A storied past, a future being determined

New tenants on tap for award-winning Duckworth Street building

Ashley Fitzpatrick afitzpatrick@thetelegram.com
Published on July 10, 2014

The building at 221 Duckworth St. in St. John’s has lived many different lives.
It will soon start on its next, according to Noel O’Dea for PropertyWorks.

Responding to inquiries from The Telegram, he said the building’s second floor has been leased to a digital and social media firm, and negotiations are in progress with a potential tenant for the main floor.

Whoever moves in will establish themselves in a prime location in downtown St. John’s.

The South Beach Building, as it is officially titled, stands on its own, with its Miami-inspired colours and art deco structural features.

Related slideshow

221 Duckworth through the years

Built in the 1940s, the building was in hard shape before its painstaking revival, completed in 2009. It included: adding new, custom-made windows to echo the period style; restoration and repair of the exterior concrete work; reinforcement of the roof, and levelling and reinforcement of the floors. An addition was made, providing independent access to the second floor.

“It was really a labour of love and (done) out of respect for the building,” O’Dea said.

He was recognized for the effort with a Southcott Award from the Newfoundland Historic Trust.

Architect Beaton Sheppard worked on  the project. “The look comes from the way the building was originally,” he said, explaining everything down to the outside white, blue and pink colour scheme was carefully considered.

“Certainly we’ve always attempted to preserve the character of the buildings downtown ... and yet adapt it to new uses,” he said of his work.

Adaptability is part if the why 221 Duckworth St. remains at the centre of so many memories of life and work in the downtown. Within the past 40 years, it has been home to a radio station, bookstore and art gallery.

Lisa Gushue first walked through the doors in 1978, to go to work at Q Radio.

“I don’t know if my parents slept 30 seconds,” she said, explaining newcomers to the station at that time could end up covering late shifts on their own.

Being a female disc jockey, she was breaking glass ceilings just by heading to work  each day.

She vividly remembers the excitement of being in the downtown building’s upstairs control room, or later watching Ron Pumphrey tackle his late-night show.

“It was a good time to get into radio,” said Brian Madore of his start at the station in 1980. Like Gushue, he worked under Colin and Bas Jamieson. His time in the building ran through the fall of 1983.

“Everything was 24-7 live back then,” he said of the radio operation.

As a result, a decent bathroom break sometimes meant playing a long song and hoping to not have to run over the stairs to make it in time to read the news.

For about a year and a half, Madore said, he and some of the other staff were without keys, forcing them to bang on the front door late at night, or run around to the back of the building and throw small rocks against a heavy window to draw attention.

“You had to depend on the person in the building letting you in the building,” he said.

Living in Edinburgh, Scotland, today, Heidi O’Guntke worked at the site from 1987 to 1989, under the on-air alias Kristine Daniels. “They didn’t like complicated names back then in radio,” she said in an email Wednesday.

She remembers 45s (records) that skipped, the sight of 8-track carts and the physical cutting of interview reels.

“(I) loved the big sash windows in the newsroom on the ground floor. I remember the day I interviewed Karen Kain as she gracefully swanned up the steps to the interview studio,” she said, referring to the famous Canadian ballet dancer.

The operation was bought by Harry Steele while O’Guntke was there. CKIX was housed on the ground floor, CJYQ in the upstairs.

Chris Batstone first stepped inside the building in 1989. “It was my first job. I was right out of high school. I started working there the day I graduated high school,” he said. “It was pretty exciting for me.”

The place reminded him of “WKRP in Cincinnatti” — coloured in earth tones from wall to carpet and filled with characters.

He recalled the dimness of the track lighting in the old studio.

“The place, it smelled like smoke. And all the rooms were airless — the studios were anyway — but you could still smoke in there,” he said.

Next door there was a club. Below the club, there was a bar. “You used to see all sorts of craziness going on out there,” Batstone said.

When the radio operation was relocated in 1991, Batstone helped with the move. It involved the transfer of shelves full of CDs, stacks of records and cabinets of paper — news releases and profiles.

James Baird purchased the building and moved in after the radio operation moved out.

“I gutted the place and did the bookstore and the art gallery there for years,” he said, recalling the times of the former James Baird Gallery and WordPlay.

Many people incorrectly believe he is still involved with the property.

“I get more calls on this building. … I’d say once a month somebody calls me,” he said when reached by phone Tuesday.

He left the location behind, as he tells it, out of spite after The Rooms was built.

But he also acknowledges his book sales had dropped off.

The prized property in downtown St. John’s went to a businessman looking to open a restaurant, called Shiraz.

“It never was,” Baird said, offering a story of a business partnership gone sour in its earliest days.

O’Dea later took on the building.

Most recently, the facade earned a starring role in the CBC-TV series “Republic of Doyle,” representing the exterior of a nightclub.

“(It) had the look and feel we were going for, very Miami Vice,” stated Perry Chafe, a co-creator of the show, when asked why it was used.

And while not to emerge as “Club Wabana” in real life, the recognizable art deco locale lives on.