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St. John's in flames

For the week of Monday July 9, 2001

On the afternoon of July 8, 1892, in St. John's, Newfoundland, a pipe fell into a haystack igniting a devastating fire. This tragic event, which ravaged two-thirds of the city, changed the architectural landscape of St. John's.

St. John's after the Great Fire of 1892

St. John's after the Great Fire of 1892
© Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador /
PANL B 15-99

In the 19th century, urbanization and fires were serious problems in St. John's. Small wooden buildings were erected haphazardly on narrow, winding streets. During the Great Fire of 1892, severe dryness and strong northwest winds blowing through the city provided excellent conditions for the fire's quick spread. After only one night, the blaze left two dead and 11,000 homeless. Schools, public buildings and many shops went up in flames. The exterior walls of a few stone structures survived amid the ashes. For example, the former Bank of British North America building, one of the oldest banking institutions in Newfoundland, was soon restored. The Anglican Cathedral of St. John the Baptist was also rebuilt, after flames melted most of the stained glass windows and consumed the interior of this Gothic Revival building. Among the building's magnificent stained glass windows seen today, is one that survived the destruction.

Although the fire destroyed most of the downtown area, some houses and shops did survive, particularly on Water Street in the west of the commercial district. The Murray Premises, built in stone near the port in the 1840s, accommodated warehouses, stores, offices and residences. The functional architecture of these buildings reflects the long history of sea-related economic activities in St. John's. To the east of the city, handsome brick row houses, called Devon Row, survived because their occupants placed wet blankets on the roofs and swept embers from their wooden balconies.

Murray Premises

Murray Premises
© Parks Canada / CIHB / Colin Old

During the city's reconstruction, the Second Empire style, known locally as the "Southcott style" in honour of one of the city's most prominent architects, was widely used. Curved mansard roofs replaced gables, and more dormers and picture windows were added. Affluent merchants primarily used the more decorative and varied Queen Anne style for their homes. Preventative measures encouraged the widening of certain streets and constructing buildings of stone or brick; many were nevertheless rebuilt with wood.

The rapid reconstruction of the city was an expression of the dynamic spirit of the people of St. John's. A number of structures that survived the Great Fire of 1892, including the Anglican Cathedral of St. John the Baptist and the Murray Premises, have been designated national historic sites.

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