The Four Sisters and the Stars of Heritage Restoration

Photo credit: Nancy Bradbury Hawkins
Things have clicked together quite conveniently for the restoration of one of the city's most interesting heritage properties.

The stars have aligned! The many elements required for a heritage structure to be saved and restored have come together in the case of a well-known set of St. John’s properties known as The Four Sisters.

You probably know them: they’re the string of four iconic homes on Temperance Street, near the entry to The Battery and Signal Hill. Not only do they look cool, they have some great stories behind them.

Samuel Garrett – the same guy who built Cabot Tower – used stone from that project to build the houses for his four daughters in the early 1900s.

Even cooler (and more mysterious!) is the fact that there is a tunnel leading from one of the basements to a destination unknown. Some say it supplied water from Quidi Vidi, while others say it was an escape route from the old Fort Townshend. Others still claim it leads to the penitentiary.

But here’s the story that really matters: amidst instances of heritage structures being torn down or neglected throughout the City of St. John’s, these four are finally in the process of being saved.

It wasn’t easy to get here; there are many moving parts to a successful heritage restoration. Not only do several types of people have to come together to plan and execute such a complex project, it’s impossible to predict what will be found once work begins.

“Until we develop x-ray vision, there’s no guarantee what we’re dealing with” inside the structures, says Brian Marler, the experienced contractor hired to oversee the restoration.

I met with Brian to get some insight into the project, and what I discovered was that we truly do need several stars to align for something of this importance to take place.

Brian moved to St. John’s several years ago, and as soon as he saw the Four Sisters he decided it was his dream project. Through the jigs and reels he did some work with Judith Bobbitt, the owner of three of the four houses, who in turn hired him on.

These two key components — a property owner who “gets it” and can afford it, plus a contractor with experience and passion — are crucial to a restoration’s success.

But there’s more: the neighbours have to be on board (fortunately the owner of the “fourth Sister” has agreed to team up for the project). And there has to be positive public sentiment — the community has to have the awareness and the desire to see the project take place.

That last bit about the public wanting this to happen might sound obvious, but the threat (and in some cases, reality) of other historic properties being lost has added an urgency to saving what we can, while we can.

Many in our community see heritage preservation and restoration as a way to sustain our economy, enhance our quality of life, and connect us with our sense of shared identity. But without the hard work of people in the position to take action, none of this would be possible. So let’s take a moment to celebrate and thank the many stars of our heritage community. May you forever align!

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  • I am the great grandaughter of Samuel Garrett and have been trying to get someone to save these houses to no avail until finally it is actually being done. You have no idea how pleased and relieved I feel. I grew up in # 31, my aunt Nell Molloy and family lived in #33 and my grandparents in # 35. Would love to get some photos when the work is completed if possible. My phone number is 604-952-5538.

    • Hi Judy, my daughter, and her friend, are researching The Four Sisters for a Heritage project for school. We have been fascinated with the info and family history of your story. Amazing. If there is any info that you can provide, would you be willing to contact me privately.
      It is wonderful to see a part of our local heritage being restored.
      Thank you.

  • Can you explain where the accompanying photo for this article came from? The photographer is none too happy that her work was used and she was never asked or given credit. We work hard to get great shots and deserve the acknowledgement.

    • Sincere apologies for this. And Dave Lane is not at fault (he has nothing to do with the photos associated with content here). There was some confusion where this image came from, via a Google search. I — Chad — did not realize it was a local photographer’s private, or, available-for-purchase photo. I thought it was being used from a local heritage organization’s media folder. The photo is now credited — Nancy Bradbury Hawkins — while we find another photo to use. Sincere apologies for the mix up.

  • I am the founder of the Historical Preservation Society in High River Alberta. Our project was the preservation of the town’s last remaining grain elevator. The day we had it declared a provincial historic site it burned down. I lived in St John’s for a few years and am familiar with the four sisters. I am very excited with this long awaited restoration project. Congratulations to the folks with vision who helped to make this project finally a reality, Wish I could be there to work with the crew on the restoration. Good luck and all the best.

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