The over­looked apart­ment build­ing at South and Bar­ring­ton is liv­ing on bor­rowed time. Soon the 121-year-old struc­ture will be torn down, re­placed with some­thing new, cold and life­less. But the peo­ple who called this yel­low Vic­to­rian-era house home—the sto


Full of his­tory but lack­ing her­itage, the de­crepit South Street apart­ment build­ing faces the ex­e­cu­tioner’s wreck­ing ball while an in­dif­fer­ent city doesn’t know what it’s los­ing

“So much of mankind’s var­ied ex­pe­ri­ence had passed there—so much had been suf­fered, and some­thing, too, en­joyed—that the very tim­bers were oozy, as with the mois­ture of a heart. It was it­self like a great hu­man heart, with a life of its own, and full of rich and som­bre rem­i­nis­cences.”

— Nathaniel Hawthorne, The House of the Seven Gables

James Au­gus­tus Far­quhar spent his child­hood play­ing in the grave­yard of the At­lantic. Broke and un­able to keep their farm near Musquodoboit Har­bour, the Far­quhar fam­ily had moved to Sable Is­land for a gov­ern­ment post­ing. James was seven. His fa­ther ran the res­cue sta­tion on the is­land’s east­ern edge, keep­ing watch for er­rant ves­sels that might fall prey to the is­land’s treach­er­ous wa­ters. James oc­cu­pied his free time play­ing amongst the whale skele­tons and ship­wrecks scat­tered along the beach.

Sable Is­land had no trees for lum­ber, so the young Far­quhar quickly learned how to strip the bones of wrecked ships for build­ing sup­plies and fire­wood. Those lessons served him well later in life. The swash­buck­ling sea cap­tain made a for­tune in his ca­reer as a pro­fes­sional wrecker—sal­vaging ships and cargo that had been thought lost for­ever to the deep. His suc­cess so of­ten seemed to arise out of im­pos­si­ble odds that the lo­cals in Hal­i­fax coined a phrase af­ter the good cap­tain: Far­quhar’s luck.

His sea­far­ing sto­ries cap­ti­vated news­pa­per read­ers at the dawn of the 20th cen­tury, but it’s one of Far­quhar’s land-based busi­ness ven­tures that’s stood the test of time. It can be eas­ily viewed at the cor­ner of South and Bar­ring­ton Streets. A three-and-a-half-storey yel­low “stick style” apart­ment build­ing that was, a cen­tury ago, known as The Elmwood Ho­tel.

It’s one of the old­est res­i­den­tial struc­tures in the city without an of­fi­cial her­itage des­ig­na­tion—and it’s on bor­rowed time. Prin­ci­pal De­vel­op­ments, which pur­chased the prop­erty in 2014, has al­ready an­nounced plans to raze the site and erect a six-storey mod­ernist apart­ment build­ing on its grave. The de­mo­li­tion per­mits have al­ready been is­sued.

There will be out­cry, as there al­ways is in these cases. But any ar­gu­ment to pre­serve the build­ing means look­ing past what it’s be­come. A cen­tury of lack­lus­tre up­keep has left the struc­ture in such a state of poor re­pair that Far­quhar him­self would have trou­ble sal­vaging it. Skin peel­ing, bones creak­ing, it looms over Corn­wal­lis Park, weighed down by over a hun­dred years of life in its walls. There’s not much to save, if it sur­vives. There’s a lot to lose when it’s gone.

This is an obit­u­ary to a place not yet passed; a memo­rial to the walk­ing dead of Hal­i­fax ar­chi­tec­ture. This is an epi­taph on what we pre­serve; the his­tory we value and the her­itage we choose to let rot. This is a house that be­longed to sea cap­tains and movie stars, po­ets and lovers, politi­cians and punks.

This is the Elmwood, while it re­mains.

In 1826, Charles Hill Wal­lace buys a small plot of land in the city’s south end and con­structs a one-and-a-half storey Ge­or­gian res­i­dence.

Born in Hal­i­fax, a grad­u­ate of the Uni­ver­sity of King’s Col­lege, Wal­lace hopes to raise his fam­ily in that home. For rea­sons un­ac­counted in his­tory, the Wal­laces leave Hal­i­fax for Eng­land soon af­ter the birth of their two sons. Charles Wal­lace Jr. later takes the cloth, serv­ing as the rev­erend of Hotwells, Bris­tol. Nes­bit Wil­loughby Wal­lace has a short but dis­tin­guished ca­reer as a crick­eter.

Wal­lace dies in 1845, sep­a­rated by an ocean from the city of his birth. He’s 41. His Hal­i­fax home re­mains the prop­erty of his es­tate for an­other five years.

There were al­ways prob­lems liv­ing at the Elmwood. Ask any of the hun­dreds of past ten­ants who’ve walked its halls.

Peo­ple would light fire­works in­sire the wooden build­ing. The sec­ond-floor bal­cony was ready to col­lapse at any mo­ment. Old bar­be­cues and pa­tio fur­ni­ture from past ten­ants would ac­cu­mu­late re­morse­lessly on the ve­randa.

If the doors weren’t locked, Alexan­dra would come home to find peo­ple in her bed­room. Ellen once had to use her house keys to fight off a group of men who were beat­ing up her hus­band on the front porch. There was the time Fiona’s neigh­bours stole the fire ex­tin­guish­ers, or when Ken­dall went three months without a func­tion­ing shower. Shelby had to move her bed into the liv­ing room when the ceil­ing started leak­ing. Cur­rently, Chelsea’s toi­let won’t flush.

The heat ei­ther worked or it didn’t. The tem­per­a­ture of your shower en­tirely de­pended on if any­one was run­ning wa­ter above or be­low you. There were weird noises, bro­ken win­dows and mush­rooms grow­ing in the cor­ner. No one cleaned the hall­ways. There were rats and bed­bugs and mould and rac­coons and mice. It was home. Cheap, dog-friendly and filled with many of the orig­i­nal fix­tures, it was a liv­ing Vic­to­rian man­sion on a busy down­town cor­ner. Un­sur­pris­ing, then, that the Elmwood at­tracted so many var­ied ten­ants. Ellen Page lived there, briefly, be­fore her rising fame made such a thing im­prac­ti­cal. (The ac­tor’s rep­re­sen­ta­tives didn’t re­ply to re­quests for com­ment.)

There were al­ways ru­mours it used to be a bor­dello, though his­tor­i­cal record makes no men­tion of such ill re­pute. That the south end cor­ner it perched on would be­come the stroll for street-based sex work­ers in the ’80s and ’90s prob­a­bly added some sprin­kling of au­then­tic­ity to the myth.

Bands would re­hearse, com­edy shows were per­formed. Peo­ple fell in love and broke up. It at­tracted artists, bo­hemi­ans, young fam­i­lies and new Cana­di­ans. It was shabby-chic, says Waye Ma­son. “Looked like some­thing out of Sher­lock Holmes.”

The south-end coun­cil­lor was a res­i­dent of the Elmwood dur­ing his sec­ond year of uni­ver­sity in 1991. He re­mem­bers the rust; the in­se­cure locks; the run­down feel of a build­ing then clos­ing in on its cen­ten­nial. How could you not fall in love?

“I would have loved—I still would love—to see it get ren­o­vated,” Ma­son says, with a quick cor­rec­tion in his choice of tenses. “There’re a lot of things about it that would be hard to re­tain in a ren­o­va­tion, but it’s just such a beau­ti­ful build­ing and it’s got so much char­ac­ter.”

John Es­son ar­rives in Hal­i­fax from Aberdeen, Scot­land in 1823. He quickly finds work in his un­cle’s gro­cery store, tak­ing to the vo­ca­tion well enough that soon he’s set­ting up his own whole­sal­ing busi­ness. Trade in the Caribbean is pros­per­ous and his mer­can­tile pur­suits flour­ish. Es­son is ap­pointed di­rec­tor of the Bank of Nova Sco­tia, and for a time runs the Hal­i­fax Fire In­sur­ance Com­pany. Along the way, he pur­chases an old home­stead in the south end.

The prop­erty still be­longed to the late Charles Wal­lace, but in the last few years it had

been oc­cu­pied in suc­ces­sion by archibishop Wil­liam Walsh (who, due to a spat with the vicar dio­cese, wasn’t autho­rized to live in the glebe), and a cou­ple the news­pa­pers record as “Mr. and Mrs. Mur­doch.” It would be a safe as­sump­tion that was Beamish Mur­doch, a lo­cal his­to­rian and noted po­lit­i­cal fig­ure in Hal­i­fax at the time.

A year af­ter pur­chas­ing the prop­erty, Es­son is elected to the Leg­is­la­ture. He takes over the Hal­i­fax County seat left va­cant when Joseph Howe moved to Cum­ber­land County. Es­son holds the po­si­tion un­til his death in 1863. Howe later re­marks of his for­mer col­league that “not many men had ever passed from the halls of leg­is­la­tion leav­ing be­hind them so few en­e­mies, and so many per­sonal friends.”

John’s widow, Har­riet Ann Es­son, holds onto their south end home un­til her own death in 1895. The pa­pers are still call­ing it Es­son House when James Far­quhar bought the prop­erty a year later. “I would ar­gue that the over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of build­ings that are on our post­cards today were at one point in their his­tory great can­di­dates for de­mo­li­tion and re­de­vel­op­ment,” says Marc Den­hez. “So you don’t judge a book by its cover.”

The es­teemed au­thor, ad­ju­di­ca­tor and for­mer Her­itage Canada chair has been an ex­pert voice on her­itage preser­va­tion for over 30 years. Which is why he’ll be vis­it­ing Hal­i­fax next week as key­note speaker for this year’s Nova Sco­tia Her­itage Con­fer­ence. The event will take place a stone’s throw from the Elmwood, at the Westin Ho­tel.

Den­hez will be speak­ing about the in­dus­trial ba­sis for her­itage preser­va­tion; how cities, con­trac­tors and de­vel­op­ers need to view his­toric build­ings as some­thing wor­thy of con­tin­ual re-in­vest­ment. Put it this way, he says: there are $2.2 tril­lion worth of struc­tures in Canada. A ra­tio­nal, eco­nomic mind would say it makes a hell of a lot more sense to ex­tend the life of those prop­er­ties rather than scrap ev­ery­thing and build new.

“From time im­memo­rial peo­ple have been fix­ing build­ings. We’ve been do­ing that since the Sume­ri­ans. Peo­ple didn’t fix build­ings be­cause there was a gov­ern­ment pol­icy to do it. They fixed build­ings for the el­e­men­tary rea­son that it cost less to do it that way than it cost to start over.”

That all changed dur­ing World War II. The hunger for mod­ernist cities gave birth to multi-ten­ta­cled gov­ern­ment plan­ning pro­grams all de­signed to build what was new and get rid of the old. Un­til the 1990s, Den­hez notes, ap­prox­i­mately one-third of all land­fill de­posits in Canada were com­prised of used con­struc­tion ma­te­rial.

“There were even quotes from the jour­nal of the Royal Ar­chi­tec­tural In­sti­tute of Canada... where they were dis­cussing the mer­its of the Luft­waffe com­ing to bomb Hal­i­fax.”

By the early ’80s, the im­pact of all that new de­vel­op­ment—cou­pled with chang­ing philoso­phies around the world on pro­tect­ing spa­ces—spurred Hal­i­fax to launch its her­itage prop­er­ties pro­gram.

It was a way to hold onto the scraps of his­tory we felt were worth pre­serv­ing. But they were still relics. Her­itage had noth­ing to do with the fu­ture. City plan­ning was still about what was new.

Even today, growth is still syn­ony­mous with re­de­vel­op­ment in Hal­i­fax and in plan­ning doc­u­ments all over Canada, says Den­hez. This, de­spite the fact that the im­prove­ment of ex­ist­ing struc­tures ac­counts for about 40 per­cent more GDP than the con­struc­tion of new build­ings.

“Where is that rec­og­nized in our plan­ning doc­u­ments?” he asks. “Nada. Zero. Nowhere.”

Im­me­di­ately upon buy­ing the old Es­son house, James Far­quhar sets to work ren­o­vat­ing and ex­pand­ing it. The sea cap­tain adds a sec­ond storey and two ad­di­tional wings. The new struc­ture be­comes a board­ing house un­der the man­age­ment of Harry Preedy.

It’s dubbed the Elmwood, af­ter the two trees planted out front.

Preedy soon leaves his em­ploy­ment, hav­ing pur­chased the com­pet­ing Waver­ley Inn down the road. The busi­nesses are just two of the nu­mer­ous ho­tels built in the area for new­com­ers and tourists ar­riv­ing via train or through the ports. Preedy is re­placed in his du­ties by one such im­mi­grant—Mrs. E. E. Adams—who orig­i­nally hails from Brook­lyn, New York.

A 1921 news­pa­per pro­file of “suc­cess­ful women in busi­ness” glow­ingly de­scribes

A lot of friends of mine in the mu­sic in­dus­try have talked about hav­ing passed through that place as ei­ther guests of mu­si­cal friends or as ten­ants them­selves. I think it’s long been a sort of Mont­martre-type cul­tural is­land in the south end.

—Fiona MacGil­livray, res­i­dent 2014-16

Adams as the land­mark ho­tel’s “ef­fi­cient and en­thu­si­as­tic man­ager.” Un­der her care, the 20-year-old inn is rein­vig­o­rated and its din­ing room opened to the pub­lic. The “cui­sine and din­ing ser­vice of this mod­ern Elmwood is sec­ond to none in the Mar­itime prov­inces,” writes the Hal­i­fax Her­ald.

In her own words, Adams is “hap­pier in this work than ever be­fore in life.” She’s still man­ag­ing the Elmwood nine years later when it’s listed in a Cana­dian Pa­cific mag­a­zine on Mar­itime re­sorts. Daily rates for one of the Elmwood’s 38 rooms is $3.50—50 cents cheaper than the Lord Nel­son.

In that same year, 1930, cap­tain Far­quhar passes away. A ghostly white mor­tu­ary statue he had built for his grave is in­stead placed in the Mar­itime Mu­seum of the At­lantic

There are over 500 regis­tered her­itage prop­er­ties in HRM, with 10 to 15 new lo­ca­tions added ev­ery year. Prop­erty own­ers re­ceive grant money for up­keep, while city hall ex­tends its pro­tec­tion so the his­toric struc­tures can’t be de­mol­ished or sub­stan­tially changed without the con­sent of coun­cil. Watch­ing over the pro­gram is Aaron Mur­naghan, the mu­nic­i­pal­ity’s prin­ci­pal her­itage plan­ner.

“Her­itage has been a bad word for a long time, just be­cause it’s meant anti-de­vel­op­ment,” he says. “I think that’s some­thing that we’re try­ing to change.”

The city plan­ner be­lieves adap­tive re­use of older build­ings doesn’t have to be scary. It’s what helped Bar­ring­ton Street pre­serve its her­itage prop­er­ties—parts of them any­way— while let­ting the down­town core em­brace a ren­o­vated fu­ture. With the right in­cen­tives, Mur­naghan is con­vinced other de­vel­op­ers will start to see the same light.

“It’s seen as a li­a­bil­ity to own a her­itage prop­erty. I think that’s some­thing we have to change—whether it’s through in­cen­tive pro­grams or creat­ing new op­por­tu­ni­ties for de­vel­op­ers to add in­creased value to their prop­erty.”

Un­for­tu­nately none of this helps the Elmwood. The build­ing at 5185-89 South Street isn’t a regis­tered her­itage prop­erty. What it is, is a part of the pro­posed Old South Her­itage District, which if en­acted would pre­serve sev­eral his­toric build­ings in the neigh­bour­hood.

That plan is still months away from com­ing back to coun­cil, warns Mur­naghan. Even if it is ap­proved, the de­mo­li­tion per­mits have al­ready been is­sued. The Elmwood’s death is grand­fa­thered in. It’s only pres­ence in the fu­ture her­itage district will be in ab­sence. A ghost of what was.

The city is aware of what it’s los­ing. The Elmwood is a build­ing that HRM would very much like to in­clude on its her­itage registry, Mur­naghan stresses. In fact, some­one al­ready tried as much 30 years ago.

Back in 1985, when the her­itage prop­erty pro­gram was still new, coun­cil was ap­prov­ing dozens of des­ig­na­tions all over Hal­i­fax. That’s when an un­known third-party sub­mit­ted sev­eral South Street prop­er­ties for preser­va­tion—in­clud­ing the Elmwood, and the Gon­dola Restau­rant and Riviera build­ings next door.

The ap­pli­ca­tion was op­posed by the prop­er­ties’ owner, John Vacca.

“Our fam­ily has put to­gether a land as- sem­bly in good faith, and we be­lieve that we should be able to de­velop the land in ac­cor­dance with the rules that ex­isted when the prop­er­ties were pur­chased,” writes the Gon­dola pro­pri­etor and Elmwood res­i­dent in a let­ter to coun­cil.

A pub­lic hear­ing was sup­posed to have taken place that De­cem­ber, but was de­ferred at the re­quest of the her­itage ad­vi­sor for un­known rea­sons. And then the mat­ter dis­ap­pears from his­tory. The hear­ing never oc­curs, and the her­itage ap­pli­ca­tion that would have saved the Elmwood is never men­tioned again.

“It may have just dis­ap­peared,” says Mur­naghan. “We can’t seem to find any other ref­er­ence to it com­ing back to coun­cil.”

Third-party ap­pli­ca­tions weren’t al­ways treated con­sis­tently back then, he adds, but given Vacca’s ob­jec­tions, coun­cil likely sided with the prop­erty owner.

In 1937 the prop­erty at South and Bar­ring­ton passes from the hands of the Elmwood com­pany to Matilda Lawrence. Her heirs re­tain own­er­ship un­til 1950, when it’s pur­chased by Sarah Hein­ish.

She and hus­band Noa op­er­ate a cloth­ing busi­ness on Got­tin­gen. Sarah is also an in­flu­en­tial fig­ure in the Cana­dian Jewish Con­gress, Nep­tune Theatre and the Women’s League. The cloth­ing store closes in 1972, and a year later Hein­ish sells the Elmwood to sib­lings Wil­fred and Kevin Keefe.

The prop­erty brothers only keep the build­ing for five years be­fore mov­ing on to launch Gran­ite Brew­ery and the dearly missed Gin­ger’s a lit­tle fur­ther down on Bar­ring­ton. In 1979, Pino and Gio­vanna Vacca buy the Elmwood as part of their re­de­vel­op­ment play.

The Vacca fam­ily man­age the apartments for over a decade while run­ning the Gon­dola Restau­rant next door. John Vacca even­tu­ally sells the build­ing to Bar­rmor— the Nova Sco­tia di­vi­sion of an Ot­tawa-based prop­erty group.

Four years later, Bar­rmor flips the deed to Frank Mathe­son’s El­mend Realty.

A year later, it’s sold again. The new owner’s name is Far­quhar.

This week, at a meet­ing of the Com­mu­nity Plan­ning and Eco­nomic De­vel­op­ment Stand­ing Com­mit­tee, Waye Ma­son will in­tro­duce a mo­tion ask­ing for a staff re­port on en­hanc­ing HRM’s her­itage pro­tec­tions. The re­port is to in­clude op­tions for new forms of tax re­lief, and po­ten­tially the es­tab­lish­ment of a hold­ing by­law to al­low for the short-term pro­tec­tion of “im­por­tant un­reg­is­tered his­toric build­ings.”

The idea isn’t di­rectly in­spired by the Elmwood, says Ma­son, but the old build­ing is a fac­tor. It’s about of­fer­ing a lit­tle more car­rot as in­cen­tive for de­vel­op­ers to fix what they have now, in­stead of start­ing from scratch.

“I’m hope­ful that we’ll see, in­stead of Elmwood be­ing torn down and all that be­ing lost, that we’ll see a real nice adap­tive re-use and the gov­ern­ment will come in with a lit­tle bit of tax re­lief and maybe a cap­i­tal grant and we’ll get that build­ing saved.”

It would be wel­come news to past ten­ants. Even with all of the hor­ror sto­ries, not one of those who spoke with The Coast wants to see the build­ing fall. There are just too many good mem­o­ries—too many im­por­tant mo­ments—tied to that place. It was where Cody and his friends or­ga­nized their street hockey games, and where Bren­dan would host his 1920s-themed par­ties. It was where Sam­son in­ter­rupted an orgy in the laun­dry room, and where Re­becca would chat over cig­a­rettes with Leno about his life in Spain. It was where Su­san met her hus­band when he rang her door­bell by mis­take. It was Jen­nifer’s first home.

“It’s the an­tique and vin­tage face of Hal­i­fax that’s go­ing to be scraped off in favour of very mod­ern build­ings which are re­ally not go­ing to be dis­tinc­tive at all,” says for­mer ten­ant Fiona MacGil­livray. “I just think it’s a very near-sighted thing to do.”

Clyde Far­quhar first meets his fu­ture wife, Ruth, while they both live on Sum­mit

I worked at Pub­lic Works at the time and walked home ev­ery day for lunch. Sat in the bay win­dow and read the pa­per. It just had a nice vibe. The place is one of a kind and is def­i­nitely not too far gone to be saved. —coun­cil­lor Sam Austin, res­i­dent circa 2008

Street. Their courtship be­gins at a dance, held around the cor­ner from the Elmwood at the YWCA. The two marry in 1962 and are to­gether for 31 years un­til Clyde’s death in 2004.

The cou­ple’s pur­chase of 1585-89 South Street in 1994 is the per­fect book­end to the build­ing’s his­tory. Nearly a cen­tury af­ter its con­struc­tion, the Elmwood finds it­self back home again as the prop­erty of the Far­quhar fam­ily. It’s poetic.

Ex­cept it wasn’t. They’re dif­fer­ent Far­quhars. No re­la­tion to the cel­e­brated sea cap­tain.

“If you’re go­ing to give me a whole load of money, I’ll say I was re­lated to him,” jokes Ruth.

Clyde’s fam­ily was from out­side Liver­pool. Cap­tain Far­quhar’s blood­line hails from Musquodoboit. De­spite the shared sur­name, there’s no di­rect link between the two fam­i­lies.

Pur­chas­ing an his­toric Vic­to­rian prop­erty built by a well-known mariner with the same dis­tinc­tive moniker was—it turns out—pure co­in­ci­dence. His­tory, per­haps thank­fully, es­chews such tidy nar­ra­tives.

Across the street from the yel­low apart­ment build­ing stands the bronze vis­age of Edward Corn­wal­lis. The metal­lic gover­nor is 35 years younger than the prop­erty whose shadow he falls un­der, yet the fury with which some mem­bers of the pub­lic de­fend his place­ment is a stark con­trast to the sub­dued un­quiet ex­pressed over the Elmwood’s demise. The his­tory we choose to fight for tells us a lot about our­selves.

Given the build­ings that have fallen in Hal­i­fax over the last few years, maybe it just feels fu­tile. De­vel­op­ment, like en­tropy, is a con­stant. The rot­ting old house on the cor­ner will come down, and on its tomb a mon­u­ment to all things new will be erected—be­fore it­self be­ing torn down, dis­carded, in a few decades time. Un­less that doesn’t hap­pen. “I was con­sid­er­ing this a dead build­ing walk­ing for quite a while,” says Mur­naghan, with hope. “It’s re­ally not un­til the wreck­ing ball ar­rives on site be­fore we know that’s ac­tu­ally go­ing to hap­pen.”

There’s no in­di­ca­tion when the Elmwood will fall. The de­mo­li­tion per­mits granted in 2015 were re­cently ex­tended. Cur­rent ten­ants say they were told it’ll be at least a year. Prin­ci­pal De­vel­op­ments own­ers Paul, Re­nee and Peter Metlej didn’t re­turn calls.

But ne­go­ti­a­tions in these cases of­ten come down to the last breaths, says Mur­naghan. His de­part­ment is still in dis­cus­sions about sav­ing the Elmwood. There’s still hope for a mir­a­cle. A lit­tle bit more of Far­quhar’s luck.


The Elmwood Ho­tel, circa 1900, as pho­tographed by J. A. Irvine.


Frosted glass greets res­i­dents at the build­ing’s en­trance.


James Far­quhar’s mor­tu­ary statue is dis­played in the Mar­itime Mu­seum of the At­lantic.


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