Nfld. & Labrador

Is the bay being bedazzled by Jellybean Row colours and losing its unique identity?

One artist thinks those recognizable Jellybean Row colours are spreading across the province, but others say they were there all along.

Or were they there all along?

So-called Jellybean Row houses line some downtown St. John's streets. (Sydney Boland)

The colourful Jellybean Row townhouses in St. John's have become iconic, thanks in part to the province's popular tourism ads.

Now one artist living in western Newfoundland says the trend may be spreading across the province in a way that reduces the individual character of its rural communities.

"I think there's a long history in Newfoundland of having colourful houses," Robyn Love, an artist who lives in Gillams, told the St. John's Morning Show on Tuesday.

When the weather is often dreary, brightly painted homes like these in downtown St. John's can bring a nice shot of colour. (Wendy Rose)

"I guess what I'm reacting to is having seen a lot of the way Jellybean Row gets depicted in the art that's created, particularly geared for tourists."

Love mentioned bright, freshly painted fish sheds in Trout River and a Northern Peninsula hotel with a rowhouse facade, jolts of colour she said were largely unfamiliar 20 years ago outside St. John's.

Colourful homes aren't totally new to outport communities, but the "creeping homogenization" of the Jellybean Row look, with the specific colours that can be found on souvenirs sold in downtown St. John's, is something worth thinking about, she said.

"One of the many, many things that I love about Newfoundland is that you can drive a couple hours to a different bay and there's a really different feeling there. It really has its own sense of place," Love said. 

"There's a sense that I'm finding, that people here now on the west coast are realizing, this is something that tourists find quite appealing so we're going to adopt it here."

History of the province's colourful homes

Jerry Dick agrees that the trend exists, but the executive director of Heritage NL doesn't necessarily think it's worrisome.

"I don't know if I'd call it homogenization," Dick told the St. John's Morning Show on Wednesday.

"It is definitely something that seems to be creeping out around the bay, without a doubt."

St. John's has long been thought of as a colourful city, Dick said. A letter by Sir Cavendish Boyle, who arrived in the city in 1901, mentioned the colourful local palette.

The colours used in the provincial capital were once more subdued, and coal smoke may have obscured them over time, but there was a variety found even then. Folklore holds the bright colours helped returning sailors spot their homes through the fog when they returned from a long voyage.

The term "Jellybean Row" originally referred to some colourfully painted townhouses build on Quidi Vidi Lake, but in the 1970s a focus on revitalizing downtown St. John's began, and painting buildings in rich colours was part of that process.

The owners of Templeton's, a downtown hardware store that opened in 1863 and closed in 2017, came across a collection of decades-old paint chips and worked with Heritage NL to develop new paints based on them, with names like Bristol's Hope (lavender).

The line continues, despite the store's closure, and is popular with locals and tourists alike.

Buildings in other communities around the province have different traditions when it comes to colours. Love said a grant awarded in Gillams to restore fish sheds on the beach stipulated that they must be painted red and white, because those colours were traditionally used.

There were brightly coloured homes on the Cape Shore in the 1980s, Dick said, some of them even two toned: one shade on the bottom, another on the top. 

Conversely, in Methodist communities, homes were often all in white, with muted coloured trims, he said. The advent of vinyl siding also toned down homes that may have been more colourful, because it was originally available only in colours like white and beige.

Not the world's only Jellybean Row

These days the term Jellybean Row doesn't usually refer to any specific set of homes in the province's capital.

"You can find lots of Jellybean Rows in downtown St. John's," Dick said.

Several colourful "jellybean" homes in a different part of Canada, Saint John, met a different fate in 2017 when they were torn down. Other parts of the world, however, have also embraced colourful homes that would fit right in in many parts of this province.

Colourful houses line the harbour in Tobermory, Scotland, and cover the hills of Valparaiso, Chile. Brightly painted buildings can also be found in Cape Town and Copenhagen.

Ultimately, some of the history of the colourful buildings seen in the province is influenced by practicality.

"The interesting thing about architecture in Newfoundland and Labrador is much of it is wood, and wood you can paint," Dick said.

Perhaps the real reason for the spread of Jellybean Row homes throughout the province is another of the things we're more known for: the weather.

"Maybe it's not coincidental that in places where we have a fair bit of fog and overcast weather, that we go with really bright houses," he said.

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