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(November 2, 2000, Gazette)

Build the Rooms...

But not on top of Fort Townshend

By Dr. Peter Pope
Special to the Gazette

Probably everyone in town is familiar with the story. The Government of Newfoundland and Labrador commits serious funding to construction of a much-needed and long-awaited public building. To keep costs reasonable, a committee decides to put it on crown land at Fort Townshend — which has the added advantage of being an accessible downtown location. A study determines that there are extensive remains of 18th-century structures on the site. What does the province do? When the government of the day faced this question in 1975, they relocated the new Constabulary Headquarters off the footprint of what was already recognized as a National Historic Site. But that was then.

Fast forward a quarter of a century. Fort Townshend is now about 225 years old, about half as old as St. John’s itself. Its massive stone walls still reflect the importance of this place to the early modern north Atlantic empires of Britain and France. It is and always will be where Newfoundland’s first resident governor, Admiral Pickmore, lived and died. At the turn of the 19th century, the Irish conspirators met behind its walls. It’s still Lieutenant David Buchan’s barracks; it’s still the place where Shanawdithit met the governor of the day; and it’s still where The Camps housed families burned out of their homes by the disastrous fire of 1846. How does the Department of Works Services treat the site now? So far they have obliterated two 10 m stretches of the Grand Battery, one for an elevator shaft and one for a stairwell. The Department of Tourism, Culture and Recreation tells us that this is in the interest of “world class” interpretation.

What’s wrong with that? Don’t museums and interpretation centres need stairs and elevators? Of course they do — and electrical control rooms and conduit passages and so on. All reasons why ICOMOS, the international body that sets standards for the interpretation of cultural landmarks recommends against the construction of new buildings over massive in situ remains. The architects tell us that they are only emulating the very successful Pointe aux Callieres museum in downtown Montreal, which is built over standing remains of shops and businesses there. But these are relatively small-scale features, interpreted indoors, following four years of intensive archaeological research, the results of which were sensitively incorporated by a brilliant team of architects and interpreters into a building designed around archaeology.

In St. John’s the architects responsible for The Rooms have modified only slightly a design essentially finalized before a spade went into the earth. A few design changes were made for structural rather than interpretative reasons, while the fundamental design concept remains fatally flawed. You can’t hope to adequately interpret a fortress meant to dominate St. John’s harbour by rebuilding bits of it in a basement. Fort Townshend will never stand as it once did, but it could be inexpensively landscaped and interpreted as the dominant city feature it is.

Who is opposed to construction of a new art gallery/archive/museum complex on the most prominent and best-preserved part of Fort Townshend? The nine members of Memorial’s Archaeology Unit unanimously petitioned City Council to call for relocation, following an unsuccessful attempt last June to alert the Department of Tourism to the blunder they seemed intent on making. As far as we can make out, every professional archaeologist working in Newfoundland and Labrador shares our concerns, as do heritage authorities elsewhere in Canada, England and Ireland. We’ve been overwhelmed by the public support we have received for our position. An informal NTV poll put support for relocation at about 80 per cent, so this isn’t a minority view, even amongst parts of the arts community.

Why the timing of public opposition to this location? That results from the fact that the province did not follow recommendations in the study it commissioned on the historic resources of the site. That study of the maps and so on that trace the history of Fort Townshend recommended archaeological assessment of the site, before design of the interpretative space. Instead, the province accepted a design before any archaeological assessment was carried out, so that the extent and excellent preservation of the remains of the Grand Battery and other features came as a surprise both to officials and to most of the archaeological community. That was a mistake, made no doubt out of honest enthusiasm for an appealing design concept. This is no reason to compound the error by clinging adamantly to the original positioning, which seems to have been primarily aimed at visual domination of the skyline.

What is needed right now? The provincial government should respond to city council’s request and publicly commit the $40 million budgeted for The Rooms. We need a pause in construction, before the people in the Public Works Department, whose experience largely consists of blowing rocks out of the way for highways and bridges, do any more damage to this archaeological site. Finally, during this pause, the Department of Tourism, Culture and Recreation has to be given the funding and the authority to find a new site for The Rooms, either elsewhere in St. John’s or elsewhere on the same property, away from the best-preserved standing remains of 18th-century St. John’s.

Dr. Peter Pope is an associate professor of anthropology who teaches historical archaeology at Memorial. He has been digging in St. John’s for over a decade.

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