Alexander Bridge House
STRUGGLING AGAINST A TIDE OF DECAY
All too often, local preservation and historical societies which are mostly run by volunteers are faced with the pressure of saving Canada’s built heritage treasures without critical government funding support.
“In the past, far too many structures with ties to our rich historical legacy have been taken for granted and allowed to vanish from our midst; with their significance being lost to future generations,” explains the Speaker of Newfoundland and Labrador’s House of Assembly, Roger Fitzgerald. “The Bridge House should be protected to signify the importance of the community’s glory as a major commercial centre, and to stand as a keystone of the heritage district that many residents and groups are striving so hard to preserve.”
Built between 1811 and 1814, the William Alexander House (also known as the Bridge House) is the oldest documented residential property in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador. This important piece of Bonavista’s heritage has suffered many years of neglect and decay from physical and environmental damage. Unfortunately, this once “postcard perfect” building has remained vacant and unused by the community since 1966.
Accented by a natural stone foundation, the Alexander home features gable end chimneys, a central hallway, and a highly symmetrical design. The house is situated on Walkham’s hill and was owned by William Alexander who came from Argylshire, Scotland to start a mercantile business (Alexander and Co.) in Bonavista. He died in 1828 and was laid to rest in the family plot in the old Anglican Cemetery nearby.
The building was designated by the Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador as a Registered Heritage Structure in 1986, and emergency funding was approved to stabilize the building and to install a temporary roof until further restoration efforts could be made. The temporary repairs, however, eventually failed and water penetration continued to damage the structure.
“It is indeed a significant part of Bonavista’s history,” notes Bonavista’s mayor, Betty Fitzgerald. “If it is not preserved in the very near future, it will be beyond repair.”
Hoping to prevent a demolition by neglect, the Bonavista Historic Townscape Foundation bought the designated historic site in 2001. A short time later, the Society engaged Newfoundland architects Sheppard Case Ltd. to complete “as found” drawings of the structure and to consider options for conservation and redevelopment. With the assistance of the Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and the former Human Resources Development Canada, the Bonavista Historic Townscape Foundation replaced all the deteriorated roof sheathing with new pine and replaced rotting timbers. The decaying chimneys were removed to the roof line and the fragile third storey dormer windows were dismantled and placed inside the building.
In an effort to prevent further water damage to the foundations, Sheppard Case recommended excavating around the site for the installation of a new drainage system. Recognizing the potential damage this could cause to the historic site, the Society delayed in order to arrange an archaeological survey. Financial support finally came through the provincial government under it Cultural Economic Development Program. The work on the survey and the new French drain will proceed this spring.
Gordon Bradley, president of the Bonavista Historical Society, stresses however that the Bridge House needs much more. “It requires significant resources to properly address this structure and to ensure that it is conserved and redeveloped in the best possible manner. The province’s oldest surviving house deserves nothing less.”
This nomination was submitted by the Department of Innovation, Trade and Rural Development – Government of Newfoundland and Labrador.
Update 2021: Newfoundland’s oldest house will finally receive much needed restorations and improvements. Restoration work to the Alexander Bridge House will begin in spring 2022 after the Bonavista Historic Townscape Foundation received investments from Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency and the Department of Industry, Energy and Technology to support upgrades to the Alexander Bridge House and nearby street area. As part of a larger plan to revitalize Bonavista’s downtown area, the project aims to improve public safety, offer a shared space for tourism operators and create a new, engaging visitor experience showcasing the region’s history and architecture.
The Bridge House will play an integral role in the district’s revitalization plan. According to David Hiscock, Treasurer of Bonavista Historic Landscape, the main floor will be a seafood restaurant while the upstairs will tell the story of the house’s history.
Location: Bonavista, NL
Top 10 Endangered Places List: 2008