With New Development Comes New Concern for Historic Preservation In St. John's

Small colorful homes dot the hillside of The Battery, a vibrant neighborhood within Newfoundland and Labrador’s capital city of St. John’s. Renowned for its steep slopes, beautiful ocean views, and historic homes, the Battery has recently been a place of controversy as residents fear luxury homes are creeping in, disrupting the fishing village’s distinctive and historic image.

History of St. John’s

St. John’s, Newfoundland is one of North America’s oldest European settlements. Before it was even established as a permanent community in the 1630s and finally as a city in 1888, it was already known as a fishing village. Due to these storied origins, the architecture of St. John’s is distinct from much of Canada. Many of its small, brightly-painted homes and buildings date to the late 19th century, which is old by Canadian standards (it would be even older, but the majority of the downtown core of St. John’s was rebuilt after the Great Fire of 1892). Records date the oldest surviving structure in St. John’s, Anderson House, to approximately 1804, located within the historic the Battery neighborhood.

The Battery, which sits on St. John’s celebrated Signal Hill, is remembered for its defense of the St. John’s harbor during both WWI and WWII. The neighborhood’s historic value is significant as the neighborhood is now over 100 years old, having been established as a continuous settlement in 1912. Although buildings that date back decades often bring character to a city, with historic neighborhoods often comes controversy. It is a controversy that is usually caught between two things that many cities often feel mutually drawn to: the desire to move forward and modernize, and the desire to preserve history.

History Remembered: Can Preservation and Modernization Coexist?

In St. John’s, strict heritage regulations implemented by the city work to ensure the preservation of the historic landscape. These regulations especially come to light when proposals for new construction surface, as they currently are in the Battery. World Atlas recently spoke with Emily Wolf, from the Newfoundland and Labrador Historic Trust, to find out more about the project and the importance of preserving historic homes within the St. John’s area.

The Battery is located in St. John's Heritage Area 3 (map). Heritage Area 1 has the most significant heritage resources and streetscapes, with standards to ensure their continued preservation,” Wolf explained. “Heritage Areas 2 & 3 encompass areas of significance, with standards to ensure developments are compatible with the historic streetscape.”

When asked about new construction, Wolf wanted to stress that strict standards do not necessarily mean that new homes are unwelcome in the area. She elaborated, “Strong and consistently applied municipal heritage regulations and design guidelines ensure that historic buildings and neighbourhoods are preserved and allow for appropriate new development that is responsive to its historic context (in terms of design, materials, scale, etc.) while still being discernibly contemporary.”

The Controversial Luxury Home Project

So, what exactly does appropriate development look like? A new controversial home project is inspiring many to ask that question – a question that has prompted many residents to conclude that this new development is not only breaking rules but is starting a trend that many worry will change the neighborhood’s very feel.

With help from architect Philip Pratt and the St. John’s City Council, plans to build a large three-bedroom home along The Battery’s Signal Hill Road will soon be realized. This construction comes against the concerns raised by the Newfoundland and Labrador Historic Trust and the city’s own experts, who are concerned about the obligatory demolish of the existing properties located at 180, 182, and 184 Signal Hill Road.

“The Historic Trust expressed concern regarding the proposed house's scale and overall design/materials, which are not in keeping with the recommendations of the Battery Development Guideline Study commissioned by the City of St. John's in 2004. At 3,390 square feet, the footprint of the house is approximately five times larger than the average residential footprint in the Battery. The Trust is concerned that a house of this scale will negatively impact the heritage character of the neighbourhood, which is defined by small scale residential buildings that follow the natural contours of the landscape,” stated Emily Wolf in regard to the opposition to the project raised by the Newfoundland and Labrador Historic Trust and many others.

A Possible Compromise

According to architect Philip Pratt, the home was designed in keeping with the iconic look of The Battery in mind, using subdued colors and wood siding. The homeowners have also agreed to restore a fourth property at 178 Signal Hill Road, much to the pleasure of the Newfoundland and Labrador Historic Trust.

For Emily Wolf, this is a step in the right direction, stating that “while the Trust continues to have some concerns about the scale and overall design of the approved house, we are pleased that the city referred the proposal to their Built Heritage Experts Panel and that the property owners have agreed to restore and preserve the existing house at 178 Signal Hill Road.”

For many residents, however, the city’s actions and the homeowner’s modifications to the project are not enough. One of the main reasons for this is that there is still the concern that the council’s decision to allow the project will potentially set a precedent for other luxury homes to appear within the city’s historic districts, which many worry could erode some of the city’s charm and, in turn, its appeal to tourists. For St. John’s, which was named one of the “world’s top 10 oceanfront cities” by the National Geographic in 2015, this is undoubtedly a valid concern.

For a summary of the Newfoundland and Labrador Historic Trust’s actions in regard to the project, please visit their website here.


Kelly Bergevin is a writer and editor based in Montreal, Canada. She has a background in education, history, and English. She is an avid learner, reader, and coffee-drinker.

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