A Time Machine Stuck on 1892

St. John's famous Jelly Bean Row. Photo by Flickr user hanloveyoon.

Your corner trim is too wide. Please play again.

For many homeowners, spring time is renovation time. But if you live in the downtown area—in a ‘heritage’ designated area—working on your property isn’t always enjoyable. Building regulations for the heritage area, which determine what you can and can’t do to your house, can be difficult, convoluted, and creatively stifling.

Recently, a friend recounted to me her experience of building in a ‘Heritage 3’ area. Her vision for her property was for a modern saltbox. She found that the contemporary detailing she wanted wasn’t allowed, and instead the city requires certain window types, trim widths, and eave placement, all specified with particular dimensions and colours. No casement windows, no cove style siding, no architectural panelling, no face-nailed members, no awning windows, and on and on. The guidelines for house constructions are incredibly specific in dimensions also. Listening to her, I couldn’t help but wonder: Why does it have to look like this? And where do all these details come from, anyways?

Enforcing certain architectural features to keep things looking historic is a questionable practice. How do you choose what era of the past defines future architecture? How do you pinpoint a window of time and decide that we will collectively remake our city in this fashion? There’s no doubt that our historians have identified many important historical buildings and houses and, for residential buildings in heritage areas, the St. John’s Victorian townhouse seems to be the city’s vision. But what if we looked at other times in the city’s history to use as an homage to the past?

If the city chose the 1700’s as their hallmark heritage era, we’d all be maintaining rough, unpainted spruce sheds. It would be pretty silly if, in the name of historical continuity, we weren’t allowed to paint our houses. It seems equally silly to me that a city inspector is paid to make sure your corner trim is exactly six inches wide and not a fraction more.

The fact is, heritage regulations can’t possibly outline a perfect historical house. The idea of reproducing a Victorian past is there, but this architecture we enforce is affected by the construction industry, the National Building Code and, of course, availability of supplies. It’s as much a product of our time as it is a revival. It’s a compromise, made up of 1890s window and trim styles, bright 20th century paint colors, synthetic building materials and contemporary building proportions. New heritage style buildings would probably look pretty alien if placed back in the time they are supposed to be from.

With the start of this new construction season, I expect to see more of the gaps in the downtown streetscapes seamlessly filled in with clapboard and trim. This can be a good thing, as it further establishes the present look of our city, but these heritage regulations can be really limiting for creative home owners, and it’s hard to understand the rationale behind some of the very strict and seemingly arbitrary rules. Is it a hidden truth that the Heritage Advisory Board is more like an arbiter of taste than a guardian of heritage? It might be more honest to refer to it as the ‘present architectural zeitgeist’ of St. John’s, rather than its ‘architectural heritage.’ After all, it’s not entirely historically accurate. It’s hard for people not to ask why things are the way they are, especially when they own their property and they are paying their bills.


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17 December 2009

  1. Anna · December 17, 2009

    Personally I prefer an attempt at the preservation of heritage than the absence of any guidelines for downtown development. The fact that regulations don’t reflect exactly the 1700s authenticity denotes the fact that the guidelines attempt to keep in mind modern necessity doesn’t it?
    Yes, renovation guidelines are strict for heritage areas, but that is something you should know before buying a house which is in one of the designated areas.
    I am glad that there are rules in place so that people are barred from building ultra modern monstrosities in St. John’s historic center. So, you can’t have a new porch or you have to choose from a specific palette of paint colors (I think ‘Bakeapple jam’ is kind of pretty anyway) – at least there isn’t a chrome and concrete hotel going up across the street.

  2. taryn · December 17, 2009

    i completely agree with Anna that the absence of any heritage guidelines would be really terrible. this article is more of a challenge to those existing rules to be flexible enough not to rule out the possibility of potentially great new interpretations of our own heritage architecture, that could be expressed in a variety of details beyond the scope of the current guidelines.

  3. Chris · December 17, 2009

    Yes Anna “Bakeapple Jam” is a really nice house color. I always thought you “heritage folk” hated normal home designs due to the fact that they all looked alike. I am sorry but a area such as Southlands is more diverse than some of the heritage areas.

  4. Chad · December 17, 2009

    I’m moving to St.John’s in a year or so in part because of how it looks, I’m all for growing the culture of a place but please don’t ruin what makes Town such a special and unique city.

  5. Ken O'Brien · December 17, 2009

    To further the discussion, we sent this along to the editor.

    In her Full Tilt column in the April 2011 issue entitled “A Time Machine Stuck on 1892” (see http://thescope.ca/city/fulltilt/a-time-machine-stuck-on-1892), Taryn Sheppard brought up some important points that merit attention.

    Renovations in the heritage area of the City of St. John’s are good to see. They improve older houses — many of which are at the century mark in age — show pride of place, and contribute to a lively and liveable city.

    The character of our downtown heritage area is a defining feature of St. John’s. Proclaimed in 1977, our heritage arera is one of the oldest municipally designated areas in Canada. How do we keep its character intact while making room for creativity and new development?

    In 2001, our Downtown Strategy for Economic Development and Heritage Preservation (see http://www.stjohns.ca/cityservices/planning/index.jsp) called for better definitions and better guidance for people building or renovating in the heritage area. At that time, the City’s building inspectors worked with applicants but there was little guidance beyond the National Building Code of Canada. A common complaint was that property owners didn’t know what was required beforehand, so it was hard to plan and budget for renovations.

    In 2003, the report on St. John’s Heritage Areas, Heritage Buildings and Public Views (see also http://www.stjohns.ca/cityservices/planning/index.jsp) proposed splitting the overall heritage area into three sub-areas with defined renovation standards in each. Heritage Area 1 is the most stringent, Heritage Areas 2 and 3 less so. The overall heritage area expanded significantly and now includes over 5,000 properties, most of them privately owned.

    The expansion was a satisfying process, with some homeowners actually asking to be included or wondering why they weren’t included – they felt that their houses and streets were just as historic and attractive as those streets within the heritage area. Contrast that with the typical reaction years earlier, when people fought against becoming part of the heritage area because they felt it intruded on their property rights.

    The new standards from the 2003 report are now written into the St. John’s Development Regulations, Section 5.9.3 (see http://www.stjohns.ca/cityservices/planning/pdfs/Section5.20080624.pdf) and have increased the level of certainty for people when renovating.

    What’s so special about 1892 (aside from a delicious local beer)? The most recent of a series of fires that burned large parts of St. John’s occurred that year. We are an old city, going back to Cabot’s discovery in 1497 and European settlement soon after, but most of our earliest built heritage is lost to us. What we see downtown is a Victorian town built after 1892, with a few older buildings that survived the fires.

    Some cities are quite rigorous in their heritage detailing, going so far as to mandate the colour of clapboard and the style of pickets in a fence. St. John’s is not purist in our approach – for example, we allow vinyl windows, vinyl siding, and other materials, so long as they reflect historic styling. We try our best to work with what has survived.

    There is no doubt that regulation can lay a heavy hand on creativity in building design. But there are lots of examples of past renovations that altered or even ruined the original character of houses. Example: horizontal slider windows, anyone? There are plenty of houses where owners stripped off the fine wooden carpentry detailing because aluminum or vinyl siding wouldn’t go easily over it. Let’s not go back to those days.

    The City’s Heritage Advisory Committee is a group of dedicated volunteers who advise our St. John’s Municipal Council on heritage matters. The 2003 report recommended that the City hire a full-time Heritage Officer to deal with applications in the heritage area. Before that time, the City had to rely on the HAC for advice on a large number of applications each month. Now, the Heritage Officer can deal with routine matters, and both he and the HAC have the heritage standards as a means to evaluate applications and guide property owners.

    We all benefit when the character of the city survives through the decades and into the future.

    Deputy Mayor Shannie Duff
    Chair, Heritage Advisory Committee

  6. Scott · December 17, 2009

    I currently own & live in in the downtown area, and as an owner I can easily reflect on my own past experiences.
    What the city often fails to realize is that we’re not all trying to “modernize” our homes. This is obvious in their inflexibility within the heritage rules. I truly respect that the city wants to take a stance of “preserving” and I do my part to contribute to their vision. However, there’s obviously a major problem if simply replacing a window (should cost about $300) ends up costing me nearly $2000!

    The only outcome of the city’s stance is people in the downtown area allowing their houses to dilapidate into eye sores because of the municipalities’ confusing & archaic rules or the simple fact that we can’t afford to pay five to ten times the amount in construction (or material) compared to the rest of the city.

    If the city really does want to take this hard line that their building inspectors/engineers enforce then they should look at those dilapidated houses and buildings – the TRUE blight in the heritage areas.

  7. Chris · December 17, 2009

    Scott I could not have said the last paragraph ANY BETTER!!!

  8. Chris · December 17, 2009

    Can someone please tell me why in God’s name is the City of St. John’s using guidelines that were enacted in 2003? One can only hope that this committee realizes that conditions have changed 10 fold over the past 8 years.

    Come on Shannie start a review of the Heritage Guidelines……you don’t need a Municipal Plan for that. But while you are at it…..try to get our Mayor to start the Municipal Plan.