(100 Water Street, St. John's)
The three-and-a-half-storeyed brick S. O. Steele building at 100 Water Street is an excellent example of Victorian Second Empire style commercial architecture.
The structure was built in 1894 for Hannah Martin as a crock shop to replace her store destroyed in the Great Fire of 1892. The business and building came into possession of the Steele family when Samuel Owen Steele married Hannah Martin's niece, Sarah Blanch Harris, who inherited the property upon her aunt's death. Steele was an established dry goods merchant, but he renamed the store S. O. Steele and concentrated on the wholesale aspects of selling china. He began to import china from England, other European centres and later from Japan. Under the motto of "Full value for your money and good packing" the business remained in the Steele family until 1989 when James Steele Jr., and his wife, Frances, decided to retire. They sold the premises to Clyde Rose of Breakwater Books, who currently uses the building as a bookstore and office space.
The structure is typical of many of the dual-purpose commercial buildings constructed after 1892. The ground floor served as a shop and office space, while the upper floors were used for residential purposes. The structure's fourth storey concave mansard roof with hooded dormers is characteristic of the Second Empire style made popular by builders J. & J. T. Southcott in the years after the 1892 fire. The Steeles used the upper floors as a residence until 1935, when they converted the area into office and storage space.
The best known of the Steele children were Samuel's sons, Owen and James, both of whom served in the Royal Newfoundland Regiment in the First World War. Owen became a lieutenant in the regiment and was killed at the Somme on July 8, 1916, by a German shell. His diary provides an excellent account of the exploits of Newfoundlanders who fought in the First World War, from their training at Pleasantville to their annihilation at Beaumont Hamel on the July 1, 1916. His brother, James, survived the war, including the attack at Beaumont Hamel that killed or wounded 710 of his fellow Newfoundland soldiers. Fittingly, Newfoundland's National War Memorial, opened by General Douglas Haig on July 1, 1924, was built in a lot adjacent to the Steele home.
The conversion of the premises in 1989 to a bookstore and offices for Breakwater Books required major renovations. Despite the changes, Breakwater's owner has attempted to preserve as much as possible of the building's original interior and exterior characteristics as possible. In recognition of the building's age and importance to Newfoundland's commercial and architectural past, the former S. O. Steele building was recognised as a Registered Heritage Structure in June 1987.