The Great Fire of 1892 shaped our city in a big way, most of St. John’s was engulfed in flames and destroyed overnight.
On July 8th around 5PM, a small fire broke out in a stable at the top of Carter’s Hill. Unfortunately that day had all the perfect ingredients for the fire to spread rapidly throughout the city.
An hour after the fire began, many residents knew what was going on. They rushed to store their valuables in some masonry (like brick, stone, or concrete) buildings that they felt were more likely to withstand the fire. By sunrise the next morning, the fire had ruined two thirds of St. John’s, including many of the masonry buildings the residents thought were safe.
Numbers vary by sources, but approximately 11,000 people were left homeless and somewhere between $13M and $20M of property damage was caused. Miraculously, only 4 people died.
The citizens banded together with help from both local and distant parties. A real feat even in today’s construction climate, the majority of homes were rebuilt in only two years. Larger buildings, like the Anglican Cathedral, took longer to rebuild.
New construction was designed to safeguard against future devastation. Duckworth, Water and George streets were rebuilt in masonry. These streets were also widened and straightened to help prevent the spread of fire.
Despite growing popularity of more organized “Garden Cities,” the people of St. John’s didn’t have the time or resources to alter the street layout drastically. Many of the building owners lived in England, which would have added a layer of complexity to a full scale re-organization.
With a great deal of urgency, the houses were rebuilt in a pattern similar to the pre-fire street grid. Temporary tent cities were set up in Bannerman Park and on Quidi Vidi Lake, but with winter quickly approaching, people needed places to live that could withstand harsher weather.
We widely celebrate the Second Empire style that grew to prominence after the fire thanks to John Thomas Southcott. A purely “Southcott” home with hooded windows and a mansard roof is rare find in St. John’s.
Despite its eminence in local architectural history, this style makes up a fairly small portion of our built fabric. A simple, almost minimal style, makes up a significantly larger part of our vernacular and is widely overlooked.
Given the short time frame, most of the city’s homes were rebuilt as quickly and economically as possible, which took the form of simple, undecorated boxes.
In contrast to the steeply pitched roofs that would have characterized the pre-fire centre (think Yellow Belly Brewery) the post-fire buildings had flat roofs. This modest and minimal architecture embodies a pragmatic resourcefulness, which is part of our city’s character.
As the income level of downtown residents has grown, these simple buildings have taken on bright colours with added embellishments. In much of the core, it could be more historically accurate to go without ornamentation like dentils or elaborate window surrounds. Even though decoration is often a sign of wealth, and aesthetically pleasing to many, these embellishments could take away the feeling the fire left the city with. Architecture, like art, expresses the Zeitgeist, and plays an important role in preserving and making our history visible.
This year marks the 125th anniversary of the Great Fire. The City of St. John’s is commemorating this milestone with a number of events throughout the city. You can find the full schedule of events here: http://www.stjohns.ca/greatfire