Heritage History of the Old Town Hall, St. Stephen, New Brunswick
The St. Stephen Post Office, which was used as Town Hall since 1965, was built in 1885-87, and is a National Historic Site of Canada. Empty since 2009, no attempt has been made by civic authorities over the last five years to retain and re-purpose this heritage building, and a recent decision by Council to demolish the building is likely to highlight once again the Town’s insensitivity to its built heritage, much of which has been permitted to perish.
The old Town Hall is one of eight such buildings designed by the Government of Canada’s principal architect, Thomas Fuller. Fuller designed the Houses and Library of Parliament, and the Toronto, New Westminster, Victoria, and Halifax Armouries. His grandson’s business was selected to renovate Parliament in 2002.
There is a clear economic benefit to the preservation of urban heritage. My article on this topic, with San Antonio, Texas, as the subject city, is available here.
The Town Council of St. Stephen, nonetheless, has recently stated that it seeks to demolish this building without attempting its retention in the historic centre of the municipality. In response to citizen concerns, Council created in late July, 2014, a ‘restoration committee.’ However, it lacks terms of reference and is more a creature of Council than of the citizenry, and represents largely another example of displacing action by means of meaningless delay. It remains that no attempts have been made to save and re-purpose the building since 2009.
The Council effectively attempts to run the administration and day to day operations of the Town. It has no permanent chief administrative officer, and makes virtually all day-to-day decisions, usually several weeks after the need for them, on the operation and development of the new $20 millions’ civic centre created through citizen initiative and funded by contributions in Canada and the United States, by grants from the two senior governments, and philanthropic gifts from the late Bill Garcelon, after whom the centre is named.
A report by interested heritage specialists John Leroux (architect, AANB, MRAIC) and Tom Morrison (Ph.D., P. Eng.) for the preservation of this Thomas Fuller heritage building, and emphasizing the availability of options, has been made available pro bono to Town Council. Its full text is found below.
However, a structural report on the same building was commissioned by Council from Moncton’s Valron Engineering earlier this year. According to Council and Committee documentation, the Town’s development officer met with Valron in May, and the report completed on May 23 and distributed to Council by early June. It was made selectively public only on July 22nd. In reading its summary, it is stated that the structural report is also based solely on visual inspection, but the comment on structural detail is uncannily similar in content and language to that of the structural report commissioned several years ago by me during my tenure as the Town’s chief administrative officer.
Canadian Historic Sites provides the following background:
“DESCRIPTION OF HISTORIC PLACE
The St. Stephen Post Office National Historic Site of Canada is a splendid two-and-a-half-storey brick and stone structure executed in the Romanesque Revival style, featuring contrasting colours and textures of materials, a symmetrical elevation with paired entrances and a prominent central gable with decorative carving. Prominently sited on one of the town’s major streets, it [served] as the town hall [until 2008]. The designation refers to the interior and exterior of the building on its lot at the time of designation in 1983.
St. Stephen Post Office was designated a national historic site of Canada in 1983 because it is representative of small urban post offices by Thomas Fuller. Built from 1885 to 1887, this building was constructed to house the local post office, customs offices and internal revenue offices. Designed under the federal government’s chief architect Thomas Fuller, the structure is one of a series of buildings erected with the aim of establishing a visible federal presence throughout the country. It is a fine example of late 19th-century design in its picturesque composition and in the varied colours and textures of the exterior building materials. The round-arched doors and windows and the decorative carving show the influence of the Romanesque Revival style. Since 1965 [, and until 2008], this building has served as the St. Stephen town hall.”
Impetus for Relocation of Civic Administration
I was the chief administrative officer of the Town of St. Stephen from 2006 to 2009. My professional background includes executive management of heritage in my past capacity as executive director of the Museum of Vancouver.
The need for a new location for a town hall, and the need to repair the old Town Hall, were both already well apparent when I took up the position of chief administrative officer of St. Stephen, New Brunswick, in February of 2006. Engineering reports commissioned before, as well as during, my tenure, confirmed the overall condition of the building, with the instability of the east gable well identified.
The day I arrived, there had been a large influx of rainwater that had run down the staircase to the ground floor, and drying fans were spinning throughout the building. In May, there were more rain leaks in the offices and in the electrical room. Plans for a new town hall were already well advanced by August, 2006. Electrical wiring deficiencies and water leaks were in evidence in September. A formal interim evaluation of the building was conducted by me and presented to Council Committee as early as in October of that year.
Rehabilitation, Re-purposing , and Funding of Old Town Hall
In November, with the selection of the new location at the old Ganong Factory well in hand, the owners of the Factory, the Carpenter family of Moncton’s Heritage Management, were involved in discussions about devolving the old town hall to a developer, possibly themselves. By mid-January 2007, the old Town Hall project centred on high-level meetings with Greg Thompson, who in addition to being the local MP was the federal minister of Veterans’ Affairs and regional minister, and with Greg Carpenter on behalf of Heritage Management.
Negotiations for the new town hall lease were advanced in late February. In mid-March, mould had become a problem at the old Town Hall, and as bricks from the facade were plummeting to the sidewalk, we had to construct barriers and accelerate the plan to move into Ganong Place. In mid-April, with details essentially complete for the move, I was approached by a local business couple, by way of the Conservative political party, to review a gifting scenario of the old town hall.
One approach, amongst others, considered was in compensation for structural remediation and development of the interior for commercial purposes, the Town would gift the building. A similar approach was later proposed in discussions across Canada with not-for-profit heritage organizations and commercial enterprises interested in re-purposing cultural properties. A nearby example of the latter was the successful CentreBeam project undertaking by Irving in downtown Saint John. The skills revived at that site in masonry and interior finishing were emphasized by the Irving family, and discussions were initiated with New Brunswick Community College to sustain and teach these technical skills. A senior member of the Irving family came to St. Stephen to lecture on these possibilities, and the presentation was very well attended.
Economic Opportunities in the Preservation of Old Town Hall
In the St. Stephen context, it was proposed that the College, with whom preliminary discussions were held, would set up a satellite teaching facility in the Town while the old Town Hall, and other heritage buildings, such as the old Milltown post office, would produce local economic benefits through educational activity intended to attract students world-wide. This was also seen as one support for the development of an international trade infrastructure in St. Stephen, an opportunity significantly enlarged by the building of the third international bridge to the United States. At the time St. Stephen was the 7th largest land port in Canada in terms of tonnage, and no advantage of consequence had been explored by Council or the Chamber of Commerce.
By the end of April, I was working with the Province’s Bill Hicks of Heritage New Brunswick on scenarios for the preservation of the old town hall. Proposals were being examined in detail by June, and continued throughout the summer. In early September, the best of these were presented at a three hours’ committee meeting with a packed audience in attendance. In late September, a citizens’ forum was planned with the Mayor. In October, several substantive meetings were held to move the project forward. A majority of Council was in favour of pursuing the project. Local businessman and philanthropist Bill Garcelon gave his support of the preservation project in late October.
Correlation with the Advantages of the Civic Centre
Two money items relating to preservation were approved by Council in mid-November. As the Charlotte County Civic Centre became increasingly a reality, discussions within Council produced support for a future second phase of the project, to include the library, the RCMP detachment, political and provincial offices, and local business. The intent was to expand the downtown improvement from the civic centre to the rehabilitated old town hall. Preliminary discussions with the RCMP were very positive. This model was derived from the successful project completed by Grand-Sault. The operational funding for the civic centre was to derive from the addition of pennies to the tax rates of the user communities, a model derived from the successful one developed by Woodstock, and initial discussions with the jurisdictions most involved were also positive. The old town hall project thus continued to move forward in December, and continued throughout the winter of 2008.
There was further flooding in the old town hall, due to the deterioration of the roof in February, 2008. In order to ultimately reach a permanent solution of the location of a town hall, an RFP process, inclusive of potential site assessment, for a permanent, civically owned town hall, was begun in late February; negotiations were proceeding by July. Reconfiguration of the old town hall included continuing discussion with Bill Hicks and Heritage New Brunswick, well into October.
The move into the new town hall at Ganong Place occurred in February, 2009. I resigned my position in June. Nothing seems to have been done since then. And the east gable remains in place despite the supposed ravages of five more winters.
Impending Demolition and Alternatives