Prime location

Steve Bartlett
Published on January 21, 2012

There's a buzz - and the hum of heavy equipment - coming from 351 Water St. The erection of East Port Properties' six-storey tower continues in earnest behind the blue wooden barrier along Water Street and the fencing on Harbour Drive.

It's the first office tower to be built in downtown St. John's in more than a quarter century, a project expected to breathe new life into part of one of North America's oldest streets.

"It's a very significant, modern development to revitalize the older section of St. John's," says Coun. Frank Galgay.

But while the estimated $50-million project is creating a buzz, it's hardly the first development at that address - the area from 351 to 359 Water, to be exact - to set the harbour hopping.

The Telegram has researched the area's past and collected details about some of the enterprises which operated at that location.

Interestingly, the site, or at least a good portion of it, was originally part of the harbour. It's now on made ground, with some of the fill coming from the rubble left after major fires in the 1800s.

According to a 2010 archeological assessment by Gerald Penney Associates of St. John's, there was a small brook and cove at the eastern side of the parcel of land, "which we have speculated was one of the closest approaches of the natural shoreline to the south side of Water Street, within five metres."

The western side of the block was a prime spot for migratory fishermen from the early 1600s to early 1800s.

According to the Penney report, the brook came in handy when they were cleaning cod, the water was deep enough to weigh anchor and the short streets provided decent shelter.

"As such, they were historically 'ships' rooms, where residents were forbidden to build. Migratory fishing ships' captains occupied these upon arrival at the beginning of each season, first-come-first-served."

The western half of East Port's site became a favoured spot and was known as the Vice-Admiral's Room, or Lady's Room.

The archeological assessment suggests that room may have extended from 351 to 359 Water and beyond, even across to what's now the post office on the other side of Water Street.

It's plausible, the document continues, that the property saw gradual encroachment prior to 1811, when J&W Stewart, a merchant from Scotland, leased a large swath of it from the Crown.

"Known as Foxy Stewart's ... the firm is credited with being the first in Newfoundland to establish a fish trade with Brazil," reads J.S Stewart's entry in Volume Five of the "Encyclopedia of Newfoundland."

In the latter part of the 1800s, two main commercial premises occupied the addresses: J&W Stewart, and E.J. Duder - the latter, at one point, according to the Encyclopedia of Newfoundland, was "believed to have the largest number (of ships) of any company in the world."

The lots were considered prime berths, according to Penney. Stewart's buildings were stone. Duder's were brick. Their properties included retail stores at the Water Street level.

The narrow lane to the left of 359 became known as Stewart's Cove, which still exists between East Port's construction site and the Hong Kong Restaurant.

The laneway immediately to the east of 351 Water was called Duder's Arch.

Between the two merchants was a structure called the Office Building. It had a unique facade that can be seen in the far right of the Duder photo on page A1.

There were few structural changes from 351 to 359 for decades.

However, the ownership of the properties - which were outside the path of the Great Fire of 1892 - changed hands a few times.

James Stewart returned to Scotland in 1827, and his company lasted until 1888.

E. J. Duder went bankrupt following the 1894 bank crash.

Maps periodically created to access fire insurance liability between 1880 and 1946 indicate the Stewart premises (or portions of it) would be owned by C.F. Bennett, the Newfoundland Produce Company and the Munroe Export Company.

During the same period, the Duder property was home to the Newfoundland Produce Company, and Crosbie and Co.

Shops in the properties over those years include dry goods stores, wholesale stores, a drug store, a barber shop, a telegraph office and a hotel.

A "moving pictures" theatre a few doors down at 345 Water was a significant development. It first shows up on the 1914 map and it a later became the Crescent Theatre, a cinema alive in the memories of many.

"If you missed seeing a movie at the Star, you went down to the Crescent Theatre," recalls historian Paul O'Neill. "It played there for three days after it left the Star."

It may have been cheaper to watch a movie at the Crescent, but the film house didn't always enjoy the best reputation.

"In our day, it was called the Bug House," O'Neill says. "Mother would say, 'Now don't you guys go to the Bug House this afternoon. Go to the Paramount or the Capital.'"

F.W. Woolworth's built its first store in 1952 at 351-353 (the area of the Duder property). It's opening was a huge deal.

"There can't be anything newer or more modern than Woolworth's was in its day," says Gerald Penney, whose company conducted the archeological assessment.

"When I came to St. John's, that was the place - escalator, and a hotdog machine and a popcorn machine. Woolworth's was it - America from the '50s. I guess 351 is going to be North America again from the 21st century."

In 1966, Woolworth's expanded to the neighbouring western block, the Stewart property. The store was a central shopping destination for decades. It closed in the early '90s. A Bargain Giant operated in the space for a few years, but the building hasn't had a major tenant for awhile.

"That area has a rich commercial and mercantile history," says Galgay, who represents that area of downtown and is an author of local history

He thinks it's important for East Port to be sensitive of 351's historic past.

"I would hope (the developer) would make provision, either within the structure itself or somewhere outside of the building, to commemorate the rich history, either by storyboard of some other means," Galgay says, adding he'd like to see history recognized in all new developments on significant sites.

John Lindsay, owner of East Port Properties, says the history at 351 will indeed be incorporated in the new tower.

He said there'll be access from Water Street to Harbour Drive, as there has traditionally been, and people using the passage will pass by retail shops, which is also in keeping with the site's heritage.

"And we're going to call that either Duder's Lane or Duder's Arch," he says. "We're going to recognize the fact that this was the Duder family's business location." Twitter: @bartlett_steve