Colonial Thinking

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Is this restoration… or vandalism?

I think that I shall never see

A poem lovely as a tree.

- Joyce Kilmer

 

I’m a big fan of trees too, especially majestic old ones. And, to riff on Kilmer’s poem, I don’t think I shall ever see a building as lovely as a tree.

Because, according to Sandy Collins, our minister of Tourism, Culture and Recreation, that’s one of the reasons that so many trees were felled around the Colonial Building: they were blocking the view of the structure itself.

Yes, those trees – planted many decades ago – made the fatal error of maturing into something large and magnificent. They partially blocked the view of the newly-restored early seat of government.

But it gets better. The minister also says they wanted to restore the building to how it looked when it was new, in 1850. The trees weren’t there at the time, so they had to be removed.

I’m still shaking my head about this. Of course there were no trees back then. The land had just been cleared for building construction and none had grown yet. But grow they did in the intervening decades, creating a natural spectacle that enhanced those grounds more than any building ever could – including the Colonial Building.

Does this mean they are going to tear the electrical wires out of the restored building? I’m sure they weren’t part of the original 1850 structure. No doubt the plumbing has changed too. Does that also have to go?

I sent an email to the Department of Tourism, Culture and Recreation, asking for the rationale behind this decision. To their credit, I received a reply within the hour from Jerry Dick, Director of Heritage in the department.

“Through extensive discussions and consultations with the Project Management Committee, the Project Advisory Committee (comprised of heritage experts) and design and heritage professionals, the decision was made to restore the exterior of the Colonial Building and its grounds to the period of its original construction in 1850. Like all legislative buildings, it was meant to be a very visible symbol of the then Colony of Newfoundland’s seat of government. Like the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa and today’s Confederation Building, there were minimal plantings in order to allow these important structures to be prominently viewed by the public.”

I have two comments on this. First, I totally support restoring the building itself, but the decision to restore the grounds (that is, removing many trees) is a big one with major implications for the rest of us – and we were not consulted on it. Not at all. Second, the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa and our own Confederation Building are active seats of government – and cannot reasonably be used as a parallel for the Colonial Building, or to justify removal of trees around its grounds.

Jerry Dick continued: “As evidenced by historic photographs, throughout most of its history as a legislative building, there were no trees along the Military Road side of the Colonial Building property. Photographs do show early plantings of trees along the other boundaries of the property. The trees along the front of the property were planted during the Smallwood era making most of them 50-60 years old. This was the same period in which the front of the building and the forecourt were significantly altered. The approach to restoring the earlier landscape at the Colonial Building is a blended one, in which most of the trees along the perimeter of the property are being retained.

“Specific trees were removed for a variety of reasons: to allow structural work on the building to be completed; to allow for the restoration of the original forecourt of the Colonial Building and the restoration of original views of the building from Military Rd; to address City guidelines requiring sight lines at the corner of Military Road and Bannerman; and to allow for the reconfiguration of the parking lot. As well, some of the trees (overwhelmingly maples) were removed as they were nearing the end of their life.”

Some of this I can abide by, particularly trees that are almost dead and in danger of collapsing anyway. I could debate them on sightlines because I have never had any issues turning onto Military from Bannerman, or vice versa. But I flatly reject the argument about restoring the forecourt, reconfiguring the parking lot and restoring the original unobstructed view from Military.

I say fix up the building but please, please, please preserve the natural heritage as well. Don’t mow down precious, beautiful life so that we might better see a mediocre-looking old box of a building.

Part of what made this building and grounds “historic” was the trees. Nothing denotes the passage of time so eloquently as a grove of stately old trees, with their thick trunks and high canopies whispering in the breeze. Some of them were witness to history, including the 1932 riot that brought down the Squires government.

Think about it this way: Government House just across the street was opened in 1830. If we restore that building to how it looked at the time, we’d have to cut down virtually every tree on that spectacular piece of property. But of course the government wouldn’t do that. Right? Then how is this different?

Trees like this take many years to grow in our harsh, unforgiving climate. We value this aspect of our heritage and government knows it. Shouldn’t there have been a public consultation about this restoration to explain the decision in advance, record how we feel, and possibly even adjust course a little?

Frankly, I’m gobsmacked by it all. Our provincial government – with the quietly nodding acquiescence of St. John’s City Hall, who were briefed on this months ago – have destroyed something precious and irreplaceable, all for the conceit of a newly restored building.

Those trees grew tall and proud with many generations of Newfoundlanders. This is how we thank them.

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