Historic Saint Andrews fails to protect its history

A historic home in Saint Andrews, New Brunswick
The Pagan-O’Neil House is one of those that was dismantled in Castine, put on a ship and reassembled in Saint Andrews. It is one of the few sites in the town that has heritage protection.

A book titled St. Andrews Architecture 1604-1966 dates architecture in the town of Saint Andrews back more than 400 years.

With all that history, the town hasn’t enacted any bylaws to protect that heritage. The only structures that have heritage protection are those on the Parks Canada national Directory of Federal Heritage Designations, of which there are a handful, and another 10 the province has designated as a Provincial Heritage Place. Any other historic site in the town could be torn down with a $25 demolition permit. The town has designated another 107 locations as municipal historic sites, however these have no protections.

On the Heritage, Arts and Culture section of the town website, it states: “Saint Andrews has long been recognized provincially and nationally for its architectural heritage. There are few, if any locations in Canada that have such a high percentage of historic buildings in such a relatively small geographic area.”

Saint Andrews Mayor Brad Henderson says there are protections in place for new structures in the main downtown Water Street section of town to ensure designs are consistent with the look and feel of other, older buildings in the area. However builders can apply for exemptions from what is known as the Secondary Municipal Plan to build something that doesn’t respect the historic look and feel of the area. One such project is currently under consideration at 256/260 Water St. and is receiving significant objection from residents, in part, because the design is not sufficiently fidelitous to the look and feel of the surrounding architecture.

“What we don’t really have is a heritage bylaw that protects what exists,” said Henderson, adding that what has helped the town maintain its heritage character is the goodwill of the residents of the town.

“But you’re setting yourself up for, over time, almost death by a thousand paper cuts.”

He noted that council is considering doing something that concentrates on the business core along Water Street.

A Maxwell Brothers home in Saint Andrews, New Brunswick
This Maxwell house is currently the home to the Kingsbrae International Residency for the Arts. The Maxwell Brothers were one of the most influential architectural firms in Canada in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They designed and built several important homes in Saint Andrews, only a few of which have official heritage protections. The one at 130 Prince of Wales St. doesn’t have that protection.

Another thing that has worked in favour of Saint Andrews is that it has never had a great fire like that of Saint John in 1977. Henderson recognizes luck can run out.

Barry Murray, president of the Saint Andrews Civic Trust, addressed the history of the town going back to the American Revolution. Former British soldiers, Loyalists, built communities in what they thought were areas that would be outside the new United States border. As it happened, they were wrong. They built in what is today Castine, Me. Several of those homes were dismantled, put on ships and transported to what is now Saint Andrews and many of those homes still stand today.

Extensive maintenance costs

Murray recognizes the expense in maintaining a heritage building to its original look and feel. He noted that the group did information sessions for people to show them there were modern, energy-efficient options available that would maintain the look, feel and character of the period pieces – such as windows and doors – that were not cost prohibitive. Some jurisdictions, for example Peterborough, Ont., have enacted property tax relief mechanisms for owners to maintain heritage properties.

Murray noted that, in discussions he has had with long-time, multi-generational residents of Saint Andrews, there has been an interest in creating an endowment with the Fundy Community Foundation to help fund maintenance and restoration of heritage sites.

As Murray stated, “You need the bylaw first.”

Architectural standpoints

John Leroux comes at the issue of heritage protections from the standpoint of a trained architect and architectural historian. He’s also the author of St. Andrews Architecture 1604-1966.

“It’s remarkable in how tenuous it makes the town,” he said about Saint Andrews having no heritage preservation bylaws.

He shared similar thoughts about the goodwill of residents to keep the look and character of the town intact but notes that it can only go so far.

He pointed out that redevelopment is a reality and the goal of heritage bylaws is not to stop development. Building materials and methods have improved vastly over the past century and it does not make sense to try to replicate 19th century construction methods in the 21st century. What is important, he continued, is for modern construction to be historically accurate.

Speaking specifically of the lot at 256/260 Water St., Leroux acknowledged the town needs housing and having that housing in the downtown makes sense.

“Just do a great building,” he said.

Preserving the past but building for the future is a delicate balancing act. Leroux suggested that Saint Andrews doesn’t do either very well and needs to work at doing better.

One of the debates in the circle of heritage preservation advocacy is how it’s done. Is an entire city or town designated, are certain areas of the town designated, or is it on a site-by-site basis?

The site-by-site approach is cumbersome and will often miss or leave out buildings that, in isolation, aren’t overly important but in the larger picture of the neighbourhood give the area its overall character. Conversely, the entire town approach where every building is afforded protections likely goes too far the other way.

The better way is to designate zones within the town and then have different classifications of properties within that zone. That allows for the case where a building that has little heritage value historically and may not be anything special architecturally can easily be dealt with if a new owner wants to tear it down. They would then have to reconstruct something that was consistent with the character of the neighbourhood but using modern materials and methods.

Leroux brought up the nuances of what is in front is more important than what is behind. In the case of Saint Andrews along Water Street, the facades facing the street matter more than the backs facing the water and bylaws could be designed to give importance to the street-facing side of the building and owners be given much more leeway in the areas behind or not visible to the public.

Sunbury Shores art gallery in Saint Andrews New Brunswick
The Water Street façade of Sunbury Shores Arts & Nature Centre. The building is an example of how heritage preservation can also incorporate modern updates. The modern window wall at the rear of the building opened up the view to the water from inside and allowed more natural light into the space. It also offers a more seamless integration between the inside and the outside. The street-facing façade retains the original design. The function of the space is improved while retaining the heritage look from the street.
A wall of windows looks out to the ocean
The newer window wall on the water-facing rear of the Sunbury Shores Arts & Nature Centre improves the functionality of the space for the gallery.

Down to the studs

Tom Butterfield bought what is known as the Beacon Printing building on Water Street in 2006. He did so with the express purpose of refurbishing it and so, while he owns it, it won’t be torn down. Butterfield took the building back to the studs and to the original configuration when it was the offices of the Land Development Corporation, including revealing a large skylight that had been hidden for generations.

“We’ve got it back to the original integrity of what the building might have looked like,” Butterfield said.

“Governance is critical for keeping the integrity of this town and they should be ruthless about it. People move here for a reason.”

An old brick building in Saint Andrews, New Brunswick
Originally offices for the Land Development Corporation, this Water Street building was home to many other things including Beacon Printing. The building is another Maxwell design and does not have heritage protections.

Butterfield comes from Hamilton, Bermuda, another historic town, and he bemoaned what has happened there as a result of a lack of concern for heritage preservation.

Heritage protection opposition

There is opposition to the town putting heritage protection bylaws in place. It can generally be summed up in the vein of, ‘No one is going to tell me what I can and can’t do with my property.’

David Doncaster is opposed to any form of heritage preservation bylaws.

Doncaster lives in a home that he says was first built in 1840. Known colloquially as the Dr. McStay House, it was actually built in the ca 1825. While Doncaster recognizes the difference between a modern side-split and his historical home, he feels they should be treated no differently in terms of what the owner can do with the property.

“It really is getting down to intrusion into the rights of the individual,” said Doncaster.

What he doesn’t acknowledge is that the history of the town, the look, feel and character of the architecture plays any role in determining what people should be able to do with their properties. He doesn’t feel the homes outside the main business area play any role in attracting people to the town and have no impact on the overall character of the place. He does, however, feel that the buildings on the main street are different and he can understand why those might need to be protected. He stated that “the people that support it, which are mostly people who don’t own older homes,” do it because they like the quaintness of the town.

He went on to say that, “as far as my house having an economic tourism benefit to the town, I think that’s just a bunch of crap. It’s not the case.”

Doncaster does believe in rules and that the common good can outweigh the individual good, just not when it comes to him and his home. He was ambivalent to the idea that the goodwill of the townspeople might someday diminish and that if someone wanted to tear down a Maxwell Brothers-designed home they shouldn’t be barred from doing that.

“I’m going to sound like I’m just being difficult, but I keep coming back to that the municipal government has any role in telling me what I can’t do with my home just because it’s an older one.”

Leroux summed up the idea of heritage protections by saying, “The common good should always win. Always.”

Council agreed at a Nov. 7 meeting to begin accepting applications for a Heritage Committee. Under the provincial Heritage Conservation Act, before a municipality can pass a preservation bylaw it must seat a committee to advise council. The agreement to accept applications for the committee does not bind council to any further action and the work of any committee that is formed will be concerned solely with the downtown Water Street business district.

robertfisher@stcroixcourier.ca