No trees when Colonial Building opened

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Questions related to the original landscape of the site upon which the Colonial Building was constructed and opened in 1850 in St. John’s have apparently led to seeking the answer from among the earliest existing pictures of the site. That process is bound to fail because none exist.

To find this truth we don’t have to speculate based on pictures taken decades after the building opened. In that period, the original landscape had gone through a major transition. The engineer’s report completed in 1848 when the building’s construction was proposed provides the specific information that appears to be missing.

To illustrate to readers the exact state of that property at the time construction was undertaken, allow me to describe the site as it was described in the 1848 report by Maj. A.W. Robe of the Royal Engineers. It is recorded that the entire area located between Government House and the Roman Catholic Basilica was nothing but a swamp. The part where the Colonial Building was erected was in the middle of the lowest section of the marsh. Robe emphasized, “The swamp never completely dries up, and the springs that supply the south swamp afford the most abundant flow of water.”

The Royal Engineers opposed putting the building there because of its potential threat to the health of the people who would occupy it, as well as the general instability of any building on the site, even if it was drained. Despite this opposition, the building was constructed there and opened on Jan. 28, 1850. Over time the swamp problem was overcome and trees and fence were added.

There are powerful arguments for saving our trees, but to claim they were part of the original terrain is not one of them.

An interesting anecdote regarding the Colonial Building’s history is that 11 months after it was officially opened, Newfoundland’s first bank robbery took place inside it. The target was the Savings Bank housed in the basement of the building. Four months later two men were arrested and about half the money stolen was returned.

Jack Fitzgerald

St. John’s

Organizations: Government House, Savings Bank

Geographic location: Newfoundland

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Recent comments

  • Watcher08
    May 26, 2014 - 19:29

    It doesn't matter how many stupid arguments they make regarding the treeless nature of the site originally, nothing can make up for the morally senseless killing of those stately old trees.

  • John Phyne
    May 26, 2014 - 18:17

    Jack, thanks for this update. I've been following this story for a while now.

  • TheGreatfulAuk
    May 26, 2014 - 16:20

    I understand the fellers that felled them felt fervently a fiasco was forthcoming. I am deciduously disheartened and my fondness for fall foliage leaves me fuming. That said, I know fighting fatheads is futile.

  • They will come to know Good.
    May 26, 2014 - 14:33

    If we can tow whales around the bay, like MUN, and David Boyd did, we can surely get a crane and plant some nice trees. Put it up to a design contest, and crowd source their procurement. By that , I mean, royal decree, to rob such trees from the crowne lande. I hope I am not being to bold, or encroaching on the city fathers sentiments. I like ash, and horse chestnut, and others will now be inspirled to correct me. Let the students of the academy bring us something. Imagine Plato, in at academy Canada set up with a digitizer?! Ed Smith, or Fred, said a tree is a tree. Well a swamp is a swamp too. I get the names on here mixed up, everyone is pseudonymed. I bet the colonial restaurant will donate one tree. They are awesome trees. Maybe some developers can sell, er, donate a rescue tree? Money grows on trees...in other countries? Not here ;( no trees for the townownknees!

  • FINTIP
    May 26, 2014 - 14:20

    The banality of the two governments responsible for this treeless travesty is mirrored in the musings of our best historical revisionist. So there were no trees pre-dating construction of the Colonial Building. So what? It should surprise no one, except perhaps city council and the developers of our new treeless subdivisions, that it was the custom of the times to complement new structures with appropriate vegetation including trees. And no "we don’t have to speculate based on pictures taken decades after the building opened". A London lithograph by W.R. Best dated 1851 shows a wide assortment of plants and trees on the property perimeter running along Bannerman Street. Some would have approached 20 feet in height when transplanted. Those felled - ironically, amusingly, in the cause of preserving history - might well have come from that stock. Is their historical - let alone aesthetic - value somehow diminished because they were planted in or about 1850? History is more than the recitation of facts, dates and figures from bygone eras. It requires context, perspective, and above all an interest in culling it for its value in informing our decisions in the now.

    • Susan
      May 26, 2014 - 16:31

      'Our best historical revisionist' - brilliant, accurate, funny. A real gem.

  • Morris
    May 26, 2014 - 13:53

    Removal of the tree or trees was unwarranted and in fact stupid! Jack your letter is mostly anecdotal ! Please clearly state your opinion in future, not have readers hunt through the non-relevant info to find a FACT! Still not sure what your opinion is regarding the removal of trees! Care to express one?

  • Garden Fan
    May 26, 2014 - 12:18

    I once heard an interview with Jerry Dick of provincial director of heritage with the Department of Tourism, telling us how all this renovation to the Colonial Building would be great. But never heard him talk about the trees coming down. Any comment Mr. Dick or who ever is handling this file now?

  • Anna
    May 26, 2014 - 09:06

    This reminds me of the time when the CN station was closing down and the first thing they did was chop down the beautiful trees in front until someone complained and the remaining trees were saved. Considering how long it takes for a tree to grow, the govenrment person who recommeded this is still an idiot especically in trying to justify it.

  • What a Shame to have cut down those beautiful, mature trees.
    May 26, 2014 - 09:01

    Mature trees make any place more special by giving it character. Trees breathe in carbon dioxide and convert it to oxygen, we need those beauties to filter the pollutants that are spewed into the atmosphere by industry. Who, I wonder, was so unaware of the wonderful attributes of trees that he or she would have given the order to cut them down.

  • Grant Gardner
    May 26, 2014 - 08:32

    While I'm tempted to draw the conclusion that returning the site of the Colonial Building to its original design might mean recreating the swamp Jack Fitzgerald notes in his letter of May 26, I do take his point that the site was not treed at the time. I can't help but think, however, that the designers (and the citizens) might well have thought that it would be nice to have some mature trees on the site. Likely that was too expensive a proposition, but they felt trees would grow there in the fullness of time. That did indeed happen, but alas the 'planners' have sent us back to square one. As a side note - how many parking spaces are allowed for in the refurbishment plans? Will that, too, be returned to the 'original' specification, or has it been decided that updating the parking is OK, while retaining the trees was not?