Architecture of St. John's, 1800–1892

While St. John's has seen European settlement (temporary or otherwise) since at least the early 1500s, no known examples of buildings constructed before 1800 have survived. However, a few buildings dating from the early 19th century do exist.

Possibly the oldest surviving building in St. John's is Anderson House (Powers Court, Signal Hill). Built in 1802-1804, this two and half story, wooden hipped-roof house has served as military quarters, a private residence, and business premises. It incorporates many common features of house building at the time, including the hipped-roof and central chimney. Dating from the same period and with similar features, McNamara House on Plank Road may be even older than Anderson House, although its exact date of construction is unknown. Commissariat House, built in 1818-1820, is a similar wooden structure. Not strictly a residence, but rather built as the home and offices of the British Army supply officer in Newfoundland, Commissariat House nevertheless has design features that are a good example of wooden house construction at the time.

These buildings are some of the few remainders of that period. Most of the city's housing stock from the early 1800s has been destroyed by fire (particularly the Great Fires of 1816-17, 1846, and 1892, but sometimes in smaller, localized fires) or otherwise been demolished. Some houses have simply been modified. Bannerman House, located at 54 Circular Road, for example, dates from the 1840s and shows evidence of having been built with a hipped-roof and central chimney, like Anderson House and McNamara House, and being later altered.

In the first part of the 19th century, the dominant building style for commercial and government buildings was Georgian. The best surviving example is Government House. Constructed between 1827 and 1831 to serve as the governor's official residence, it was built with local red sandstone and Portland stone from England. The same period saw the introduction of the Gothic style to St. John's and elsewhere in the colony, where it was widely used for churches throughout the century. A good early example is St. Thomas's Anglican Church, built in 1836.

Although most earlier residences in St. John's are gone, some from the mid to late 1800s have survived. Devon House, built sometime between 1850 and 1880, barely escaped the 1892 fire, as did Devon Row, the group of townhouses constructed around the same time immediately to the west. The stone and brick house at 32 Queen's Road was not so fortunate. Built between 1854 and 1879, the exterior of the house survived the fire, but the interior was gutted and had to be rebuilt. Scorched timbers are still visible inside. Many merchant houses survived the fire because they were built outside of the downtown core. For example, Angel House at 146 Hamilton Avenue was built in 1878-79 for the prominent Angel family, which owned an iron foundry nearby.

Devon House and Devon Row, 2011
Devon House, on the left, was built sometime between 1850 and 1880. Devon Row, centre right, was built around the same time and demonstrates early Second Empire design features.

Photo by Keith Collier. ©2011, Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site.
with more information (81 kb)
Devon House and Devon Row, 2011

Although Devon House, Devon Row, and 32 Queen's Road are built of brick and stone, most residential buildings at the time (as now) were constructed of wood. By contrast, commercial and government properties in St. John's, especially those that have survived, were constructed of stone or brick, rather than of wood, although they often had wood framing. This was largely because ordinances enacted following the 1846 and 1892 fires decreed that buildings along Water and Duckworth Streets had to be of fire-proof material. Two good examples of stone and brick commercial construction, built in the aftermath of the 1846 fire, are the O'Dwyer Block and the Thompson Building.

It was common for commercial properties to double as residences at this time. Stores, workshops, and merchants' premises often had accommodations for the owners, their families and staff on the upper floors, with the ground floors reserved for commercial space. This was also common in banks, where the ground floor would contain tellers' stalls and offices, and the bank manager's quarters would be on the upper floors. The old British Bank of North America building (now the Anna Templeton Centre) at 278 Duckworth Street is one such building. Built in 1849 in the Italianate style, its interior was heavily damaged in the 1892 fire, but the exterior survived and it was rebuilt. The ground floor contained the bank's business areas, while the top three floors served as living quarters for the bank manager.

British Bank of North America Building before 1892
British Bank of North America Building before 1892.
The British Bank of North America (BBNA) is visible on the left in both photos. The right hand photo shows an additional story being built onto the bank, increasing the living space for the bank manager and his family. In the right hand photograph also note that the building to the the right of the BBNA has had an addition constructed on the front. These photos date from before 1892. The photo on the right was taken from the roof of the Athenaeum building which was destroyed in the 1892 fire.

Courtesy of the Archives and Manuscripts Division, QEII Library (Coll. 137.01.05.005 and Coll. 137.01.03.006), Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, NL.
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While stone and brick were usually chosen for commercial buildings because of fire resistance and durability, they were sometimes used for aesthetic reasons as well. The Colonial Building, built from 1847-1850 to serve as the home of the colonial legislature and government, is notable for its neoclassical design incorporating large columns and pediments, and is made of white limestone imported from Ireland. It was constructed 20 years or so after Government House and shares similar symbolic functions, but it was designed in a very different style. The Colonial Building reflects a shift in architectural taste towards neoclassicism, also evident in the Customs House at King's Beach, which was built of brick and stone in the aftermath of the 1846 fire, around the same time as Colonial Building. The Customs House was destroyed in the 1892 fire.

One of the most architecturally important buildings in St. John's, the Roman Catholic Basilica is perhaps the most striking example of a neoclassical-inspired design. Constructed from 1841-1855 from a mixture of local and imported stone, the Basilica (originally a cathedral, it was also declared a Minor Basilica in 1955) contains many of the classical, Italianate, or Romanesque design features that were often incorporated into buildings at the time. This is in marked contrast to the Church of England (or Anglican) Cathedral. Designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott in the Gothic style for which he was famous, the Anglican Cathedral is the most notable Gothic building in St. John's. Construction of the nave took place between 1847 and 1850, but the rest of the structure was not completed until 1885. Other notable Gothic buildings are St. Patrick's Roman Catholic Church on Patrick St., built between 1864 and 1885, and George St. Methodist Church, (now United) built in 1873. The Gower St. Methodist Church, built in 1849 and destroyed in the 1892 fire, also contained Gothic elements. The Athenaeum building (the Athenaeum was a society whose goals were “the cultivation and diffusion of knowledge”), completed in 1879-1880, was similarly Gothic influenced, but was also destroyed in the 1892 fire.

Many houses in St. John's that have distinct architectural styles were built in the mid-1800s. Devon Place (not to be confused with Devon House), at 3 Forest Road was built around 1843. One of the most impressive residences of the time, it was built in the Classical Revival style, again reflecting the popular architectural tastes of the time and sharing many of its design elements with Colonial Building.

George Street United Church, 2011
George Street United (originally Methodist) Church was built in 1873 of local stone, covered with cement and painted. Its turrets and arched windows are good examples of Gothic design, common in churches in Newfoundland at this time.

Photo by Keith Collier. ©2011, Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site.
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By the late 1880s, the first architectural glimpses of the Second Empire style were appearing. This was to be perhaps the most important architectural style in St. John's over the next 50 years. The Benevolent Irish Society (BIS) Building, built in 1877-1880 is somewhat similar in appearance to the Basilica located behind it. It is notable, however, that it has a mansard roof, which is an important feature of the Second Empire style. Forest House, built for the Collier family between 1890 and 1892, includes many Second Empire features such as dentils and brackets, as well as stained glass. Kelvin House, built in 1885, is a rare example of residential brick construction in St. John's. Another excellent example of the Second Empire style is the “New House” at 335-337 Southside Road, which was built for sealing captain Edward White beginning in 1876. 3 Park Place, built in the early 1880s, is classic Second Empire style and notable for being designed by the firm of J. & J.T. Southcott.

The Southcott family was primarily responsible for the Second Empire style being introduced to Newfoundland, so much so that it became known on the island as the “Southcott style.” Already taking hold before the 1892 Great Fire, Second Empire or Southcott style was the defining architectural style post-1892. Although much of the city's architectural heritage was lost in the Great Fire, many important buildings remained, and the oldest examples of St. John's built heritage owe their existence to the eclectic and ever-evolving tastes of their designers and builders, who created a wide variety of buildings in the city throughout the 1800s.

Article by Keith Collier. ©2011, Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site

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