Restoring the Granville streetscape
July 20, 2012

As a restoration architect in Halifax, Graeme Duffus says he’s living his dream to restore the architectural gems that form NSCAD University’s historic downtown campus.

The Granville streetscape features a row of stone buildings that exemplify the 1860s commercial prominence of Halifax. The buildings, in a mix of Italianate, Romanesque, Gothic and Norman styles, were at the heart of Halifax’s 19th and 20th century economic activity, located just a stone’s throw from bustling Halifax Harbour. Among the buildings are the oldest all-concrete building in Canada (the Bell Building located adjacent to the Split Crow) and one with a full cast-iron façade. Most of the block has cast-iron storefronts as well, designed and manufactured in New York City.

Today, many of the storefronts are rented out to independent businesses—shops, galleries and restaurants—while the upper floors are NSCAD’s classrooms and studios. Since 2003, a pair of sandstone lions, originally from the old Customs House, have guarded the entrance to the pedestrian mall.

Rebuilt following Halifax’s great fire of 1859, the buildings have great historical significance for the City of Halifax and for Graeme Duffus personally—at one time his family owned several along the row, Duffus & Co., Wholesale Dry Goods, now home to NSCAD’s Design Division, and the adjacent building to the south; and later, the A & W MacKinlay buildings, a stationary and bookstore located where Page & Strange is today.

fire-1859 
 An etching in the London Illustrated News of Halifax's fireof 1859.
 

“I have two pet projects that I have wanted to do my entire career—Keith Hall (part of the Alexander Keith Brewery District in Halifax) and the Granville streetscape,” says Graeme, a second-generation architect. “It makes me very happy to get to do both projects.”

In a port city known for its stately Georgian architecture and wooden houses, the Granville Mall streetscape stands apart. Architects William Thomas and Sons, who had one of the largest architectural firms in Canada in the 1850s, oversaw the design of the buildings on the street. Each building is unique in appearance, although they all fit together, using similar building materials and having common roof lines.

“This is the first time in Nova Scotia that we had architects who were trained as architects actually design buildings,” explains Graeme, as he points out a vast array of window styles, decorative stonework, and variations in columns and cornices in the buildings. “Before this time, you would have people in the trades—masons, carpenters, plasterers—who would have designed buildings.”

The fire of 1859 was one of the city’s great disasters—destroying some 60 downtown buildings—but it was also an opportunity. Following the fire, brick and stone buildings went up in place of wooden structures and greater attention was paid to fireproofing.

 gran
 Historic Granville Mall, one of NSCAD University's three campuses.
 

A century of serving as the commercial heart of the historic waterfront, the buildings along Granville Street were again in a sorry state.  In the 1970s, the city planned to demolish the rundown and derelict buildings to complete a waterfront highway. City engineers had finished plans for the Cogswell Street interchange right next door and were ready to move south.

But around the same time, NSCAD was outgrowing its facilities on Coburg Road near Dalhousie University. Two of its environmental planning faculty members Bob Parker and Bill Smith (Bachelor of Design degrees in Environmental Design and Environmental Planning were offered from 1972 to 2004 at NSCAD) suggested the move from uptown to downtown. Their arguments, which swayed the board and eventually the city leaders, included that renovation was more affordable than new construction; was that the art college could lead the way in revitalizing the downtown; and that it would mark the school’s return to the neighborhood where it began.

NSCAD’s move to the block over the course of 1970s is credited with preserving Halifax’s architectural heritage and acting as a catalyst for other downtown development. Under the tenure of then-president Garry Neill Kennedy, the relocation took about six years, as the old buildings were renovated to reveal brick walls, timber beams and plank floors. The last building to be tackled was the Bell Building, which was then little more than a concrete shell.

“If you like Historic Properties, you should remember that it’s the art college that made it possible,” said Dr. Elizabeth Connor, a descendant of the Bell family and a member of the board from 1957 to her death in 1998.

A full condition assessment of the Granville Campus was done in 2004, and restoration work (rebuilding cornices, repairing or replacing windows, repairing masonry and cleaning facades) began in 2010. The cost of the restoration is funded in half by Parks Canada in recognition of the buildings’ national historical significance.

Recently, the project was recognized with an honorable mention by the Lieutenant Governor’s Design Award in Architecture for the conservation of the facades of 1887 and 1873-77 Granville Street. Parks Canada is also planning a historic plaque dedication in the fall.

“This is Halifax’s Italian Renaissance right here,” says Graeme. “NSCAD is very fortunate to have such a unique block in its possession … The school should be proud of what it’s got, of what it’s accomplished.”

 graeme-duffus480
 Architect Graeme Duffus at Granville Mall.

Sources:

Kalman, Harold, Rehoused in History, Halifax: Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1979.

Soucy, Donald and Harold Pearse, The First Hundred Years, A History of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, Halifax, Fredericton: Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, University of New Brunswick Faculty of Education, 1993.