Churchill Park Garden Suburb

In the early 1940s, St. John's had a severe housing problem. For several decades there had been a shortage of good houses, and there was a large slum in the centre of the city (See St. John's and the Central Slum). Bounded roughly by Springdale Street in the west, New Gower Street in the south, LeMarchant Road in the north, and Carter's Hill in the east, this area of steep streets and narrow lanes had been spared by the fires of 1846 and 1892, and the houses were old, poorly maintained, and overcrowded. Many of them did not have water and sewer services, and the lack of sanitation was harmful to residents' health. The infant mortality rate in St. John's, for example, averaged 96 per 1,000 live births in the early 1940s, considerably higher than the 1940 infant mortality rates in Canada, Great Britain, and the United States of 64, 54, and 40 respectively.

There had been many efforts in the first half of the twentieth century to improve housing conditions in St. John's, but they had met with limited success or else complete failure. In May, 1942, facing increased housing pressure because of the influx of civilian workers and military personnel, and spurred by improved economic conditions, the St. John's Municipal Council appointed the Commission of Enquiry on Housing and Town Planning (CEHTP). Headed by Justice (later Sir) Brian Dunfield, the Commission's work led to the creation of Churchill Park garden suburb and drastically changed St. John's.

CEHTP Reports and Recommendations

The mandate of the CEHTP was to examine the state of St. John's housing, investigate the slum problem, the housing shortage and, most importantly, recommend a strategy to solve the problems. Between 1942 and 1944 CEHTP released five reports which examined the city's housing stock, laid out its problems, and proposed a solution. The Commission found that of the 4,613 houses it examined, 1,750 were substandard and needed replacing. The reports argued that a lack of planning was largely responsible for the housing conditions in the city, and that a dedicated housing authority should be created to develop the city in an orderly and healthy way.

This authority should focus on acquiring land as cheaply as possible, and develop it according to a master plan. Specifically, the Commission recommended the creation of a housing corporation which would acquire and service land in the valley north of the city. This area, north of Empire Avenue, was largely farmland and was the most logical place for the city to expand. By carefully planning the major and residential streets, designating space for shops and services, and providing public transit, the corporation could oversee the building of a garden suburb that would provide modestly priced housing. Dunfield's survey had revealed that some of the slum residents could, in fact, afford to invest in a better home, if there was a better home to invest in. Some central slum residents could then begin to move out and the slum eventually be cleared.

Garden suburbs had first been proposed at the turn of the 20th century by the English social reformer and planner Ebenezer Howard. They were planned, self-contained communities that balanced the benefits of town and country by providing shops and services to residents in attractive suburbs incorporating large amounts of green space such as lawns, trees, parks, and greenbelts. Such communities would be quite different from the crowded conditions that characterized the core of many cities, including St. John's.

The Commission of Government accepted the central recommendation of the CEHTP and created the St. John's Housing Corporation (SJHC) in 1944, again with Brian Dunfield as chair. Funded by both the city and the Commission of Government, it had a mandate to build garden suburb homes in St. John's with the goal of eventually clearing the central slum.

Acquiring Land

The SJHC's first job was to acquire the necessary land, which it did by using a method of land expropriation explored by a commission on land use in England, but never used there. The 1944 SJHC Lands Act was passed by the Commission of Government, but it was legislation that would probably not have been passed by an elected legislature. It gave the Corporation the power to compensate property owners at current values, rather than potential future values. This saved a considerable amount of time and money. About 800 acres were expropriated in the area bounded roughly by the streets known today as Empire Avenue, Prince Philip Drive, Freshwater Road, and Torbay Road. The Avalon Mall and most of Memorial University's campus are built on land once owned by the Corporation.

Churchill Park Map
The area outlined in red was expropriated by the St. John's Housing Corporation.

Map courtesy of Chris Sharpe, Department of Geography, Memorial University of Newfoundland and Paul Meschino. Churchill Park area outline by Charles Conway, Cartographer, Department of Geography, Memorial University of Newfoundland.
with more information (92 kb)
Churchill Park Map

Building Churchill Park

Once the land was expropriated, construction of the Churchill Park garden suburb could begin. Ground was broken in a ceremony in October, 1944 near the former Mount Cashel Orphanage (at the present-day intersection of Torbay Road and Elizabeth Avenue) by Brian Dunfield and St. John's Deputy Mayor Eric Cook. Construction of roads, services and houses began soon after. A major trunk sewer running through the northern valley was installed, water mains laid, and major roads (most importantly Elizabeth Avenue, originally Elizabeth Street) constructed. All the concrete water and sewer pipes were made by the Corporation in its own factory.

Dunfield had read the works of many modern planners and borrowed their ideas in planning the layout of Churchill Park as a modern garden suburb. The original plan called for three 'villages' (A, B, and C), all connected by trams to the downtown. These villages would be situated on wide, tree-lined streets and contain plenty of green space. Cul-de-sacs and walkways were intended to separate vehicles from pedestrians.

Churchill Park Houses Churchill Park Houses
These houses are typical of the Cape Cod style homes built in the Churchill Park area in the late 1940s.

Photo courtesy of Dr. Chris Sharpe, Department of Geography, Memorial University of Newfoundland.
with more information (79 kb)

Only the houses in village B were actually constructed by the SJHC. In this area (which surrounds modern-day Churchill Square) the Corporation built 233 detached or semi-detached homes, and 92 apartments. These homes are situated on large, landscaped lots, and although they were not big, they featured modern plumbing, heating, kitchens and bathrooms. They also shared many recognizable design features, such as large corner windows. All the homes and apartments built by the Corporation were designed by Paul Meschino, the SJHC's in-house architect. He was a University of Toronto graduate who had previously worked with Wartime Housing Limited, which constructed houses across Canada for military and civilian use during World War II. Most of his designs were based on the Cape Cod style home, an efficient small home design common at the time. Almost all the houses were single family or semi-detached, and these features of Churchill Park as built by the SJHC, including individual driveways, front lawns and backyards became standard features of suburban housing development throughout St. John's.

Churchill Park Advertisement, 1946
An advertisement placed in the Evening Telegram on June 5, 1946.

Photo courtesy of Chris Sharpe, Department of Geography, Memorial University of Newfoundland.
with more information (65 kb)
Churchill Park Advertisement, 1946

Churchill Park After Confederation

The Corporation stopped building houses after Confederation, when the new provincial government decided that it should concentrate on land development and leave the actual construction to private contractors. One reason for this decision was that the houses had become much more expensive than originally planned, due to material shortages and increases in labour costs. The area was becoming a popular middle-class neighbourhood, and the lower-class families living in the central slum could not afford to move. As a result, there had been little progress in clearing the slum before 1949.

This situation began to change shortly after Confederation. With support from the Central (later Canada) Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) the province began to provide funding for the construction of low-cost public housing in St. John's. Much of this public housing was built within the boundaries of Churchill Park, since the land was available, cleared, and already serviced. In the 1950s housing developments were built along Empire Avenue, Anderson Avenue, and Elizabeth Avenue, and by 1956 provided several hundred housing units for low-income families. It was these developments that finally allowed people to leave the central slum.

The availability of low-cost land also made the area attractive to co-operative housing societies, who applied for CMHC financing jointly as a co-op. They built the houses themselves to keep the cost of construction labour down, and their sweat equity was counted towards the down payment in lieu of cash. These co-ops built almost 250 of the houses that are currently in the Churchill Park area, and were responsible for several groups of houses with identical designs. Examples can be seen along Elizabeth Avenue, Empire Avenue and Newtown Road.

Churchill Park was one of the largest and earliest garden suburb developments in Canada, and in spite of the changes that have occurred in the houses over the years, it remains one of the most attractive and sought-after neighbourhoods in St. John's. The water mains, sewer lines and major roads that the Corporation built opened up large tracts of land for development, and allowed the city to expand north of Empire Avenue for the first time. No longer is the city's population concentrated in the downtown core, and the central slum has been replaced by the Delta Hotel, Cabot Place, Mile One Stadium and City Hall. The city of St. John's has greatly expanded in the decades since Churchill Park was constructed, and areas such as Cowan Heights and Wedgewood Park have made the suburb the main residential feature of St. John's. Outlying communities such as Torbay and Paradise are also popular residential areas, and function to a considerable extent as commuter towns. This suburban sprawl increases the cost of services such as snow clearing and garbage pickup, and makes public and private transportation more difficult and expensive. Despite these drawbacks, the trend towards suburbanization in St. John's and adjacent areas, which began with Churchill Park, shows no sign of slowing down.

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

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