Overhaul for home of controversial 1800s figure

Steve Bartlett
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Richmond Cottage, a city heritage building, is part of a resident development plan for Old Topsail Road and Shaw Street in St. John's.

A historic homestead built for an 1860s politician whose campaign saw several people killed by the military will be refurbished as one of St. John’s oldest areas gets its first subdivision.

Richmond Cottage will be divided into townhouses as part of a 12-lot subdivision at the corner of Old Topsail Road and Shaw Street.

“It’s a very large house,” said Paul Fowler, a principle with the project’s proponent, Wrightland Development Corp.

“That’s our plan, to develop it in to two town homes.”

The home, a municipal heritage property, was built around 1848 for Kenneth McLea, whose family had come to St. John’s from Scotland.

They were a prominent clan. According to “The Oldest City: The Story of St. John’s Newfoundland” by Paul O’Neill, the west side of Steers Cove used to be called McLea’s Corner.

Kenneth McLea was a businessman and controversial politician who ran in the 1861 election for a seat in St. John’s West.

“His campaign was marred by riots, in which the military shot and killed several people in the streets of St. John’s,” O’Neill’s book states.

“It became known as McLea’s election.”

Before all that transpired, McLea had sold his house to Gilbert Browning, the Scottish architect and builder who constructed it.

Browning had become a prominent St. John’s citizen himself, and would lay part of the foundation for a legendary business that still exists today.

According to the “Encyclopedia of Newfoundland and Labrador,” Browning arrived in the city after the fire of 1846 to assist in the rebuilding of the Baine Johnson and Company.

He quickly found himself involved in a number of businesses, including a sawmill, cod oil refining, and a boat factory.

He established G. Browning and Sons in 1867, running a bakery on Barter’s Hill.

In 1931, that company merged with the biscuit manufacturing arm of A. Harvey and Company.

Browning-Harvey, a Newfoundland institution, was born.

The company expanded into candy and soft drinks two years after the merger.

It continues to manufacture Pepsi products today.

Fowler says an architect is designing the plans for Richmond Cottage, which received city heritage designation in June 2003.

The development at Topsail and Shaw was approved by council last fall and it’s expected Wrightland will be ready to put the lots on the market in early March.

“It’s a very large house.” Paul Fowler, a principle with the project’s proponent, Wrightland Development Corp.

Fowler says it’ll be an upscale project, with lots that have a minimum street frontage of 70 feet.

Some of the homes will front on Old Topsail Road, others on Shaw Street, and some on a new cul-de-sac that’ll be developed on the plot of land that is almost 3.5 acres.

Frank Galgay, chairman of the city’s planning and housing committee, considers the development a good one.

He particularly likes that Wrightland has committed to maintaining the integrity of Richmond Cottage.

“It’s important that he do that because there were people associated with that particular cottage who were very prominent in the economic, cultural and business community of St. John’s,” he said, adding the developer also plans to retain as many of the site’s mature trees as possible.

In recent years, the property was owned by the Sparkes family.



Twitter: bartlett_steve

Organizations: Wrightland Development, Pepsi

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Old Topsail Road, Shaw Street Oldest Richmond Cottage Wrightland

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Recent comments

  • Jim
    March 16, 2016 - 07:57

    Puzzling. . They want $350000. For them to tear down would be a $150000 expense a wag but good for this. City could I would think require a house built on the same lot size to replace. So why is the owner not asked to consider selling for a lot less so the buyer can do necessary repairs. BUT this is another "learning experience" for city. Recall O'leary house. Maybe the conditions for developers should be that the restoration is the first job...not the last and the one they quit on. ..

    • Ron Taylor
      March 16, 2016 - 11:33

      I agree with you that restoration should be the first job completed when we consign heritage properties as part of a larger development. All too often these types of properties are neglected to the point where they either fall down or are burnt to the ground by arsonists. In this case the former has happened and the later is waiting to happen.

  • Meg
    October 25, 2015 - 16:52

    I've actually been walking around that house and its a beautiful area. Sure the house itself would need renovations before it would be safe to live in, but the front lawn of the house is absolutely spectacular, screw putting up subdivisions, sell the land to someone willing to keep it and all its historical value.

  • karen moores
    November 14, 2011 - 20:54

    Its a shame that the people at city hall don't realize how important this piece of property is to our heritage. Our family lived on Shaw St. since the early 40's and my father grow on Warbury St., which is over 90 years ago. I look out my door everyday and just can't believe this is happening. Sometimes we see beauty when others do not.

  • Mike
    April 03, 2011 - 21:12

    The whole area has a lot of history.

  • JT
    January 17, 2011 - 12:58

    Here is a property with an intriging slice of history behind it, and council is okay with desicrating it? unbeleivable! I guess it is as many have said, if it isn't in the east end of the city, the powers that be don't really care. The city snobs believe St. John's, or at least the portion of the city that matters to them is east of the concrete bunker. This city is a sad joke.

  • History Nerd
    January 17, 2011 - 12:28

    I'm shocked and saddened that this beautiful and historic property will be altered in this way. I'm also amazed there hasn't been a public outcry. Why hasn't this issue received the same high profile that other development projects involing historic properties have received? It boggles the mind.

  • Saucy Face
    January 17, 2011 - 10:41

    And not a peep from The 3 Heritage Stooges; Shannie, Peg Norman and Greg Malone ... Someone should tell them that it's on Water Street.

    • John
      September 24, 2013 - 14:32

      There is an article on this very website entitled "Council needs to stand up for heritage: deputy mayor." Shannie is our deputy mayor. Sounds like more than just a peep.

  • John Smith
    January 17, 2011 - 10:24

    What a shame, here we have something that should be protected, that reeks with history, and what do they do...nothing. Where are the Peg Normans, and clowns now? A shoddy run down building with absolutely no history stops a 100 million dollar development downtown, yet this place will be turned into a cul de sac. More evidence of the complete lunacy at the bunker.

  • Political Watcher
    January 17, 2011 - 10:23

    Fortis can't upgrade an office building downtown yet a Heritage House with significant ties to St. John's can be turned into two townhouses? Shannie, you wonder why some people dismiss your rants about preserving heritage......... Yet again a decision from Council that will leave you scratching your head.

  • steve
    January 17, 2011 - 10:01

    Come on, b'ys - you complain when they approve developments, and you complain when they don't. You're a hard crowd to please!

  • been thinking
    January 17, 2011 - 08:54

    Where is Shanny, well Old Topsail Road is not really the East End ? is it

  • Glenda
    January 17, 2011 - 08:23

    Wheres grandma Shanny Duff now? MUst be a close friend of hers doing this project..

    • Bob
      January 17, 2011 - 09:10

      This it too bad. That is a lovely area, a nice green space. I really don't think that area is big enough to suitably accomodate a cul de sac AND 12 lots. Why wouldn't a developer sell 4 or 5 large sized lots instead? I'm sure you could get the same amount of money, and I'm sure there's a few wealthy individuals out there that would pay dearly for a large lot in a rich neighbourhood...witness the development going on at Rennies Mill Road and Portuagal Cove Road.