Block a reminder of residential history

– Bruce Langille lives in Halifax.

The Chronicle Herald – December 23, 2015 Edition

Two recent articles commented on a plan by Westwood Developments to demolish the buildings on the block bounded by Spring Garden Road, Queen Street, Doyle Street and Brunswick Street in Halifax.

Two of the buildings on the site are fairly new, roughly 60 years old, while two others go back to the late 1870s, when Spring Garden Road was primarily a stately residential street.

These two older structures give a view of the street before its conversion, starting in the 1920s, from stately residential to successful commercial street. It’s an interesting street transition that faces challenges in the future.

The land mostly enclosed by four streets – Queen Street, Spring Garden Road, Brunswick Street (formerly Hastings Street) and Doyle Street – was once the location of three civic structures, the poor house, correction house and jail.

A lot of land for burial of the poor and plague victims was just east of this property, the site of the old Memorial Library on Spring Garden Road.

The property housed these three structures from the 18th century until 1869 when the residents and inmates of these various institutions were relocated to newer structures elsewhere in the city.

The three structures were demolished in 1869 by J.D. Nash, who had acquired the property. Doyle Street and Hastings Street (now Brunswick Street) were created during Nash’s ownership and the grounds were divided into 16 lots and sold at auction.

One of the largest purchasers of lots in 1870 was the Granville Street Baptist Church. Its congregation was growing and it needed a space for a schoolhouse, which was built on the corner of Queen Street and Doyle Street in 1875.

In 1886, a new brick Baptist church was erected on the corner of Spring Garden Road and Queen Street. The Baptists renamed their church First Baptist Church, as their former church was named after the location on Granville Street.

This very impressive building was to occupy the site until a fire in 1942 destroyed the church. It was then relocated in the early 1950s to its present site on Oxford Street.

The remainder of the block on the Spring Garden Road side was purchased as residential lots and brick structures were constructed to match the church. The two townhouses remaining today were part of this residential row.

Before 1920, retailers occupied only a small percentage of the addresses on Spring Garden Road, where a few small estates were still located.

The block changed again in the early 1950s with the construction of the Maritime Life Building, erected in 1954 on the former site of First Baptist Church. It was the head office of a then successful local insurance company. The art deco structure was a dated look even in 1954. But it was a impressive structure inside, as can be seen in the small foyer of the building.

The company was to outgrow this building and move twice within the city as more space was required.

The Nova Scotia Trust Building was constructed next to the Maritime Life Building in 1958. It housed another successful local financial company.

This very impressive modern structure used stone facing on the Spring Garden Road side and I have to say it has curb appeal. The company was to remain at this site until it was acquired by a larger bank, which used the location as a branch until recently.

Spring Garden Road slowly changed to retail starting in the 1920s. This growth was assisted by having two hospitals nearby as anchors.

The Halifax Infirmary moved from Barrington Street to Queen Street, between Morris Street and Spring Garden Road, where a new hospital was constructed and opened in 1933. Near the west end of the street’s retail zone was the old Victoria General Hospital, which added an annex in the 1930s for wealthier patients on the South Street site, now occupied by the hospital’s Centennial Building.

Visitors and staff from both hospitals, along with street car passengers, provided a large number of shoppers in the area. This formula worked well for the street.

By the late 1950s, a partial demolition of the Schmidtville subdivision between Queen Street and Brenton Street created a merchants’ parking lot for the increasing numbers of shoppers coming by car to shop on Spring Garden Road or to visit the Halifax Infirmary.

The street prospered under these four pillars until 1998, when the Halifax Infirmary was closed and the hospital moved to a new building on Robie Street, now called the Halifax Infirmary site of the Queen Elizabeth II Health Sciences Centre (QEII).

The move was directed by the province, which had its own agenda. The merchants and property owners on Spring Garden appeared not to be aware of the effects of this action: removal of the east pillar reduced the number of customers for shops and restaurants on the street.

The closure of the parking lots, another pillar, for construction of apartments or condos caused a further reduction in the flow of customers.

Building a new library on the south corner of Spring Garden Road and Queen Street has not replaced the numbers of shoppers that the old Halifax Infirmary produced. And although the new library has more space for events, it is a recreation of the old Halifax Memorial Library with additional meeting/performance space, not a new pillar.

Parking is now scarce in the area. And visitors are competing with other users for elusive parking spaces.

The pillars created and grew the street. There is a belief that if we build it they will come. But that attitude failed with the 1960s Scotia Square and the redesign of Bayers Road Shopping Centre in the late 1990s.

The most famous such failure was the Gottington Street urban redevelopment of the 1960s, which destroyed a successful retail area in roughly 10 years.

Along with the loss of pillars is a new threat to shopping in the traditional form, e-commerce. You cannot force merchants or shoppers to specific areas or outlaw e-commerce.

Spring Garden Road as a commercial street is under threat for the first time in nearly 90 years.