Richmond Cottage falling apart

Daniel MacEachern
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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.

Geographic location: Shaw Street, Topsail Road, McLea Park Oldest Newfoundland

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Recent comments

  • Terry Walsh
    August 17, 2014 - 10:42

    This house was owned by the late Dr. Lynch who had his practice next door (west) of the Provincial Court House on Duckworth St. It would be interesting to see how his family felt about the neglect as it was a beautiful home in its day. This is another scenario where the Newfoundland & Labrador Heritage have no teeth do to the fact that a property cannot be forced to be repaired or saved as a heritage property unless requested by the owner of the property. This is the same issue going on with several Anglican Churches such as the Ruby Church and St. Philips Church are witnessing where The Anglican Synod is using the same tactic to old churches named as heritage properties but can not be forced to repair in the name of heritage, shame.

  • Saucy Face
    August 16, 2014 - 19:44

    Ah, once again our esteemed Newfoundland private sector doing what it does best; taking care of things ... for themselves.

  • Greg M -S.O. Steele Building
    August 16, 2014 - 18:05

    Developers let heritage and other properties fall into ruin and rat infestations to eventually get there own way. Look at the S.O. Steele building on Water Street. Condo developer wanted to tear it down for condos, was denied for heritage reasons and now the building is infested with rats. The worst rats are the human ones, developer and lawyer who will wait out St. John's City Council and a city council too afraid of a lawyer to mske him do upkeep or sell the building.

  • California Pete from NFLD
    August 16, 2014 - 13:16

    Problem solved ! Let a homeles person live there and when it gets cold in a few weeks they will make a fire to keep warm. Well you know the rest. Problem solved.