Vacant for 50 years, one of Newfoundland's oldest residential buildings is getting some TLC

·3 min read
The Alexander Bridge House has been vacant for half a century. Efforts are underway to restore the oldest residential structure in Newfoundland. (Town of Bonavista - image credit)
The Alexander Bridge House has been vacant for half a century. Efforts are underway to restore the oldest residential structure in Newfoundland. (Town of Bonavista - image credit)

The sounds of hammers and woodworking will soon ring out over Bonavista as renovations start on the Alexander Bridge House, the oldest known residential structure in the province, according to the Canadian Register of Historic Places.

The Georgian-style home was built between 1811 and 1814 on Church Street, the town's main road, which runs along the harbour. In the last few decades, it has fallen into disrepair but one group has rallied to save it.

"When it's repaired and it's finished, when you're driving down the street it'll stand out amongst the rest. When you restore a town you've got to have whatever was in the town," said Bonavista Historic Townscape Foundation treasurer David Hiscock.

Work is scheduled to start in April and it could take at least two years before the painstaking restoration work is wrapped up, he said. An architect recently walked through the house to assess the situation and see what work had to be done, and Hiscock said they heard promising things.

"They're saying it was in way better shape than they had anticipated.… It's 200 years old and hasn't been lived in since the 1960s, so you can imagine it looks pretty derelict from the outside.

"But apparently the structure is sound.… Inside, a lot of the old mouldings and the old stairwells and old doors are sound. So that's a good thing."

Town of Bonavista
Town of Bonavista

To restore the home to its former glory the foundation has raised $1.8 million, with 10 per cent coming from the foundation. The remaining $1.62 million is divided up, with the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency contributing three-quarters of it and the provincial government kicking in the rest.

The house that William Alexander built

The house was built for Scottish-born William Alexander, who operated the mercantile firm Alexander and Co. He hired Alexander Strathie of Greenock, Scotland, to design and build the impressive Georgian style home, and construction was finished in 1814.

Hiscock said while Newfoundlanders built their own houses in the saltbox-style, the Alexanders took their design cues from fashionable homes in the United Kingdom.

"So they brought over their own people to build their houses for them."

In fact, he said, the Strathie family stayed in the province and went on to build a lot of other buildings, including the local courthouse.

Once restored, the house won't be sitting idle. One of the conditions of the ACOA funding is that the building has to be self-sustaining, so Hiscock said there will be a seafood restaurant on the ground floor. The plan is to put out a tender for the work, as it won't be run by the foundation.

Town of Bonavista
Town of Bonavista

He pointed out Bonavista was centred on the fishery.

"What better place than a seafood restaurant that'll look right out over Bonavista Harbour, right on the harbour itself?"

On the second floor will be a small museum dedicated to the house, the family it was built for and its construction, he added.

The restoration of the Alexander Bridge House is a part of the town's overarching plan to preserve its numerous heritage structures, which got its start as a way to revitalize the local economy after the cod moratorium by pivoting to tourism, said Hiscock.

"I just can't wait to see it complete because I think it's going to be a really, really nice building.… Now you'll be able to leave the Ryan Premises, which is a federal historic site, and you'll be able to walk right down to the town hall."

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