neighbourhood. It even has what appears to be a big root cellar on the property. And a beautiful park across the street. It is on a little-used but lovely walking trail (an old road reservation, I think) that comes straight down from Topsail Road just west of the new high school up there. That path could be incorporated into a new path working across the hillside portion of the property to bring it out on the Arterial Road, thus joining up with cross-City walking paths already in place.

Around the world there are many examples of such buildings, many of them formerly useful hospitals and often with lots of bad-reputation folklore associated with them, being turned into new, publicly-owned and operated space—respecting not only the memories of those who were treated or died in the institution, but also the needs of neighbouring livyers.

As I said, this is near Bowring Park and what I imagine is a complementary space that includes park-like spaces usable by visitors and locals alike—while giving space as well for the day-to-day work of dozens of volunteer societies, cooperative ventures, seniors’ and youth groups, artists of every sort, and no doubt some ephemeral government services (like voting and vaccinating, to take two recent needs), all paying towards its constant upkeep.

It’s a win for the whole city—the whole province—for the building to be preserved in that way.

That a conversion will entail infrastructure costs is undoubted. But the complex serves safely now as a hospital and little would need to be done to continue the building’s safe utility right away. It needs work on its various façades—much of the brickwork now requires new pointing and in some cases new stabilization. That kind of normal upkeep is hardly a reason to reject the building’s on-going utility. Some wings are about as old as, but built more durably than, buildings now used as bars in the downtown. Just as a bar owner must do upkeep on their century-old building, it may be the case that some wings require structural work. This is hardly a barrier given the advantages.

Likely, too, there is asbestos in the building, probably in a couple of different forms, some of which (like the heating pipes) are throughout the building. But again, the building has served well as a hospital right into the present and there is no pressing reason to immediately do all the asbestos remediation that will be required in the long run. There are many spaces in that complex into which artists and community groups could safely move right away with minimal renovation or remediation.

I do not know how it should be administered. Mistakes have been made in the past by handing similar things to small volunteer organisations who, despite initial enthusiasm and activity, are found to be inadequate in the long run. The Waterford Hospital project is large enough that it probably should continue to be held in provincial hands, perhaps as a Crown Corporation, or other quasi-governmental authority. Certainly at the beginning, there would need to be financial support, just as hospitals, parks, highways, libraries and other public services are supported. Nonetheless, there would be some incomes from rentals and fees from organisations and individuals wanting to use the spaces and community gardens, or attend lectures, concerts, and other shows. It may also make an excellent site for small bakeries, craft shops, hobby stores, and the like; revenue can come from many sources.

To my mind, the best part of this plan is the improvement that would occur in the hospital’s reputation. There used to be over a thousand beds in that hospital, though in recent decades the number has been under two hundred. There are literally thousands, probably tens of thousands, of people who have been treated there, and their memories and interests need to be taken into account. It may be the ideal spot for a new permanent museum dedicated to the history of medicine in the province. 

The Waterford Hospital was the province’s psychiatric hospital and in that role was the site of many people’s saddest moments, and the site of treatments that are no longer considered proper. This should not colour our desire to keep the buildings in public hands. A specious argument for demolishing buildings where awful things happened has been put forward in the past. We are told that it is in the interests of the victims to tear the site down “so they won’t be reminded.” Of course part of necessary memorialisation of victimisation is exactly the reminder, so that we can avoid similar things. This in fact is why there is indeed a small memorial at, for instance, the Mount Cashel site. Memorials are in truth very important: “Lest we forget.”

Making the Waterford and its grounds a site of human creativity, joy, celebration, and community will be far better than tearing it down and handing the site over to private hands, destroying the green space, the sense of history, and the on-going building of community that happens there now. As several of my Facebook friends pointed out, there is no better way to exorcise the demons of a site than through newly created beauty and the joy that goes with it.

Looking forward, the worst-case scenario here is that the buildings be condemned and destroyed, releasing asbestos and god-knows-what-else into the ground (as happened in the adjacent Sanatorium property with the ensuing environmental clean-up on the provincial government’s chit). The land would sit there, ugly and de-heritagized—destroyed by demolition and the removal of (unnecessary!) pollution. It would sit there for some time until a private developer is given its title and turns it to commercial use: building new condos or office buildings. Thus public paths would be closed and the green lungs of that neighbourhood taken away, and the groundwater bank that the site serves as now dried up. In turn, that last factor endangers Bowring Park since the Waterford site will then be a source of sudden run-offs in big rainstorms.

These results are the Least-Green alternative, the worst-case scenario, but it’s an all-too-real possibility given similar government infrastructure privatisation and devolution. We must avoid it and avoid anything that approaches it. The best way to do that is to rededicate the entire site, building and grounds, to new and needed community and public uses.

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