Nfld. & Labrador

St. John's modernist architecture 'at risk,' warns province's heritage foundation

Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but heritage enthusiasts say more needs to be done to preserve some buildings whose curb appeal may not be immediately obvious.

Era defined by 'stripped down' design, simple building elements like steel, concrete

The West End Fire Station, pictured here in the 1960s. (The Rooms Provincial Archives)

They may not be the most glamorous or eye-catching buildings in the capital city, but the Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Foundation is going to bat to try and preserve certain ones from a bygone architectural era.

"If we want to save our heritage, it doesn't have to be 100 years old.'- Jerry Dick

"We certainly feel at the foundation that our modernist architecture is not always understood or appreciated and it's often at risk. We've seen buildings lost, I think, simply because people don't understand what the significance of these buildings are," says Jerry Dick, who is the organization's executive director.

Minimalist designs

Dick says the era, which started in the 1920s, is based on "really stripped down architecture" and features simple building elements like concrete, steel. 

"[Modernist architecture] was really a reaction to what went on before — the Victorian era was exemplified by exuberant, very decorative sorts of buildings," he told CBC Radio's Weekend AM

Jerry Dick, of the province's heritage foundation, says the West End Fire Station is a great example of modernist architecture. (Heather Barrett/CBC)

The former West End Fire Station in St. John's, believed to be built in the 1940s, is a classic example of the modernist architecture era.

"It's kind of a simple building, with some nice refined details ...  this is probably the simplest of the buildings in this cluster," said Dick. 

He said the heritage foundation doesn't want an architectural era in St. John's to be razed by new developments and cites the former I.J. Samson Junior High as an example. 

"In the last two or three years, the foundation has started to recognize modernist heritage ... and if we want to save our heritage it doesn't have to be 100 years old," said Dick. 

​ The neighbourhood of Lemarchant Road and Bennett Avenue in 1956. Dick says there are several buildings in the area that are considered modernist architecture examples. (St. Michael's Shield Yearbook, Centre for Newfoundland Studies)

He said a short list of particularly significant buildings has been generated and now the plan is to approach current owners of those buildings to talk about long-term preservation. 

Dick said City of St. John's councillors and staff will have to be in on some talks, too, though they have been criticized in the past for the handling of certain heritage property files. 

"[The City] has a major role to play of course in preserving the architectural heritage of the city," he said.

Dick said different designs and different buildings add to the city landscape and show the path forged through decades of development.

"You start to take those elements out and then you've lost something that I think is an important chapter in the development of St John's."

The neighbourhood definitely has a different look today. (Heather Barrett/CBC)

With files from Weekend AM