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Restoration of Mundy Pond’s ‘crowning glory’ important to new owner
The lifelong home of a trailblazing St. John’s woman will now be part of the city’s official built heritage.
At Monday’s city council meeting, councillors voted unanimously to designate the stately colonial revival house at 172 Campbell Ave. a heritage building.
City council notes indicate that a part of the designation was given because of the building’s esthetic value as an excellent surviving example of an early 20th-century structure, and one of the last remaining original dwellings in the Mundy Pond area from when that neighbourhood was considered the edge of the city.
What really makes it special, however, are the people who have owned it — both past and present.
William Duff was a machinist with his own shop on Ropewalk Lane, where his family lived upstairs. But over the course of five years between 1932-37, whenever he wasn’t working, he was building a house for his family on the same property.
He put his machinist skills to good use in the home, designing brass handrails for the elegant mahogany staircase, and an entrance fireplace with photos of his three children prominently displayed in the metal accents.
Squinting and smiling from a black and white photo is a young Elizabeth (Bettie) Duff, wearing a dress and holding a bicycle.
Duff lived the rest of her life in that house, until she died on her 90th birthday in 2016.
Notes in city council’s agenda describe her as “a woman ahead of her time” and “a pioneer for the women’s movement.”
She was the first female clerk of the House of Assembly in the province, and the first female clerk of any legislative body in all of Canada.
She was private secretary to former premier Joseph Smallwood for 23 years, and held executive assistant positions in government before becoming clerk.
Beverley Brace — who now owns the house and sought the heritage designation — remembers Duff well.
Brace owned the Little People’s Workshop daycare that has been a fixture in the Mundy Pond area since the 1980s. However, she was tired of renting, and in 1999 she bought land from Duff to build a daycare right next to the home, on property where the machinist shop once sat.
“At the time, she was very, very particular about who she was selling the land to. People didn't think I would get it, including city hall,” Brace recalled.
“But she liked the idea of children being next door, and I spent quite a bit of time with her negotiating the land … and I kind of got to know her a bit, and her life, and it was a pretty phenomenal life.
“And then she named her price. Her price was higher than a piece of land at the time. She was not a ‘little old lady’ type person — she was very businesslike. Anyway, I gulped and swallowed, wondering where I was getting the money. And I worked on it, I bought the land and built the daycare.”
That businesslike quality served Duff well in the civil service.
A transcript from the House of Assembly after her death acknowledges her for being well-respected by all parties, noting her graciousness and mentorship.
Senator Fabian Manning, when he spoke about Duff in the Senate after her death, said that in her personal life she was interested in photography and travel, and was a dedicated member of St. Teresa’s Parish.
He said Smallwood commended her “magnificent work and dependability” and that “she was privy to more government secrets than almost anyone else”; former MHA and senator Gerald Otteheimer called her “extremely intelligent and loyal”; and when she retired in 1991, then-premier Clyde Wells said she “served the entire House, both sides and the middle, quite well.”
‘Crowning glory in Mundy Pond’
Brace said she always adored Duff’s home, and when it went up for sale in 2017, a year after her death, Brace had also just recently sold her daycare business.
“I didn't really need a house, but I just couldn't … let it go, and, to what? I didn't know where it was going to end up, if it was going to be destroyed, or what was going to happen. So, I bought it.
“From a financial perspective, I'm crazy,” she said, explaining she could have easily bought it as an investment, not sought heritage status for the building and kept the land until she could sell it for a profit to a developer.
Instead, she has spent the past three years restoring the home so it is up to today’s standards, while preserving the character-defining elements.
Brace is dogged in her commitment to maintaining the original character, so much so that she asked several contractors to do the concrete restoration of the exterior columns before she finally found someone who was willing to use the original moldings that were made by William Duff, which were still in the basement.
Brace explained that when she bought the house, she wasn’t just buying a building.
“You're actually purchasing a lot of heritage, and memories of a family.
“I like to know that long after I’m gone, that house is going to be there. And it’s something that I did in my life that will remain after I’m not there. Whether someone else owns it, heritage protects the house from being destroyed.”
Brace hasn’t completed the interior finishings because she’s hoping to customize them for a potential renter. She’s hoping to rent it to someone who will be able to, in some way, allow the public inside to see the intricate work of the original owners.
“I'm really hoping to get a nice use for the community. I know that the community is very proud of that house. …They look at it as their crowning glory in Mundy Pond. And I'm really proud that I was able to restore it.”