With tree-lined, quiet streets, brownstone buildings and ornate details, I live on one of the best streets in the world. Germain Street emerged in the 1880s as Saint John’s residential area for the upper class, and now I’m lucky enough to live here today. It’s a five minute walk to anywhere uptown, and the Saint John Harbour is within sight. In no other city could I afford to live in such a beautiful, historic neighbourhood.
This week I wrote about the possible demise of the Gothic Arches, a late 19th century church which once held 1,500 people for Sunday services. Since 1999, it’s been a performing arts venue, but it has fallen in disrepair, and the business isn’t profitable. The private owner of the church now says he may have to tear the building down if it isn’t soon sold.
Living in a city as old as Saint John – 226 years – you’re surrounded by heritage. So much so, that I think residents here sometimes take it for granted.
There is a constant struggle here to modernize while preserving the city’s historic character. Tourists and cruise ship passengers travel from all over to “see what we have left,” as one heritage official told me this week. But as the buildings age, the price tag of repairs go up, leaving mounting bills for owners. To live in a heritage building, it seems you need to value history a bit more than cheap convenience, or you’d be better off building a cookie-cutter sub-division in the suburbs. The challenge is to find these investors, especially in a city and a province more depressed than many other places in Canada.
My apartment is located in the R. B. Emerson residence, built in 1883 and named after the manufacturing businessman who lived here in the 1890s. While most of Germain Street was constructed in brick after the Great Fire of 1877, my house was built with stone, giving it the distinctive, almost spooky look from the outside. Inside, we have high ceilings and windows, big rooms, and a marble fireplace. We only live on half of the second floor. Hard to imagine this was once a single family home.
Maybe it’s because I’m still pretty fresh in Saint John – I just passed the two-year mark of N.B. residence status – but I still find the heritage here fascinating and beautiful. It would be a shame to lose such historic character to the wrecking ball. Because as one historian said this week, once it’s gone, it’s far too easy to forget.