Leaning on a Legacy (Page 3)

Leaning on a Legacy (Page 3) McGill University

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ALUMNI QUARTERLY - winter 2008
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Leaning on a Legacy (Page 3)

Caption follows

An example of fishing 'stages' on the shores of Tilting.

In the past ten years, outbuildings and fishing stages have been rescued from the ravages of neglect and have new and honourable status as historical artifacts. The urgency of the conservation task is evident when Mellin talks about his restoration work.

"These small, everyday outbuildings have disappeared almost everywhere in the province except for the Fogo Island and Change Islands area, and maybe a couple of small places in Labrador. When you go to the Avalon Peninsula, let's say, near St. John's, yourarely see a fishing stage. So part of my interest in going to Fogo Island was that these small outbuildings, used for many different purposes, still survived there, and I was interested in learning more about these, especially for the fishery."

Working with Tilting residents on the community's structures is only a part of Mellin's architectural mission when he's in Newfoundland. In St. John's there is a trend away from maintaining the historical appearance of the city and towards more elaborate house designs.

"People haven't yet quite understood what the historical character of the city was," says Mellin. "A lot of people add inappropriate ornamentation to their houses just through lack of knowledge or awareness." The Heritage Foundation, Mellin says, is trying to move the province away from giving grants for individual house repair and towards creating heritage districts that focus on the cultural and historical aspects of the architectural integrity of each region.

The architecture in St. John's is of stolid 19th- and early 20th-century vintage (much of the east end of the city was destroyed in a great fire in 1892), with church spires dominating the skyline. Commercial and residential buildings, often attached in rows, formed the context for post-Confederation architects attempting to create a more contemporary environment for the province's capital city. Part of Mellin's research involves the documentation of this dynamic period of Newfoundland's early modern architecture, a period when architects sometimes acted as contractors for the buildings they designed.

What Mellin learns in Newfoundland he brings back to his studio classes at McGill. The role of architecture in building or maintaining a community is a favourite topic.

"The things that you can learn from Newfoundland's architecture include the ways the towns were laid out in identifiable neighbourhoods," he says. "There's a sense of scale and identity that was developed here. St. John's in the early 1800s was a congenial, compact city where people could travel to most places by foot. In the late 1800s a street car system was installed. And the first planned community in Canada (although when it was conceived, Newfoundland wasn't yet a part of Canada) was the St. John's suburb of Churchill Park, constructed in the late 1940s and early 1950s. It was a very interesting, historic episode in Canadian planning, and an attempt to provide a kind of identifiable village centre. The project was proposed by quite forward-looking housing and planning commissioners who were influenced by some of the 'garden city' and 'new town' developments in England."

As for the more humble architecture of Tilting, Mellin's McGill office is adorned with fine pencil drawings of some of the more eclectic examples from the village. Depictions of a group of neat little houses show the settlement pattern, and a determined gang of "house launchers" pulls a house to its new location. An image of a root cellar made from an upturned rowboat shares wall space with another of a rocking chair fashioned from a barrel.

"There's hardly anyone doing research on this kind of architecture in Newfoundland," says Mellin. "Some professors at Memorial University and a few grad students are involved in research on vernacular architecture and the more anthropological side of things, but not very many, so it's a great opportunity to have this material to work with."

Mellin's work and passion for conservation have made as strong an impression on the residents of Tilting as on his students - perhaps more so. Jim McGrath, who has chaired the local heritage group, Tilting Recreation and Cultural Society, since its founding 11 years ago, says that the conservation work on the buildings has restored the pride and the interest of Tilting residents in their small but very particular community.

"It's not only about pride within the community, though," says McGrath, who speaks with an identifiable Irish brogue. "It's being able to show visitors around and talk about the way people used to live, and the hardships that the fishermen and their families had to endure."

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