March 25 was a melancholy day, one that chipped a bit out of every true townie’s heart. Quinnipiac, or the ‘old blue house down by Rennie’s River’ as most people knew it, came down quicker than a Christmas tree in January. Its demise has raised all manner of questions about wealth, identity, symbolism, and the public good, and tied them around the sinking stone of municipal politics.
The most oft-repeated sentiment expressed by everyone from city councillors to the neighbour is a disheartening one: ‘You can’t tell anyone what to do with their property.’ It conjures up the image of a gummy-eyed half-wit with a shotgun balanced over their knee, surveying their tuft of crab grass and tar shack. Or put in a kinder way, Newfoundlanders are fiercely independent, but the downside is we’re fiercely short-sighted when it comes to the common good.
We have overcome this part of our querulous nature before. In 1977 the City of St. John’s took the miraculous step of declaring a large part of the downtown core a Heritage Conservation Area. This is in large part why the city looks the way it does today—the reason even the most cynical of hearts swells a little when they see a Newfoundland and Labrador tourism ad. Without the advocacy of a small but vocal group of citizens, there would be no Murray Premises, or Newfoundland Museum, or Brother T. I. Murphy Centre. There wouldn’t be any George Street, for that matter. They lost more than they won—Brazil Square, Mount Cashel, The Grace, the West End of Water Street. But still, they were loud, and insistent, and unbowed.
The next generation?
But that was 40 years ago. The good people who spent the better part of their adult lives in grimy church basements and sweaty school gyms, fighting to keep these critical parts of our city standing and in place, have the right to retire, to the pleasures of their grandchildren and a stiff drink.
Old buildings, both public and private, however, continue to crumble at an alarming rate: Cochrane Street United, St. Thomas, the Railway Station, the old CBC building. The list is long. Even worse, the well-intentioned by-laws which were set out to protect them have become outdated. Some are silly, like prescribing which historic colour your house can be painted, and some are legitimate but prohibitively expensive, like electrical upgrades. Buildings, like people, need room to breathe. The by-laws need to be overhauled to be more flexible and responsive to the needs of the homeowner and the building itself.
Newfoundlanders are fiercely independent, but the downside is we’re fiercely short-sighted when it comes to the common good.
At the same time the city needs to start putting its money where its pride and ego are, starting with hiring a staff architect for the City of Legends (there isn’t one. What? I know.) — plus a few more planners, a structural engineer, and a landscape architect. For the price of two and a half cruise ship visits, or an Ice Caps subsidy, St. John’s could get the expertise it desperately needs. There are other choices besides tearing down a building, buying it, or a $20-million renovation — that’s what professionals are for. Hire them, and take their advice. Lend their advice out to homeowners, who are often at their wits’ end about how to deal with weird Second Empire roofs and wonky inter-war foundations.
The city could also pony up the money for maintenance and renovation for residential homeowners. At present the combined money offered by the Newfoundland Historic Trust and the city might buy a few shingles and half a sconce on a place like Quinnipiac. There needs to be more help. Not millions more, but more. These buildings are like your grandparents; they need a bit of extra attention. If Nan needs a new walker, you don’t complain. Everyone’s just glad she’s still standing.
The time to act is now. There are eyes on half the major public buildings in the city: Her Majesty’s Penitentiary, the Waterford, St. George’s United, Oxen Pond, Bowring Park, and on and on. It is not just a concern of the wealthy, though they are the ones who tend to make the most fuss. But these buildings are just as much a part of the memory, history, and soul of the person who sleeps on the bench in Victoria Park as the one who used to own it.
Imagine the places where you attended your last wedding. Or funeral. The last picnic on a warm summer day, the last Sunday toboggan run.
Now imagine your city without them.