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Searching for Mid-Century Modern Design in Halifax

By Stephen Archibald

Magazine Issue: Fall/Winter 2021

Living room of Hall House, 1951.
Hall House, 1951. All photos taken and provided by Stephen Archibald.

Growing up in Halifax in the 1950s and 60s I craved a modern built environment, but instead the city offered Georgian government buildings and Victorian public gardens. In the years after the Second World War more energy was put into demolishing downtown Halifax than actually building anew, although this did generate many parking lots.

When the Halifax Shopping Centre opened in 1962, it was the first public space that felt contemporary and accessible to a young person. A snapshot taken there in 1965 shows people attracted by a vintage car, but now it’s the diamond pattern on the façade of Eaton’s department store and the stylishly dressed windows that feel extraordinary. While commercial expressions of mid-century creativity are long gone, there are still examples of design from this period that can be observed around town. They are rare delights.

One of the first modern buildings in the downtown was the head office for Canada Permanent Trust, built 1962. Compared to the 19th-century commercial buildings on the same block, the curtainwall construction appeared to come from another galaxy. The building has undergone modifications and subtractions over the decades, but its original spirit still remains and it looks surprisingly timeless. The original ground floor banking hall was demolished and over the years that space has housed two well-known coffee shops. Despite all these alterations, a fragment of the original terrazzo flooring survives at the street entrance: another diamond pattern.

Sexton Memorial Gym designed by Andris Kundzins, 1963.
Sexton Memorial Gym designed by Andris Kundzins, 1963.

The 1963 elliptical shaped Sexton Memorial Gym, built for the Nova Scotia Technical College, has a light presence compared to the massive concrete structures that Halifax universities built in the following decade. Particularly charming is the glazed entrance pavilion with a gull wing shaped roof that visually takes flight from the front of the curving gym. The name of the building is cast into a concrete band at a human height and in a finely-crafted style type.

Nova Scotia’s official Centennial Project in 1967 was the Sir Charles Tupper Building, a 15-story tower housing the medical school on the Dalhousie University campus. This was the first tall building in Halifax, and the attached colonnaded pavilion with associated plaza remain unique. When it was new, I would go out of my way to stride across the empty plaza on foggy summer evenings. The experience felt like being in a movie. Extreme wind effects generated by the tower meant that this illusion was not possible or pleasant in all seasons.

Upon close examination the building reveals many design features, such as the finely finished cast concrete panels on the upper levels, with their refined “washboard” texture under the precise window openings. The ground level cladding is exposed aggregate concrete panels, a very early use in Halifax. The complex detailing of textures and colours on the building suggests to me that the architects were exploring the design potential of new materials.

After 50 years the plaza of the Tupper Building is mostly unchanged. The original aggregate paving is patched but still there, as are cast concrete benches in seating alcoves. In between the alcoves are mature trees of a scale that is usually only seen in concept renderings for projects. A “honeycomb” wall of glazed breeze block screens a pre-existing building at the end of the plaza. This public square is unknown and uncelebrated in Halifax—that feels like a shame.

Parents of the baby-boomer generation still went to church, and as Halifax expanded in the 50s and 60s they built new churches, many with surprisingly modern designs. A few of these folks would spend their last years in the St. Vincent’s Nursing Home where they could worship in a remarkable drum-shaped chapel that is elevated and embraced by concrete ribs. There are no windows, instead skylights at the base of the soaring cross illuminate the interior. An enclosed passageway from the second level of the nondescript residence is the chapel’s only access.

Chapel at St. Vincent's Nursing Home designed by Napier and Napier.
Chapel at St. Vincent's Nursing Home designed by Napier and Napier, c1964-65.

It is especially fun to discover mid-century domestic interiors that have changed little over time. A couple of examples, built in the 1950s, survive on a small suburban street. These are not museum pieces, but have been lived in for over half a century while still retaining the essence of their original design and decorating schemes. Both are very warm and comfortable homes, surrounded by mature landscapes and with views of a lake.

The 1951 Hall House has been carefully cared for by a daughter of the original owners to maintain the character of the home. The Fowler House is remarkable in that the architect who designed it in 1957 also lived there until the summer of 2021. Coincidently, Charlie Fowler was also one of the designers of the Canada Permanent Trust building.

The living rooms have walls of windows and masonry fireplaces. In the Fowler house, the elevated hearth cantilevers off a chimney of local stone. In both homes much of the original furniture is teak, purchased from The Danish Shop located just outside Halifax. The interiors remind us to furnish our homes with well-built furniture of timeless designs.

Halifax Transit bus shelter, 1970s. Architect: William MacCallum.
Bus shelter designed by William MacCallum, 1970s.

Staid old Halifax sometimes surprised itself, as when astonishing fiberglass bus shelters sprouted up around town in the 1970s. Their curvy form suggested a kinship with Bibendum, the Michelin Man. The shelters and the buses of the time had purple livery; Halifax Transit encouraged ridership on their “purple people eaters.”

Recently, when shown an image of a shelter, one informant responded: “I can actually smell this photo.” Apparently, scamps used some of the shelters as public urinals. The shelters disappeared from streets decades ago, but one is preserved and used as a smoking pavilion at the Transit Garage.

At the end of the 1960s, the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design had suddenly become an international leader in conceptual art and Swiss Style graphic design, and Halifax’s understanding of modern evolved rapidly. In 1971 the Design Division of the college produced a sticker you could put on an “environmental object that enhances my world.” At the time, I could not think of an object and chose to keep the sticker instead.

Stephen Archibald’s working career at the Nova Scotia Museum focused on development and interpretation projects. Now he uses Twitter and blogging to celebrate little treasures noticed in cultural landscapes.


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