Let’s go south, on the Common

Blair Beed, well-known historian, author and tour guide, will lead a walk on the South Common starting at Sackville and Summer to University to South Park and returning to Sackville at South Park. Along with the presentation of history there will be an expose of development on the South Common as well. The walk begins at Sackville & Summer Streets.

Walk the South Commons, Halifax, Nova Scotia   by Blair Beed
This walk takes place entirely on the South Common. Before starting the walk; Good walking shoes! Make sure you put money in the parking meter if required. Lock your car. There is no official bicycle lane along most of this route, however there are no places that cannot be accessed by bicycle. The route should take 1 1/2 hours approximately. There are public washrooms along the way in public buildings. There are no free standing public washrooms. Some of the public buildings lock some doors on certain days and hours.

The walk starts at the intersection of Sackville Street and Summer Street at the gateway to the Camphill Cemetery. The walk will bring you back to this intersection if you are leaving a vehicle.
With your back against the gate post of the Camphill Cemetery you will be looking across Summer Street to the Public Gardens on the right and the Wanders Grounds to the left. A little further to your left is the Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History. In the distance over the Wanders Grounds you will see Citadel Hill rising up. It is a natural drumlin hill reduced in height as the fortifications on top were rebuilt and enlarged. The view you have now (minus all the modern infrastructure and the trees) is the view soldiers encamped in this area had in the 1700s. The land at that time would have been cleared and open to provide an unobstructed watch for the enemies of the British.

Halifax town was named after an Earl of Halifax; Sackville Street after a Viscount. These were important political figures in Great Britain and using their names in the founding of the town was considered a compliment to them and an honour to us.

Sackville Street was the path that would have led into the town founded in 1749. It is the oldest established street you will encounter on this walk. This intersection has witnessed the passing of royal princes, and men of high military rank. More often it was the route of raucous soldiers returning to camp from the brothels and taverns of the town. In the 1700s it was not considered a place for ‘honest’ citizens to pass.

Camphill Cemetery was established in 1844 from the former military grounds. It’s enjoyable to have a stroll through or if you bring a lunch you can sit on a bench and enjoy a picnic after the tour. The stones and inscriptions are interesting and family plots are still being used. Buried in here are politicians, a brewer, the man who developed the process to create kerosene which helped end the whaling industry, a woman survivor of the sinking of the Titanic and a cross section of the citizens of the city. It is one of the second generation of cemeteries in the city. Well worth exploring but not included in this walk.

Begin your walk by turning right (south) and following Summer Street to the intersection of Spring Garden Road. Because of the Halifax Public Garden, spring and summer are easy picks for naming streets. Just past the cemetery fence on your right is the Garden Crest Condo development. The front building replicates a registered heritage apartment house that was a new luxury building in 1914. After much public debate Halifax City Council decided it could still be a heritage building with 2 mid rise buildings behind it, even though the developer was not required to keep the building other than a skeleton of the front wall. The shadow the higher buildings created on the Public Gardens was not considered an adequate reason to alter the development plans despite the objections of many citizens. The original developer did not proceed with the development but instead 10 years after the original approval, he sold the plans to another developer who carried out the project. City staff suggested the shadow cast into the Public Gardens would not be significant.

A street behind the Garden Crest, Aberdeen Terrace, disappeared as did the houses there. Aberdeen Terrace had been named after

John, 7th Earl of Aberdeen, Governor General of Canada 1893-1898 who visited the city a number of times with his wife, Ishbel, the Countess of Aberdeen, who was busy working with other women in the improvement of health care as President of the National Council of Women.

You are now at the corner of Summer Street and Spring Garden Road. The name “Spring Garden” comes from an earlier garden further east near the original town plots and reminded citizens of a place in London where many had come from. In 1818 lease grants of land were being carved off of the Halifax Commons for private use but not much was built on them, in the 1870s lots would be sold. In 1837 the Nova Scotia provincial legislature granted the Nova Scotia Horticultural Society 5 1/2 acres of land to start what is now know as the Public Gardens (As with the cemetery the Gardens is well worth a separate visit from this walk; the history of the gardens is rich and well covered in publications of the Friends of the Public Gardens: www.halifaxpublicgardens.ca). Many fine homes would be built to the right of where you are at this intersection but unfortunately at least forty Victorian period buildings located around the Halifax Public Gardens were demolished and now lost to developments starting in the 1960s as the area is a very desirable place to live. This South Common land was sold to raise income for the town which incorporated in 1841.

Opposite the Public Gardens on the south side of Spring Garden Road, is the Sacred Heart School. Originally established in 1849 further east on Spring Garden, the Ladies of the Sacred Heart moved to this location in 1852 to establish the Convent of the Sacred Heart on a much larger piece of land that was part of the South Commons. It was to give the Sisters privacy and independence with gardens and milk cows for the girls attending what was Halifax’s first boarding school. For many years the Sisters ran a school for those who could not afford private school. It eventually developed into a public Catholic school called College Street School. It was demolished after a fire. The Convent property had a tall wooden fence to shield the property from passing view. A Sister often stood at the entrance to see the day girls away at the end of the school day and sometimes to question any lingering teenage boy as to who they were and what was their purpose. This meant that most males waited further down the block or in the Public Gardens to meet the girl
of their attentions. The Sisters acquired adjoining property along Spring Garden Road but eventually sold it rather than expanding their buildings.

The Convent’s original main building still exists with some changes. The chapel, built in 1851, and later additions were torn down in the late 1970s. This was the result of boarders no longer staying at the school and of the ageing sisters required upgraded residence rooms. Prior to demolition there was a move by concerned citizens to save the chapel and western wing with bell tower. Maud Rosinski, who rehabilitated many historic houses with her husband proposed developing the existing structure as improved residence for the Sisters with the excess space being developed into housing for senior women. This idea was not taken up by the congregation. A separate residence was built on the site but none of the granite blocks of the west wing were incorporated into it as suggested at the public hearing. Recently boys were allowed to attend the school and a separate wing was built in the east front garden for them. One of the city’s largest and oldest red oak trees was cut down to allow this extension. The brick and granite colours of the original building were incorporated into the new wing but not Victorian architectural style.

Proceed across Spring Garden Road to the opposite/south side as you stay on the right/west side of Summer Street. To your right will be the enclosed garden of Summer Gardens Condominiums. This location used to be the site of the Hart House built in 1898 and demolished in 1985 along with a terrace of Victorian row-housing along Summer Street. Dalhousie University sold the property with a provision that the more units the more money for the sale, the project was developed as an investment opportunity by United Equities. There was wide concern for the effects on the Public Gardens. The developer promoted the idea that the tall tower would cut the wind from the nearby Dalhousie Tupper Medical School building. This was never later measured.
Hart House 1898-1985

Proceed across College Street College Street was named at the request of the Halifax Medical College that was located up the block to the right/west at the corner of Carleton Street from 1875 to 1900. This private school did not meet with success and closed. The Dalhousie University Medical faculty is now located in the Tupper Building opposite the former school site. Dalhousie College moved to the South Common in 1886 into what they called the Forrest Campus which consisted of one building. The original Forrest Building still stands along with a number of other brick buildings later added to the campus.

View of South Common from fourth floor of the new Forrest Building
The high rise Tupper Building was officially opened in 1967 by Queen Elisabeth the Queen Mother to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Canada and to remember Sir Charles Tupper, a doctor from Nova Scotia who was also a Father of Confederation, a Premier of the province (1864-1867) and the 6th Prime Minister of Canada. Tupper was the founding President of the Canadian Medical Association and along with Joseph Howe he helped resuscitate Dalhousie in the 1860s and was on the university’s Board of Governors until his death in 1915. The other claim to fame for the Tupper Building is the high winds created by the design.

The Salvation Army Grace Maternity Hospital opened in 1922 along this section of Summer Street between College and University Streets and was affiliated with Dalhousie Medical School. It closed in 1992 when a new maternity building opened a block away. It was thought the former site would return to public open space as part of the Commons, however after Dalhousie operated the vacant land for 12 years as a parking lot, it received a minor variance to build the Dalhousie University Brian Repair Centre at the northern (College St) end of the lot so it could save two mature hardwood trees. When construction of the building began the trees were cut down and used the balance of the lot to the south is used for parking.

On the opposite side/east of Summer Street is land that during World War II was the location of the Cathedral Barracks. During the war 22,000 women joined the Canadian Women’s Army Corps. Some of those women lived at the Cathedral Barracks. Two incidents of the war involving the barracks were the VE day riots in Halifax where the women soldiers were told to be ready to defend the barracks from gangs of drunken men. The men never showed up. Then in July the women were told to abandon the barracks as the magazine depot fire might break out the windows and doors. Today the Nova Scotia Rehabilitation building stands on the corner.

Proceed across University Avenue, (Summer Street ends). University Avenue was the upper part of Morris Street until after World War II. With increased enrolment of returning service personnel and more buildings added to the western end of Studley field of Dalhousie University the street was renamed in 1950. A grassy boulevard was already in place so this distinguished it from the lower part of Morris Street.

South of University Avenue is the last portion of the South Commons. You can walk straight ahead into the hospital parking areas to get a view of the buildings. In front of the Dixon Building there are pieces of granite from Victorian hospital buildings demolished to make way for new. To your left/east is the Victoria Building of the hospital that you will have a sweeping view of the front parking lot. You will be at the top of a slope.

Imagine the crowds gathered here in 1844 for the hanging of 4 men convicted of piracy. The ship was the Saladin, the Captain and his son were thrown overboard by mutinous crew. The ship crashed on the shore at County Harbour but people did not believe the story told by the crew. Finally a trial in Halifax brought out the real story. 2 of the crew who had been afraid of the others gave the truth and they were set free. Four were hanged and then buried, the days of hanging tarred bodies along the shore of Halifax harbour had passed.

Fifteen years later the City and Provincial Hospital opened on the site, the first public hospital versus private pay or poor house. It is considered a great improvement for the citizens and patients. The distance from the town will keep sickness away from healthy citizens, for the patients it is felt the spacious grounds and air will be part of their cure. A few years later the Poor Asylum was be built west of the ponds behind the hospital, the ponds have since been covered by buildings. In 1887 the hospital name will change to Victoria

General (VG) to mark the 50th Anniversary of Queen Victoria. Additions to the hospital were made including verandas so patients could get the air. Continued building and demolitions has gradually filled this part of the South Commons and any open space mostly dedicated to parking. Looking east over the front parking lot of the VG hospital you will see a graveyard behind a fence in the distance.

This is Holy Cross
Roman Catholic Cemetery. Well worth a visit the stones and grounds have been recently repaired by the Charitable Irish Society of Halifax. For the purpose of this walk turn left at the end of the Bethune building on your left. This will bring you back to the sidewalk along University Avenue. Walk eastward towards the traffic lights at University and South Park Street. Beside the sidewalk on your right you will find a monument to the former School for the Blind.

The Asylum for the Blind was granted land on the South Common in 1868. According to Peter McGuigan’s Historic South End Halifax the money was left in the estate of William Murdoch in 1867 but the construction was delayed for five years because of the need to raise matching funds and because of “resistance against the expropriation of part of the South Common” for the school lead by the Committee for the Preservation for the Common. The school was opened in 1871. In 1873 Charles Frederick Fraser became superintendent and remained until 1923. He helped establish programs for the newly blinded survivors of the Halifax Explosion of 1917. Visually impaired from an accident at an early age he was knighted by the King in 1915 for his work and was known as the blind knight. The school included the original building with added wings along with another building added in the garden that housed classrooms and workshops with a central theatre. There was a sloping stage so students would know where they were heading went participating in events. The rest of the grounds had flowering plants chosen for their smell and a pond that was used for skating.
In 1983 the school closed and the students moved to a combined school for the visually and hearing impaired, the Sir Frederick Fraser School on South Street. A suggestion that the old buildings could be used for the arts with galleries and performance space was made by the writer of this walk. Instead the buildings were torn down with only a few pieces of granite left along the sidewalk. Other citizens wanted the garden and trees protected. At a public meeting citizens agreed to allow one block of Tower Road between University and South Streets to be closed in exchange for a pathway and having the grounds of the School turned into a 200 car park with 200 trees. As well, a promise was made by authorities that the lilac grove would be preserved and a commemorative scented garden and monument erected to the history of the school. None of the promises were honoured and the lilacs, garden and a section of Tower Road disappeared into space for the badly landscaped hospital parking lot surrounded by the chain link fence. Finally through the efforts of former students the monument was unveiled in 2012.

At the traffic lights look across South Park Street to the right and see a streetscape of registered heritage houses built in the 1890s by Halifax businessman George Wright. While some of the architectural details have been lost it is still an impressive grouping. George Wright is remembered more for the fact that he was one of the wealthy passengers lost in the sinking of the Titanic in 1915.
Turn left and proceed across University Avenue to Victoria Park on the South Commons. Named for the Queen and Empress (1837-1901) you will not find a statue of Victoria here or anywhere in her loyal province of Nova Scotia. However Queen Victoria loved all things Scottish and there are three monuments in the park to the Scots given by the North British Society founded in 1768. The first monument at the edge of the park on your left consists of stones from Menstrie Castle in Scotland. It was unveiled in 1957. There was a plan to bring the entire castle to Nova Scotia as you can read on the plaque. There is other information about the Scottish in Nova Scotia.

To the left/west of Victoria Park across Martello Street (formerly Tower Road), so named for a round tower found in Point Pleasant Park overlooking the harbour, is the former site of the Exhibition building of 1879. It was turned over to the Church of England (now the Anglican Church of Canada) for a new cathedral, Cathedral Church of all Saints, that was started in 1907 and mostly completed by 1910 with a very low budget. The planned central tower was never built. After the Halifax Explosion of 1917 it was suggested that tearing the building down and starting over might be a way to correct damage and construction flaws. Instead repairs were made and it is a fine example of perpendicular Gothic architecture and is sometimes open for tours as well as regular services.

The Cathedral roof and interior was heavily damaged during Hurricane Juan in 2003. As a way to meet repair and maintenance costs the south lawn was developed into a residential and commercial building. The design was bigger than the lot so the fronts steps encroach on the public sidewalk. The Cathedral circumvented the problem of building on the South Common by granting a 99 year lease. The Cathedral’s north lawn and the land where 3 Victorian homes stood until 2011 is being leased for a private seniors residence and new diocesan offices.
Remaining in the park you will see on the hill a fountain that was dedicated in 1966 to Herlinda deBedia Oland by her husband Colonel Sidney Oland well known residents of the city.

Return (west) to the South Park Street side of Victoria Park. As you walk north you will find the bust of Sir Walter Scott. The bust was originally unveiled in 1932 at the main gate of the Public Gardens by Sir Joseph Chisholm, Chief Justice of Nova Scotia. As an aside, Sir Joseph lived in a house on Carleton Street which was formerly part of the South Common. As to Sir Walter Scott it was decided during the restoration of the Public Gardens after Hurricane Juan in 2003 that the monument would be better located at Victoria Park. Read the plaque to learn more.
Enter the Park at this point and turn right to walk up the central path to the Robert Burns statue. The statue was planned during the early part World War 1 and unveiled after the war in 1919. The information plaque describes what is on the monument. In front of the statue is an open area that is used for gatherings including Burns day, the names on paving stones was part of a fundraiser for the local food bank.

You are now back to Spring Garden Road opposite the Public Gardens gateway and there are decisions to make.

Looking for refreshment there are many choices. The Lord Nelson Hotel on the northeast corner of South Park and Spring Garden was the first of the ‘high rises’ built around the Public Gardens. Started in 1927 by the Canadian Pacific Railway it opened in 1928 just in time for the Great Depression. There is a coffee shop open during the summer in the beautifully restored Horticultural Hall in the Public Gardens. You can return to Summer Street at Sackville Street by continuing along garden fence on South Park Street then left on Sackville Street past the former head gardener’s house and green houses or going through the Gardens if open.

Continue to have a good day.