St. John’s is old. By the time Sir Humphrey Gilbert sailed through the Narrows to claim St. John’s for England in 1583 it had been marked on Portuguese maps for the better part of the century. The harbour was a regular stopping point for European ships. In the 1600s St. John’s was firmly established as the supply centre for the rich Newfoundland fishing industry.

It was mostly a transient population, however. Fishermen would arrive in the summer to pursue their catch and return to England with the end of fishing season. Local administration was left to fishing admirals. The Newfoundland colony finally got an appointed governor in 1729 but the men in charge would still high-tail it back across the Atlantic when the cold weather arrived, leaving the permanent residents to govern themselves.

Most of the land was in the hands of absentee landlords back in the Mother Country and, ever respectful of the private ownership, it was difficult for the local government to buy up land for development. So St. John’s grew in a patchwork of narrow, curving streets up the hillsides. Not that it was growing much until after the English difficulties with Napoleon sorted themselves out in 1815. This sparked a growth spurt in the British Empire that saw St. John’s boom from 1,000 to 10,000 year-round residents. In 1832 Newfoundland was awarded a colonial legislature.

Through it all the economy was driven by the rich fishing grounds of the Grand Banks. The shallow waters of the underwater plateau teemed with cod, swordfish, and haddock; lobster was so plentiful if was a junk catch. As early as 1620 some 300 fishing boats were already working one of the planet’s best fisheries. St. John’s was the primary station for all things fishing related and by the end of the 19th century the population had doubled to almost 30,000.

The North Atlantic cod fishery collapsed in the 1990s but St. John’s had been diversifying since Newfoundland’s entry into the Confederation in 1949. Oil exploration and tourism proved so profitable that the city was forced to enact restrictions on building height in the downtown core to hang on to its long-earned heritage as a fishing-first outpost.

Fire was always a regular visitor to early St. John’s. The worst of the conflagrations occurred in 1816, 1846 and 1892, clearing the downtown streets of most of its buildings each time. The result is that most of what we will see on our walking tour is of post-1893 vintage and we will begin near the spot where Britain’s overseas empire began...      

Harbourside Park
King’s Beach on Water Street

This waterside greenspace, a popular spot for lunchtime summertime concerts, celebrates the proclamation by Sir Humphrey Gilbert claiming Newfoundland for Great Britain on August 5, 1583. Greeting guests arriving by water are statues of the two canine representatives of the province - a Newfoundland dog and a Labrador Retriever. Crafted from cast bronze with an inner stainless steel frame, the dogs are one-and-a-half life size. They are the work of Bulgarian artist Luben Boykov, a refugee who came to Canada in 1990. His real life models were Abraham, the Newfie, and Hudson, a rambunctious lab. There is one set of statues here, installed in 2003, and another set at Signal Hill, the National Historic Site at the head of the harbour.  


National War Memorial
King’s Beach on Water Street

This is the province’s signature memorial to the men and women who sacrificed their lives during the Great War, World War I. Newfoundland was not yet a member of the Dominion so this was a “national” memorial when it was dedicated on July 1, 1924. The central figure is a woman symbolizing the spirit of Newfoundlanders’ loyalty to the British Empire. The construction was supervised by Thomas Matthew Mary Nangle who served as the military chaplain of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment during the hostilities. Two years after the dedication Nangle, then 37 years old, left the priesthood and sailed to Rhodesia where he took a wife, became a farmer and was instrumental in South African politics.  


King George V Building
93 Water Street East at southwest corner of Queen’s Cove

Wilfred Thomason Grenfell was born in England in 1865 and trained in medicine. A charitable organization, The Royal National Mission to Deep Sea Fishermen, recruited him to come to Newfoundland in 1892 to set up a mission. His marching orders were to help the North Atlantic fishermen but soon Grenfell was recruiting doctors to work in cottage hospitals on the Labrador coast as well. Then came schools, an orphanage, social work and employment projects for both the settlers and aboriginal peoples. The Grenfell Mission was internationally known by the time this Neoclassical four-story headquarters was constructed in 1912. During World War I it was known as the Caribou Hut, taking its cue from the emblem of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment whose members found refuge here. Grenfell was knighted for his service to Newfoundland and its people in 1927.

Commercial Cable Company Building
95 Water Street

William Frederick Butler was born in St. John’s in 1866 and began his working life as a carpenter before going to Toronto to study architecture. He received further training during work on the Chicago’s World’s Fair of 1893. Afterwards he returned home to hang out his shingle and became one of Newfoundland’s busiest architects (there were 15 in St. John’s at the time but only seven by century’s end). Newfoundland was a little slow adopting the trendiest new styles so often Butler was tapping influences ten years out of date. He was the go-to architect for high-end residential work in town and usually delivered showy Queen Anne mansions. This classical revival brick structure with stone trim, constructed for the Commercial Cable Company in 1915, was, however, right with the times. “It was the first building of fireproof construction in Newfoundland,” the Contract Record of Toronto reported. The city’s most prolific early 20th century architect’s life was cut short when the ship he was sailing on to California in 1918, the Florizel, struck rocks and sank.

S.O. Steele Building
100 Water Street

This French Second Empire souvenir from the 19th century streetscape was raised after the Great Fire of 1892 as a crock shop for Hannah Martin. She sold the business to Samuel Owen Steele who began importing china from Europe and Japan. Newfoundlanders knew they would get “full value for your money and good packing” when they dealt with the Steeles who kept the family business here until 1989. The quick tip-off of the ornate Second Empire style is the mansard roof that provided for a full top storey. Although popular mostly in the early 1870s elsewhere it was the go-to choice for rebuilding after the fire, known in St. John’s as the Southcott Style for the firm of J. & J.T. Southcott that pioneered it in Newfoundland.  
Fortis Building
139 Water Street at southwest corner of Harbour Drive

This International Style high-rise arrived on the St. John’s waterfront in 1969, built for the Royal Trust banking concern.

Delgado Building Municipal Heritage Building
169-173 Water Street

Andrew Delgado sailed from Italy to Newfoundland in the 1870s and started a business in Tilt Cove, selling to miners. When the mine played out he came to St. John’s to sell fruit. Following the citywide fire in 1892 he settled into this ornate commercial building of brick and stone. Delgado came to be known for his expensive teas. The storey goes that the high society ladies of St. John’s would happily pay extra for Delgado’s finest blends but in fact all his teas came from the same tea chest.

The Old London, New York and Paris Building
179-181 Water Street and Baird’s Cove

Similar to the Delgado Building, this commercial structure was raised in brick and stone after the 1892 conflagration. It was the long-time home of two seemingly non-compatible businesses - James Baird peddled fishing supplies and Joseph Goldstone ran the upscale The London, New York and Paris department store where he offered Newfoundlanders their first ready-made clothing. The Goldstone family kept the business going until 1982. 

St. John’s Courthouse
188 Water Street

The burly Richardsonian Romanesque style was a favourite for civic buildings in North America in the early 1890s. Architect William H. Greene tapped the style created by Bostonian Henry Hobson Richardson for a replacement to the city’s 46-year old seat of justice that perished in the 1892 fire. The building features an entrance through a monumental arch supported by polished columnettes, a corner clock tower with turrets, front facing gable, windows grouped in threes and rough cut ashlar granite and sandstone - all traits of the Richardsonian Romanesque style. The final price tag was $128,000. Greene was a local architect but builder Samuel Manners Brookfield was from Nova Scotia and his initial plan to spend some of his budget on Nova Scotian materials caused enough of an uproar that Newfoundland building materials were found to get the job done. A courthouse has stood on this spot, more or less, for almost 300 years and this building is going strong into its second century of service.

Commercial Chambers Building
197 Water Street

This is one of the city’s best kept Romanesque Revival commercial buildings from the 1890s. Look up to see intricate brickwork forming stringcourses and pilasters and window hoods. A small entrance of rough-hewn granite is centered on the five-bay facade. The building was raised in 1896 by William J. Ellis who was perhaps the busiest post-fire contractors in St. John’s. In fact Ellis was one of the largest private employers in the city in the early 1900s.

205 Water Street

This building began life as concrete warehouse in 1913, constructed according to the city’s new and strict fireproofing codes. In the 1920s it was converted into a banking temple with a heavy dentilled pediment and cornice, square fluted Doric pilasters and keystones over the windows. A decorative wreath inside the pediment completes the classical presentation. Nearly 100 years on it is still a bank.

Royal Bank
226 Water Street

This classical revival vault from the Merchant’s Bank of Halifax opened in 1895 in the wake of all the colony’s banks failing after a dip in the cod catch the previous year. It is considered the first so-called foreign bank branch in Canada. 

Grace Building
283-285 Water Street at southeast corner of Becks Cove

The exterior appearance of this 1898 building has been compromised on the ground level but you can still look up to see the distinctive projecting stringcourses and octagonal turret. John Anderson had this building constructed for his dry goods store. Anderson went into local politics and was the primary rabblerouser in the passage of the Daylight Savings Act of 1917, making Newfoundland one of the first jurisdictions in North America to enact the time-shifting measure. In his honour it was known around town as “Anderson’s Time.” 

Yellow Belly Brewery & Public House
288 Water Street at northwest corner of George Street

This is another building constructed after a great fire - but the one in 1846, not 1892. The three-and-a-half storey brick and masonry structure survived the latter inferno whose flames licked their last here. The current establishment takes it name from the faction of Irishmen hailing from County Wexford who were known to meet in this building. During a hurling match with the champion Cornish team the Wexford side tied strips of yellow cloth around their middles. After their improbable triumph King George III hailed the victors, “Well done Yellowbellies!” 


Murray Premises
5 Becks Cove Street

These attractive buildings were constructed in 1846 as warehouses, machine shops and offices by James Murray and Richard O’Dwyer. Murray had come to St. John’s from Perth, Scotland in the 1830s and leased a bakery to produce some of the first locally made “hard bread” on the island. He was into trading and the seal fishery when the fire of 1846 hit. The buildings were constructed on pilings driven into the harbour floor and initially used mostly for salted cod. As such they are considered the oldest collection of mercantile buildings in Newfoundland devoted to the fishing trade. By the time the third generation of Murrays, in the form of David and Andrew, finished work the business was one of the most successful fishery and general supply businesses in the province. Today the U-shaped building complex has been repurposed as guest rooms. 


140 Harbour Drive at northwest corner of Bishop’s Cove

Robert Templeton sailed from Scotland in 1860 with a three-year contract to work for local merchant James Bryden. When it was satisfied Templeton went into business with partners in a dry goods concern, at the site where the tour began. By 1890 he was a sole owner under the banner “Robert Templeton.” In the early 1900s the operation settled here. When son Robert Arthur took over the trade shifted from general merchandise to wallpaper, paint and floor coverings. The family business lasted more than 150 years in St. John’s before shuttering in 2017. 


George Street

This two-block stretch is internationally known, reputed to have more bars per square foot than any street in the world. The Great Fire of 1846 started on George Street in a cabinetmaker’s shop when a glue pot boiled over. That won’t happen again because now there are nothing but bars, pubs and restaurants on George Street - no manufacturing allowed. The two blocks are open only to foot travel, save for the mornings when suppliers bring in reinforcements by truck.


The Corner Stone Building
16 Queen Street at northeast corner of George Street

This is the oldest surviving theatre building in St. John’s, dating to 1860. But before the live stage was set up it was used as an exhibition centre for fisheries and agriculture products as envisioned by its builders, the Fishermen’s Society. The Roman Catholic Diosese of St. John’s bought the building in 1872 and the foundation meeting of the Star of the Sea Society, named for the Catholic patroness to seafarers, was conducted here. After 1903 it became office and warehouse space for nearly seven decades.


MileOne Centre
New Gower Street

Newfoundland’s era of indoor sporting arenas began on February 1, 1899 with a hockey test between native Canadians and native Newfoundlanders in the brand spanking new Prince of Wales Rink on Factory Lane. The domed wooden ice arena was courtesy of Robert Gillespie Reid, a Scottish-born railway engineer who had come to Newfoundland a decade earlier. Reid’s working life had begun in Australia gold mines but after coming to North America he helped build several important railway bridges, including laying the masonry abutments for the International Bridge over the Niagara River. On the island he built, owned and operated the 261-mile Newfoundland Northern and Western Railway from Harbour Grace Junction to Halls Bayand. Along the way Reid accumulated massive land grants for the work - 5,000 acres for every mile operated - and became one of the world’s largest land proprietors. Some of that land was deeded for Prince’s Rink which was also built by Reid Newfoundland Company engineers. It is unlikely Robert Reid saw many hockey games in the rink as he spent most of his time in California, visiting Newfoundland only in the summers, until his death in 1908 at the age of 66. Prince’s Rink burned to the ground after 42 years in 1941 and in 1955 Memorial Stadium was constructed on Kings Bridge Road with a capacity of over 4,000. It was replaced by Mile One Centre in 2001. With seating for 7,000, the name comes from the fact that you are standing at the beginning of the 8,030-kilometre Trans-Canada Highway. 


City Hall
New Gower Street

The 1888 Municipal Act shifted control of affairs in St. John’s from the Colonial Goveenment to a City Council. The council was first gaveled to order in rented offices in the Keough Estate Building on Duckworth Street. In the 1960s it was revealed that a secret fund had been accumulating since the early 1950s for the construction of a new city hall and had reached $2,000,000. The council had kept the plans on the down low since it was assumed the general public would not believe St. John’s could afford such an extravagant building. But with a new passion for urban renewal the city hall project forged ahead and construction of this modernist government office, designed by Parkin Associates of Toronto, began in 1969. When it was dedicated on October 10, 1970 the final tab was $3,500,000. 


The Majestic Theatre
390 Duckworth Street at New Gower Street

This vernacular flatiron building with a broad domed-corner was raised in 1918. The original Majestic Theatre was erected in 1822 as a stage for local amateur productions. It burned in 1845 and its replacement was consumed by flames in the 1890s. The Majestic is also associated with the Riot of April 5, 1932 which led to the dissolution of the Newfoundland government a year later. In the depths of the Great Depression city merchants and others began to see the government headed by Richard Squires as bloated, expensive and inefficient. The businessmen gave their workers time off and some 2,000 citizens gathered at the Majestic to begin a peaceful march to the Colonial Building to prevent their grievances. Once on the grounds police used batons on the marchers that incited the crowd and before the day was done every window in the building was bashed out and Prime Minister Squires barely escaped the premises in a waiting car. He was then forced to flee his house of refuge as clergy delayed the surging mob. In 1933 the Newfoundland legislature, owing $97 million and facing insolvency, ended 79 years of independent rule and voted itself out of existence. 

377 Duckworth Street

John Fox had been one of the first members elected to that House of Assembly when the colony was granted responsible government in 1855. He erected this humble two-storey residence in the 1870s and it is one of the rare survivors of the 1892 conflagration.


Anglican Cathedral of St. John The Baptist
16 Church Hill

There have been six - and maybe more - wooden churches that have stood on this hillside since the 1600s. Most fell victim to the local skirmishing between the French and British which did not end until the 1760s. The construction of a stone church lurched through the 19th century. The first Bishop of Newfoundland, Aubrey Spencer, launched the effort in 1843 but he had only laid the cornerstone when he ill health forced his removal to Jamaica. Next up was Edward Feild and he retained the services of prolific English ecclesiastical architect George Gilbert Scott, a leading cheerleader for the Gothic Revival style, to design the long-awaited sanctuary. By the time Feild left the post in 1876 the only thing built was the nave, which served as the entire church. The choir and transept were constructed in the 1880s to give the cathedral the shape of a Latin cross but the Great Fire of 1892 caused the roof to collapse, bring down interior walls, and melt the glass windows. Finally everything was put back together by 1905 and North America had one of its best English Gothic structures - even though the spire envisioned by Scott has still never been built. 

Gower Street United Church
99 Queen’s Road

This is the oldest Methodist congregation in St. John’s, established in 1815. The current church building, a Romanesque confection designed by English architect Elijah Hoole, dates to 1896. Parts of it were reclaimed from the previous sanctuary that burned in the Great Fire of 1892. This is church number four for the congregation which became part of the United Church of Canada in 1925. 


St. John’s Masonic Temple
6 Cathedral Street

The Grand Lodge of Boston gave the first warrant for Freemasonry in Newfoundland in 1746 but the city’s Masons did not get around to building a proper lodge until 1885. Then it burned in the Great Fire of 1892. But the insurance money came in handy, bankrolling the creation of the largest brick fraternal meeting hall in the province. The red brick for the Victorian structure with classical influences was imported from Accrington, England and ready for its first Masonic meeting in 1896. The last meeting here would be in 2007.


Union Bank
287 Duckworth Street

For decades the economy of Newfoundland was pretty simple - fishermen would catch cod, trade the catch to merchants for store credit and the merchants would sell the valuable fish to ports throughout the Atlantic Ocean. As life became more complicated the government opened the Newfoundland Savings Bank in 1834 and the Bank of British North America opened its first colonial branch a year later. As local merchants became increasingly disenchanted with the practices of these institutions the Union Bank opened its doors in 1854. The locally controlled enterprise quickly scuttled the Bank of British North America and was strong enough by the 1860s to finance this Italian Renaissance styled banking hall of brick and stone. Aided by steel shutters installed on the windows the Union Bank fought off the flames of the Great Fire of 1892 but was helpless against a downturn in the fish trade. On December 10, 1894 the bills came due and the Union Bank and the Commercial Bank, two of the three banks in town, closed their doors forever. The “Bank Crash” slammed the brakes on commerce in the city, left thousands out of work and spurred the arrival of Canadian banks to Newfoundland and the the adoption of Canadian currency.

Provincial Museum of Newfoundland and Labrador
285 Duckworth

The Newfoundland Museum started preserving and collecting artifacts to Newfoundland and Labrador as far back as the 1840s when the subscription-supported St. John’s Mechanics’ Institute was founded. Items were classified as belonging to “natural history” or “apparatus.” The first of many homes for the “Museum of the Atheneum” came in 1871 with an addition to Edward Murray’s House. Murray was the founder of the Newfoundland Geological Survey. The collection arrived in its first permanent home here in 1911. The building boasts a pair of classically inspired brick towers framing a monumental Roman arch. The stone elements in the middle were crafted in England and shipped across the Atlantic. In 2005 the Provincial Museum moved to modern digs on Bonaventure Avenue in a cultural facility known as The Rooms.

271-275 Duckworth Street

This building was constructed in 1911 for the Newfoundland Clothing Factory but is best known for its association with the Evening Telegram that was quartered here from the 1950s until the 1980s. William James Herder went to work in 1863 at the age of 14 as a printer’s apprentice at the town’s weekly newspaper, the Courier. Herder had his eye on the publisher’s office as well because when the weekly hit a rough patch and closed in 1878 he bought one of the presses and started the Evening Telegram. It was the first daily newspaper, save for a Sunday rest, in Newfoundland and the only island periodical to survive from the 19th century. The Herder family owned the paper until 1970. 

Bank of British North America
276 Duckworth Street

This Italianate ornament was constructed in 1849 for the Bank of British North America by the bank’s go-to architect, David Stirling of Halifax. After the bank shut down in 1857 the Commercial Bank of Newfoundland moved in and stayed until it too foundered in 1894. Along the way it picked up a Victorian-era mansard roof in 1885. The parade of banking overlords continued when the Bank of Montreal arrived in 1895 but only stayed two years. Then it was onto the Newfoundland Savings Bank, the island’s oldest bank. They stayed for 65 years before selling the old war horse back to the Bank of Montreal. A banking career that lasted over 130 years for the building came to a close in 1985 when the property was donated to the city. It now does duty as the Anna Templeton Centre, an offshoot of the College of the North Atlantic that provides arts and crafts programs, befitting the legacy of its namesake who was long involved in the St. John’s arts scene. 

South Beach Building
221 Duckworth Street

This splash of Miami Beach arrived on the St. John’s streetscape in 2009. The building was constructed in the 1940s with an Art Deco shape and the makeover and new colour scheme sealed the deal. Over the years the small space did duty as the CKIX and CJYQ radio stations, a bookstore and an art gallery.

Tobin Building
214 Duckworth Street at northeast corner of Holloway Street

The Tobin family lived and worked at this location for generations. Michael Tobin’s home and store was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1892 and his nephew James rebuilt one of the city’s finest Second Empire style buildings in its ashes. James sold groceries and spirits on the first floor at the bottom of the hill. His son Jack specialized in tobacco products when his inheritance arrived in 1920. Jack Tobin was a mainstay of the Newfoundland Hockey League for half-a-century and was ushered into the Newfoundland and Labrador Sports Hall of Fame in 1977.