Condo developer denied permission to tear down historic home after development stalls
More than 3 1/2 years after plans were announced to redevelop Richmond Cottage, the historic house is still falling apart.
Richmond Cottage on Shaw Street in St. John’s was supposed to be transformed into a new development. But, after years of no upkeep, the property has deteriorated while new homes have been constructed on the land around it. — Photo by Rhonda Hayward/The Telegram
The house — built at the corner of Shaw Street and old Topsail Road in the 1840s and home to historical St. John’s figures — is in such a state that last year the developer of a new subdivision asked the city for permission to tear it down and rebuild it.
The 12-lot McLea Park subdivision was approved for Wrightland Development with the condition that the property be protected and reinvigorated, said Coun. Dave Lane, co-chairman of the city’s heritage committee Friday. The large house was to be developed into two townhouses, but over the next couple of years, nothing was done, said Lane.
“They came back and they said, ‘Hey, you know, this property’s falling apart. The pipes burst. It’s in complete disrepair,’” said Lane. “They said, ‘If we’re going to renovate this, then we’re just going to have to take it down to the foundation and studs, and that will be very cost-prohibitive so we’re wondering, can we just tear it down and start afresh, and redesign what we were going to build anyway?’”
Lane — who was a citizen member of the heritage committee at the time — says the heritage committee couldn’t have allowed the home to be torn down, since the developer’s lack of action contributed to the deterioration.
“They had two years or more to take care of and maintain it, at least a minimal level, and it wasn’t taken care of as well as it should have been,” Lane said.
“If they haven’t taken care of it and now
we say, ‘You’re right, it’s pretty rundown,’ and they can demolish it, that sets a very bad precedent.”
The city can’t send the message to heritage property owners that they can demolish a property after not doing anything to preserve it, said Lane.
Paul Fowler of Wrightland Development pointed out that work has been ongoing on other lots in the subdivision, but declined to talk to the Telegram about Richmond Cottage.
“We’re in the process of working with the city on that,” he said. “I’m not prepared to discuss that. In the next couple of weeks we’ll be in a position to say more about it. But at this point, there’s really nothing we can discuss about the property at this time.”
Late last month, said Lane, the city’s heritage officers sent the developer a notice, ordering it to do some cleanup and minimal maintenance. However, Lane said he’s certain the eventual redevelopment of the cottage will be a great project.
“They have the plan. They’re obviously very sensitive to the heritage character of the building, and I think they want to keep the building,” he said. “It’s just so cost-prohibitive it’s difficult for them to feel justified in taking all that extra effort.”
Area resident and Newfoundland Quarterly contributor Suzanne Sexty said she’s disappointed the property has been allowed to fall into such disrepair.
“It’s been a part of their plans since the very beginning, but they now seem to have lost complete interest in it,” she said, adding the house was touted as the centrepiece of the division. “They’ve gotten what they want of that house, and now they’re going to let it fall apart.”
Sexty was also critical of the city for not doing a better job of ensuring the house’s preservation.
“They can establish these buildings as heritage properties, but the city in effect seems to have no authority to do anything about them, except tell the owners what they can and can’t do, but not enforce it if they don’t do it,” she said. “I worry about the house. It’s just going to fall down.”
Richmond Cottage was built for controversial politician and businessman Kenneth McLea. According to “The Oldest City: The Story of St. John’s Newfoundland” by Paul O’Neill, McLea’s campaign for the St. John’s West seat was “marred by riots, in which the military shot and killed several people in the streets of St. John’s.”
By that point, McLea had sold the house to its architect and builder, Gilbert Browning — whose name adorned several businesses and lives on today in Browning-Harvey.