The Fight to Save Historic Properties
Halifax’s Historic Properties are situated next to the waterfront just north of where Upper Water meets Duke Street. The series of old stone and wooden buildings were largely constructed in the nineteenth century. Now occupied by boutiques, restaurants, and offices, the buildings are tourist attractions for their historic significance and charm. But these buildings were not always seen as features of the downtown; in fact, in the late-1960s, the City of Halifax planned to demolish them in order to build an expressway along the waterfront.
The historical significance of the Historic Properties is tied to their role in commerce and trade in nineteenth-century Halifax. They are also some of the oldest existing buildings of their kind in the country. During the nineteenth century, Halifax was the primary shipping port for British merchants bringing goods to and from Canada. As such, the city’s waterfront was built up with wharves, warehouses, and stores that belonged to traders and shipping companies. The buildings now part of the Historic Properties were at one point owned by Enos Collins and/or Pickford and Black Company. Collins was a wealthy merchant and privateer from Liverpool, Nova Scotia, who established Halifax’s first bank in one of the ironstone warehouses facing Upper Water Street. After his death in 1871, Robert Pickford and William A. Black purchased his other waterfront properties and the adjacent wharf, where they established a highly profitable shipping firm and steamship service. But the early 20th century brought economic hardship to Halifax, in part due to the Halifax Explosion and two World Wars. These seven buildings were hence neglected and fell into disrepair.
Following WWII, City Council wanted to modernize Halifax and boost the local economy. Their plan for the city’s "urban renewal" included a multi-lane expressway along the waterfront named Harbour Drive. To make space for the highway, in 1962, the City of Halifax began expropriating properties that were in its path, including the old waterfront warehouses. Around that time, the Maritime Museum was considering relocating to the Privateer Warehouse. They contacted the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMBC) about the building, who sent a restoration architect to investigate. The architect concluded that the Privateer Warehouse was, indeed, historically significant as were the six warehouses nearby. In 1963, the group of buildings were designated a National Historic Site by the HSMBC, who declared it "the most significant pre-Confederation complex of maritime commercial buildings in Canada."
Despite the HSMBC’s recommendation that the City preserve the warehouses, City Council moved forward with their plans for the expressway. The public was displeased: in 1967 and 1968, members of the Committee of Concern, Heritage Trust of Nova Scotia, Halifax Association of Architects, and the Chair of the Civic Advisory Committee on the Preservation of Historic Buildings, Louis Collins, all made presentations to City Council advocating for the preservation of the historic buildings. But after hearing their arguments, City Council voted in favour of proceeding with the highway albeit by narrow margins. Expropriations and demolitions continued in the downtown, and by the end of 1968, the City of Halifax had acquired all seven warehouses. Public outcry soon reached fever pitch, which sparked debate in City Council - Harbour Drive or the historic buildings? In July of 1969, Council finally agreed that the warehouses should be saved. The citizens were victorious. A group of aldermen and citizens were brought together to assess what should to be done with the buildings and who should do it. This group, known as The Halifax Landmarks Commission, selected Historic Properties Limited for the job. From 1973 to 1975, the warehouses were brought back to life as the Historic Properties. The restoration firm also rehabilitated buildings on Granville and Hollis Streets, all of which were later registered as historic properties by the Province of Nova Scotia.
The public’s fight to save the historic waterfront buildings is one of the first examples in Nova Scotia of citizens influencing town planning. Their efforts prompted the Province to make changes to the Nova Scotia Planning Act, thereby allowing the public greater access to information and involvement in the planning process. And given the success of the Historic Properties, in 1980, the Province of Nova Scotia began legally protecting buildings with historic significance.