Vanished and Changed Landscapes of Antigonish

" What is vanishing is the place where we live. What is vanishing is the capacity of the landscape to evoke memories, to provide us with the direct experience of spaces and proportions other than those of our own devising. What is vanishing is gentle use and respect for forms, living and nonliving which provide us with a sense of time and place."

Alan Gussow quoted in J. Latremouille, Pride of Home,1986

According to local lore, Antigonish's winding Main Street was initially carved out by Zephaniah Williams and his native guide, Joe Snake, blazing a path from Williams Point to Brown's Mountain in 1796. This footpath became a bridle path and eventually a cart road along which houses and businesses clustered. Main, Church and Court Streets were the focus of much of this development. By the 1870's Antigonish boasted a prolific array of enterprises run by merchants, blacksmiths, carriage and harness makers, milliners, druggists, watchmakers, tinsmiths, tailors and shoemakers. With such rapid growth, incorporation soon followed in 1889.

Antigonish's "The Main" has long been the commercial and social heart of the town. Over the past one and a half centuries this focal point of mercantile activity has undergone many transformations. The installation of streetlights in the late 1890s and paved town streets by the 1950s, for example, dramatically altered the appearance of downtown. So too did the numerous fires, particularly the devastating "West-End" fire of 1939. These disasters took their toll by robbing Antigonish of many of its traditional two- and three-storey commercial buildings on Main Street. However, sharing the fate of many Canadian mainstreets, Antigonish's street blocks have also lost much of their pleasing rhythm and picturesque symmetry because of store front modernization and the standardization of commercial architectural designs since World War II. Buildings have been torn down, or remnants left standing with their exteriors sheathed in aluminum or vinyl siding, and decorative details concealed by plywood. Fortunately, photographic evidence helps preserve these aspects of Antigonish's lost physical heritage through visual record. The following photographs reveal how Antigonish's Main Street, where houses once shouldered retail and business stores, has been a fascinating architectural microcosm shaped by local traditions as well as the larger realities of modern technology, changing aesthetics and new advertising and marketing techniques. Here is the story in words and images of the evolving fortunes of "Main Street" and its merchants and townspeople.


Quick List of Vanished and Changed Sites:
| McCurdy & Co., 1882 | Bishop's Palace, c. 1883 | Merrimac House c. 1890s | C.M. Henry's Drug Store, c. 1897 | Old Post Office c. 1900 | Bank of Nova Scotia, c. 1910 | The Celtic Hall c. 1910 | The Casket Newspaper Office, c. 1910 | Gorman's Shoe Store c. 1916 | Foster Bros. Druggists c. 1916 | C.E. Whidden c. 1916 | Chisholm, Sweet and Co. | T. J. Sears Livery | Eastern Automobile Co. c. 1916 | Brigadoon Restaurant c. 1950s |

1. McCurdy & Co., 1882

Henry H. McCurdy came to Antigonish from Baddeck, Cape Breton in 1860s. By the 1890s, McCurdy and Co. operated an extensive wholesale and retail business selling everything from "a needle to an anchor". The store stocked groceries, dry goods, boots and shoes, hardware, agricultural implements, and furniture. There was also a tailoring department with over thirty employees, a dress-making department and a millinery room, which boasted "competent modistes and cutters."

This detached three-storey brick veneer structure--121 feet long and 48 feet in width--was once situated on the corner of Main and Hawthorne. By small town standards, the store's interior was impressive. The handsome counters with their black walnut finish extended the length of the store, while the walls were ornamented with panelled plaster and elegant cornices.

On the outside of the building, the upper facade detailing such as the wooden cornice with brackets lent grandeur to an otherwise modest exterior. H.H. McCurdy and Co. was typical of "the new generation of brick and stone commercial buildings" which began to replace earlier house-like wooden structures throughout Maritime Canada. The ground floor housed the retail section while the second and third floors were primarily used for storage. During the mid to late 19th century, most commercial buildings in Canada had three main design components: store-front, upper storey facade and cornice. The guiding principle behind the arrangement of these components was the belief that buildings had a vital visual role as tangible symbols of culture and enterprise. Clearly, the McCurdy building is a good example of 19th-century commercial architecture. This building with its inset door and its large plate-glass store front display windows also reflected late 19th-century ideas about merchandising and display techniques for consumer goods. One should note the traditional fascia signboard across the front over the ground floor. The proprietor’s name appears in bold face; a small sign located above notes in miniscule lettering "West End Warehouse". Advertising was kept to a minimum. Even the type of business was not spelled out. In a small town, word of mouth was the main channel of communication. More aggressive advertising techniques did not emerge until turn-of-the century marketing concepts changed as populations grew and became more mobile. By the early 20th century, H.H. McCurdy served as the premises for Chisholm, Sweet and Company.

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2. Bishop's Palace, c. 1883

The Bishop's Palace sat on the crest of Cathedral Hill. Built in 1883, this stately 3-storey house with its full-width porch, spacious rooms and high ceilings served as the bishop's residence until 1950. In 1963, it became home to the Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Africa and was renamed the "White House". Featuring a mansard roof with projecting tower, bracketed eaves, hooded windows and iron cresting, the Bishop's Palace had all the embellishments of Second Empire, the fashionable style for the 1880s. This design with its commanding appearance was a favorite for corporations, governments and religious orders alike.

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3. Merrimac House c. 1890s

[on site of present CIBC]

Situated on East Main, the Merrimac House was started by John and Ruth Cunningham in 1859. Cunningham's Hotel, later called the Merrimac House, served as Antigonish's leading hotel and a major stopping point for stagecoaches carrying passengers and mail between Antigonish and New Glasgow, and Antigonish and the Strait of Canso. The frame building with its pokey dormers, return eaves and pilasters represented a restrained form of mid-19th century classical revival.

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4. C.M. Henry's Drug Store, c. 1897

This store, like McCurdy's, is also a good example of 19th-century commercial architecture with its inset door and large store-front windows and transom permitting maximum indirect lighting for the store's interior. In fact, it was typical of the detached horizontal boarded commercial buildings on most 19th-century Maritime town main streets. The store's entrance was accented with flattened columns and a decorative cornice. The large plate-glass front, symbolizing the emergent culture of consumption, afforded ample room for the new art of window trimming and displaying brand names. At Henry's, the store’s sign along with a symbolic wooden mortar and pestle were hung perpendicular to the building's face. At this time, signage was not a major design element in commercial architecture.

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5. Old Post Office c. 1900

[located behind present town office]

Originally situated on the corner of College and Main Streets, Antigonish’s old post office was an impressive landmark. The temple-fronted Greek Revival structure was the handiwork of "Sandy the Carpenter" Macdonald who oversaw the design and construction of Antigonish's Court House and St. James Presbyterian Church. The structure, built in 1854, was initially designed to house both a college-seminary and public school. Its construction marked the opening of an important chapter in the history of St. Francis Xavier University. Classes were held here until 1881 when the building was acquired and renovated by the federal government to serve as a Post Office. With its classical features, gracious proportions and visible position at an important intersection, the Post Office was a striking symbol of social order. These stylistic features, loaded with historical allusion and sanctioned by past usage, served a didactic purpose. Little wonder that the building, swathed in flags, bunting and evergreen, served as Antigonish's centrepiece when the town welcomed Lord and Lady Aberdeen in late 1890s. The Old Post Office, replaced by a new brick Post Office with its clock and sculpted facade, was moved around 1908 and attached to the rear of its architectural twin, the Court House. Here it functioned as a municipal building until its destruction by fire in 1943.

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6. Bank of Nova Scotia, c. 1910(2)

During the 19th century, Canadian urban bank designers usually looked to Greek and Roman prototypes for imposing designs to convey solidity and stability. They felt bound to apply specific forms to specific architectural functions and therefore deliberately chose styles with appropriate symbolic content. The first Antigonish Bank of Nova Scotia obviously diverged from this practice. The plain structure had a boom-town appearance with its milled lumber facade and false front with triangular parapet concealing a gable roof.

Much more typical of bank and public building designs was the Royal Bank's two-storey brick building erected 1907(2); it is still standing. It was compact and simple, yet imposing. The structure had many of the characteristic features of early 20th-century classicism with its severe lines, rusticated basement storey, pedimented cornice and prominent keystones. This building also housed the Antigonish Club and boasted telegraph and telephone connections--amenities which signalled Antigonish’s emergence as "an energetic and growing Municipality".

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7. The Celtic Hall c. 1910

[on site of present Royal Canadian Legion Building]

The Celtic Hall, constructed in 1905 by the Catholic Mutual Benefit Association, was a popular landmark on "The Main". The building, with its mansard roof, served as a forum for social gatherings, elections and Royal Canadian Legion activities. The Celtic Hall boasted a movie theatre as well as one of the "best known dance halls in the area." It was destroyed by fire in 1962.

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8. The Casket Newspaper Office, c. 1910

[across from present IGA store]

The Casket started publication on 1 January 1861. The newspaper soon became a journalistic fixture in the town. Located on south end of College Street, this plain building (which was probably the sixth location for the Casket office) was embellished with decorative shingling and wide bracketed eaves. The false front, with its parapet concealing a gable roof, hinted at a more substantial structure. This building sustained serious fire damage in 1932.

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9. Gorman's Shoe Store c. 1916

J.P. Gorman's shoe store, formerly N.K. Cunningham's Boot and Shoe store, specialized in footwear, namely boots, rubbers and shoes. Gorman boasted an exclusive line of "Invictus" shoes for men and "Classic" shoes for women. Although concealing a conventional gable roof, the false - fronted structure had an eye - catching facade with its bracketed cornice and ornamental shingles. The factory-manufactured shingles, featuring several shapes in combination, included bands of half-circle butts and "fish-scale" shingles. The shingle ornamentation was not continued around to the sides of the store. At this time, the ornamental millwork for stores like Gorman's was supplied by John McDonald's Sash and Door Factory or D.G. Kirk’s Woodworking Factory, both of Antigonish, or Donald Grant & Sons’ New Glasgow Sash and Door Factory.

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10. Foster Bros. Druggists c. 1916

[on site of Highland Stationers & Gifts]

The Foster Brothers Drug Store established in 1896, sold a wide range of merchandise, including toiletries, patent medicines, and cigars which were displayed in the front windows. The three-storey structure had a distinctive appearance with its mansard roof, bracketed cornice, pedimented dormers and quoins.

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11. C.E. Whidden c. 1916

C.B. Whidden & Son established one of Antigonish's major wholesale and retail businesses in 1866. Throughout the late 19th century, this business specialized in flour, meal and fish, and boasted such specialty brands of flour as "Eastern Ray". By 1916, the firm, which was managed by C. Edgar Whidden and Payson Clarke, sold flour, feed, fish and groceries. In keeping with new merchandising techniques, the store featured signs advertising brand names for Purity Flour and Red Rose Tea, and stocked its store windows with abundant drygoods displays. The frame building with its decorative scalloped vergeboard and turned finials at the peak of the roof and the edges was an Antigonish landmark at the corner of Main and Hawthorne until the West-End fire of 1939.

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12. Chisholm, Sweet and Co.

Founded originally by H.H. McCurdy in 1869, Chisholm, Sweet & Co., with its slogan, "The Store that Satisfies", was a leading Antigonish mercantile establishment. It sold men’s clothing, ladies' ready-to-wear garments, children’s clothing, crockery, furniture, carpets, leather goods, trunks, wallpaper, and rugs. A store flyer dated 1915 advertised such choice items as "Holeproof Hose" guaranteed to "not need darning for six months", "health mattresses", "gold oak buffets", "Homestead rockers", "English worsted, single breasted" men's jackets and a 97-piece dinner set for $8.75. One should note that even the wall of the building now served as a canvas for the sign painter as advertising became more aggressive and conspicuous. Chisholm, Sweet & Company also operated an extensive regional mail-order business. This building was also a casualty of the 1939 West-End fire.

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13. T. J. Sears Livery

The horse was a ubiquitous feature of life in 19th-century Antigonish. The stage coach service, the buggy ride to the country, the races on the harbour ice, and the "Sprinkling Cart" which dampened the clouds of dust on Main Street--all relied on horse power. By 1900, Antigonish had three local livery stables: Randall's, Sears's and Whidden's. Randall's advertised carriage horses for hire including a team of "beautiful white steeds" popular with newlyweds on their wedding day. As the Christmas Greetings for 1898 proclaimed, Randall's also catered to other special occasions: "When you go driving with 'her' on Christmas, get one of F.H. Randall's dandy rigs." Whidden's specialized in drafthorses contracted out to lumber camps. Some of the carriage horses at this stable became household names: "The Flying Frenchman , "Black Minister", and "Red Lightning". T.J. Sears, who operated a stage line between Antigonish and Sherbrooke and Goldboro, kept coach horses for his business. In fact, there was daily delivery on the mail run from Antigonish to Sherbrooke until the late 1930s. Sears's livery stable also rented out horses and buggies for commercial and recreational purposes.

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14. Eastern Automobile Co. c. 1916

The establishment of car dealerships signalled that the automobile revolution had arrived. The tradition of the street sweeper, who had followed the horse-drawn carriages with broom and handcart, would soon fade from memory. Initially named the Antigonish Garage Company, the Eastern Automobile Company became one "of the finest garages in the Eastern Provinces" by 1916. The Company served as a dealership for Ford cars, but eventually sold such models as Hudson-Essex, DeSoto and Studebaker. By 1916, Eastern Auto occupied a 2 1/2-storey building (with attic and concrete basement) and boasted a modern 2 1/2 ton elevator. At that time, the Company blended old and new traditions. It offered garage services for auto painting and repairing, but also served as a distributor for carriages, wagons, sleighs, harness, robes and general horse supplies. Although the building's facade was quite plain, the advertisements for "Ford the Universal Car", "Dunlop Tires", and "Good Year Tires" stood out conspicuously proclaiming the dynasty of the car. Early laws for the so-called "devil machines" legislated speed on country roads at fifteen miles per hour and half that in towns, and restricted travel on country roads to Monday, Wednesday and Friday. In 1922, Nova Scotia drivers converted from left- to right-side driving; this was largely a concession to American motor-driving tourists.

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15. Brigadoon Restaurant c. 1950s

[on site of Bank of Nova Scotia]

As this photograph shows, "The Main" was still an important setting for community interaction during the 1950s. Although grafted onto an older building with its traditional classical facade and round hooded windows (formerly T.J. Bonner's grocery store), the Brigadoon was typical of 20th-century modern storefronts with its unornamented surface. The new aesthetic of commercial design dictated that storefronts should be streamlined, smooth and shiny with an emphasis on geometric line. The Brigadoon also reflected modernization with its air-conditioned interior and its large neon sign that suspended over the sidewalk. Signage, rather than structure, was the focal point of 20th-century businesses and this new reality dramatically transformed traditional streetscapes. It also reflected changing marketing concepts that directed advertising towards the motorist rather than the pedestrian; the sign was designed to be the focus of all attention and the building as unobtrusive as possible. Hence, the use of overscale signs, lighting and bold-faced lettering.

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