Overhaul for home of controversial 1800s figure

Steve Bartlett sbartlett@thetelegram.com
Published on January 17, 2011
Richmond Cottage, a city heritage building, is part of a resident development plan for Old Topsail Road and Shaw Street in St. John's.
Joe Gibbons/The Telegram

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.

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.



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