A Historic Opportunity in Downtown Halifax

Province seeks input on redevelopment of the Dennis and Hansard Buildings, architectural cornerstones of the Province House district
The Affected site and Buildings. NSgov Photo
The Affected site and Buildings. NSGOV Photo

The provincial government is asking interested developers to bring forward proposals for a potentially exciting, history-making development project in downtown Halifax—the redevelopment of Granville Street’s Dennis Building and Hansard Building (also known as the Acadian Recorder Building), and the vacant land surrounding them.

Incredibly, despite its long history and architectural achievement, the Dennis Building has never been recognized as a heritage property, and has been allowed to fall into disrepair. In 2014, it was placed on Heritage Canada’s top-ten endangered buildings list. Today, the interior has been entirely gutted, and only the building shell remains. That’s unfortunate, but it presents a unique redevelopment opportunity—to create a 21st-century building interior within the shell of one of Halifax’s grandest 19th-century structures.

The site encompasses the parking lot and hole along Barrington Street (NSGOV Photo)
The site encompasses the parking lot and hole along Barrington Street (NSGOV Photo)

The province will require that both building façades be retained. But AGBANS believes simple façadism is insufficient in this case, as both buildings could be essentially demolished and their façades used as little more than decoration for the exterior of a new building. Also a concern is that the RFP only calls for the preservation of the Dennis Building’s four-storey granite façade, potentially leading to the loss of the three brick upper storeys.

This would be a tremendously unfortunate outcome for the architectural integrity of the Province House district, one of the most historically and architecturally important urban areas in Canada. This is the kind of area where we see governments across North America, especially in historic cities such as Halifax, employ the greatest care with regard to heritage conservation. Nova Scotians deserve no less. AGBANS hopes the full profile and massing of both buildings will be retained, similar to the much-lauded Green Lantern redevelopment on Barrington Street.

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The redevelopment site occupies 21,000 square feet, more than enough land to build significant brand-new structures on the vacant portions, while retaining in full the impressive street-facing profile of the Dennis and Hansard buildings. This can truly be a redevelopment that embodies the blend of old and new Halifax should be striving towards, and which respects one Canada’s most historically and architecturally rich urban areas.

BUILDING HISTORY

The Dennis Building was constructed in 1863 to house a dry-goods firm owned by Thomas and Edward Kenny—the latter of whom served variously as Halifax’s mayor, a senator, member of the first federal cabinet, and Lieutenant Governor. The building was purchased by William Dennis, owner of the Halifax Herald, in 1900. After a 1912 fire destroyed everything but the granite façade, architect Henry David Jost added the three-storey brick addition to the top.

Given its architectural achievement and association with so many prominent Haligonians, AGBANS believes that the building should be a registered heritage property, and any redevelopment should treat it as such, renewing the building as fully as possible.

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The Dennis Building after the 1912 fire.

 

AGBANS Applauds Green Lantern Building Changes

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The Action Group for Better Architecture in Nova Scotia is pleased to congratulate Architecture 49, WSP Engage, and owners  Jason and Joseph Ghosn, on obtaining council approval for substantial changes to the Green Lantern Building on Barrington Street. As the building is a registered heritage property, in a heritage conservation district, final approval was required to be given by council.

Built in 1896 and designed by Architect William Whiteway in an elaborate Romanesque Revival style, the building was originally called the Keith Building, due to its associations with Donald and Alexander Keith, of the Gordon and Keith Furniture Company. (Its more recent nickname comes from the Green Lantern restaurant which was housed in the building between 1917 and the mid 1960s).

Damaged during Hurricane Juan, the building has been in a state of disrepair for years and is in need of substantial restoration. The upper floors have been vacant since 2005, and the lower floors since 2013. It had been threatened repeatedly with demolition by its previous owner before being sold to the Ghosns, who saw a greater opportunity in investing in one of Halifax’s most distinguished historical commercial buildings.

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The original 1896 facade faces Barrington street, while the Granville Street side is not original and has been altered over the years. (A portion is concrete construction, suggesting it was built after 1929.) The approved changes include a restoration of the Barrington half of the building to its original appearance, using the original Whiteway drawings as a reference; the demolition and reconstruction of the Granville Street half of the building; and the addition of three storeys above. The additional height will be set back, to be minimally visible from Barrington Street. This project largely preserve both internal and external elements of the building, retains the additional street-facing appearance of the building, and improves the Granville Street facade. The preservation of the three storefronts at sidewalk level will ensure a lively streetscape, and maintain the historic character of Barrington Street.

This project proves that historic structures, even those in poor repair, can be profitably preserved, rehabilitated, and modernized to the benefit of developers and the city at large. AGBANS hopes that this development is successful, and that it will serve as a model to other developers in possession of historic buildings.

Historic Hotel to be Replaced with Bland Mixed-Use Box

Principal Developments Ltd and Paul Skerry Architects have announced plans to demolish the historic Elmwood Apartments at 5185-5189 South Street and replace it with a 6-storey mixed use development consisting of 42 residential units and 8,000 sq. ft of retail. Though not registered as a historic property, this building is one of the most architecturally significant within the city’s proposed Old South Suburb Heritage Conservation District.

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Existing Proposed

The existing structure was built as a house, and in 1896 converted to a hotel, and later apartments. The building is worn, and needs some cosmetic work, and comments from former tenants suggest upgrades to the buildings mechanical systems are also needed. As it is still inhabited by tenants, we believe it is safe and structurally sound.

The proposed replacement building is bland, and appears to be of low architectural quality. It possesses no features that tie it specifically to that site, and it would work equally well on any similar lot in the immediate neighbourhood, where many much more appropriate development sites exist. The developer’s website provided the above rendering which cuts off the street and appears in black and white. A prominent corner requires a signature structurethe Elmwood already is such a structure, unlike the proposed box.

AGBANS attempts to reach a balance of development and historic preservation. We are a pro-development group, supportive of quality developments that improve the city’s built environment. In this case, the opposite will result. Given the existing building’s location, and the significance of its form, we believe a substantial portion of the building must be retained, as the forthcoming Heritage Conservation District intends. We understand that an as-of-right demolition permit has been issued by the city for this property.

A Public Open House will be held on Wednesday, June 8th, 2016, between 7-9 p.m., at The Westin Nova Scotian (The Lunenburg Room), 1181 Hollis Street.

AGBANS urges Haligonians to write their councillor urging them to oppose this demolition. Comments can also be sent to the architects – Mr. Paul Skerry (pauls@pskerry.ca) or Mr. Greg Johnston (gregj@pskerry.ca) who are acting as representatives for the developer, or the developer directly at renthalifax@live.com or via mail 7075 BAYERS ROAD SUITE 211 HALIFAX NS B3L 2C1

The Action Group for Better Architecture in Nova Scotia (AGBANS) was formed in May 2016 to advance the public purposes of architecture and planning. AGBANSs aims include preservation and advocacy. We want to see communities that are forward thinking, but respect our past. For more, see Agbans.ca, on Twitter @theAGBANS, or Facebook.com/theAGBANS