Building on a historic foundation

Sarah B. MacDonald

Sarah B. MacDonald guides Halifax’s 128-year-old Council of Women through new challenges

Days before setting sail on the Titanic, property developer and internationally known publisher George Wright changed his will, bequeathing his stately South End Halifax home to a local feminist organization. 

Since Wright’s untimely demise in 1912, the grand Queen Anne Revival manor on the corner of Young Avenue and Inglis Street has been a vital asset for the Local Council of Women Halifax, as it works to improve the lives of women and children. 

But, in more recent years, the drafty old building with peeling paint and crumbling façade has become a bit of an albatross.

The not-for-profit’s former president, Sandra MacLennan, recalls getting a $9,000 government grant to repair a back wall, which had mostly rotted out. “Contractors found so many other things wrong and the price went sky high,” she says.

Her husband ended up making a non-interest-bearing loan to help pay the bills. “That’s how bad it was,” says MacLennan, who led the organization for 7.5 years until stepping down in 2017. “The house was just bleeding us dry.”

She wondered about selling the empty lot next door on the south side of the property that was part of Wright’s gift. She balked when realtors told her it would make George Wright House itself unsalable. The idea of selling the mansion came up but was never seriously considered beyond wondering where they might rent, she says.

“Drowning in day-to-day emergencies” meant the council could do little more than talk about how to use the building to do something more for women and attract new members, she recalls.

Councillor Waye Mason remembers getting a call from MacLennan five years ago. 

(He considers her a mentor. As a property manager for Halifax Developments Ltd., she took a chance on him in the 1990s and rented him space in downtown’s old Trade Mart Building when he was setting up a recording studio.)

“She said, ‘I’m in my late 70s. My husband and I are trying to maintain this giant building. The other two active board members are in their 80s and 90s,’ ” Mason recalls. “To lose this historic and amazing space and organization would have been a crying shame.” 

Philanthropist George Wright bequeathed his South End home to the council.

The first person he thought of was professional fundraiser Sarah B. MacDonald.

“I knew her from her activism in the community and from social media,” he says. “She’s done a lot of fundraising stuff and she’s also an activist whose personal politics align really well with the history and potential future of the Local Council of Women.”

MacDonald met with MacLennan. It was a match. She took over as president in May 2017.

Half landlady, half advocate  
MacDonald, 32, is an avid volunteer. Her day job is assistant dean of advancement with Dalhousie University’s law school, and she did fundraising stints with the YMCA and Saint Mary’s University. 

The council presidency is like nothing she’s done before. “It’s half landlady, half advocate,” she says. “Sometimes you get called to comment on something that’s happened in the news. Sometimes you’re calling a plumber in the middle of the night because something’s happened with the toilet.”

One of her first initiatives was reimagining how to best use the 2.5-storey heritage home to serve the community and ensure it’s around for another hundred years. 

The main floor, with a large double parlour, sunporch, kitchen, and butler’s pantry, remains open as a community space. The upper floors, long rented as apartments, were renovated to create eight offices for women and gender minorities at below-market rates.

“We had to find a new business model that would further our mission and further the work we wanted to do and also, of course, cover the cost of running a community center with no external funding,” MacDonald says. “We were getting back down to the floorboards, so we made sure we had folks in who knew heritage buildings. It was a big investment, but it really paid off.”

The council hasn’t lost any of its renters during the COVID-19 pandemic, except for one who left to run her business from home. “It’s something we’re proud of,” says MacDonald. “In a lot of other spaces, people lost tenants because they couldn’t pay their rent on time. We took a more community-based approach.”

The council is donating the open spot to Black Girls Gather, a non-profit helping Black women entrepreneurs. “It’s more aligned with the kind of work we want to do moving forward, while still managing to be sustainable,” says MacDonald.

Black Girls Gather founder Shakira Weatherdon says she didn’t know about the Local Council of Women before connecting with MacDonald on LinkedIn. “The history is so unique,” she says. “And what an opportunity for them and us to enter a space that perhaps, historically, we haven’t necessarily been a part of.”

Shakira Weatherdon (second from left at a Strait Area Sister 2 Sister Conference) is the council’s newest tenant with the Black Girls Gather non-profit she launched to give Black women entrepreneurs a boost.

Attracting a new, broader membership with more young and diverse women and gender minorities was part of MacDonald’s mission from the get-go.

She started on that by rewriting half of the council’s bylaws to make them more inclusive. Gendered language and references to particular religions were removed. Annual individual membership dues were dropped. 

The council also nixed a policy granting honorary memberships to the wives of the mayor, premier, and lieutenant-governor. “That might seem funny to you and me,” says MacDonald. “But imagine if you’re a non-binary or trans person and read that on the website. How would that ever be welcoming?”

The council has around 40 like-minded organizations as affiliate members, with each paying annual fees of $20, and more than a hundred individual members. 

MacDonald says between 25 and 40 members tend to show up for general meetings, which are held six times per year.

“Members range in their level of engagement, for sure,” she says. “What was really encouraging was, just this last fall, when we started in-person meetings again, about half of the folks that attended that first meeting were new.”

At her first meeting five years ago, most of the women were older and homogenous in their makeup and backgrounds. “They were doing fantastic work,” she says. “But without the different points of view and life experiences, you don’t get the full picture of what the community needs.”

The council is electing two new volunteer executives (treasurer and secretary) to work alongside MacDonald and vice-president Rebecca Faria, a local activist and communications coordinator at the Nova Scotia College of Social Workers.

Making history
The Local Council of Women Halifax was founded in 1894 after Lady Aberdeen, an ardent feminist and wife of Canada’s then-governor general, visited the city and invited women’s groups to gather at Government House. Representatives from 44 groups showed up. The Halifax chapter of the national multi-faith, non-partisan council was born.

Historian Janet Guildford says inclusivity was a struggle for the council in those early years in Halifax. “Divisions between Protestants and Catholics were very strong,” she says. “The practice that caused the most contention was the reciting of the Lord’s Prayer … One ultra-Protestant woman kept insisting the Protestant version of the prayer should be used to open every meeting. It flew in the face of what Ishbel Aberdeen had hoped for the council.”

Even so, the local council did a lot of good for the city, says Guildford. She’s unearthed records of members going to restaurants looking for dirty and cracked dishes and reporting them to the health department. “They would have called it municipal housekeeping,” she says. “It was through these kinds of services and interventions that first-wave feminists believed they could increase their power and influence in their society.”

In 1906, council members established Halifax’s first supervised public playgrounds, part of the North American Playground Movement. A plaque at the North End’s Bloomfield Centre recognizes the spot as the city’s first playground, crediting the council.

George Wright

Legend has it a chance meeting in London between council president Agnes Dennis and George Wright before he boarded the ill-fated Titanic to sail home led to the donation of his mansion. “I think she’d already asked him to make sure it would go to the council, and she reminded him of that,” says Guildford.

Wright, who made his fortune by creating a wildly popular international business directory, was a reformer who was committed to better housing and living conditions for the working poor. The council’s efforts would have been in line with his thinking, says Guildford. 

It also didn’t hurt that Agnes Dennis was married to the publisher of one of the city’s biggest newspapers. 

“She was an influential person and there were other influential women among the leadership of the council,” says Guildford. “When they asked for favours and support, they were likely to find it.”

Over the years, the new headquarters was used as a hostel for women, while some rented rooms for longer term as a safe, reliable place to live.

In its advocacy work, the council’s heyday was during the First World War, when members marshalled various women’s groups to help the war effort, says Guildford.

It’s also credited with gaining seats for women on school boards and pushing for the right for women to vote during the suffrage movement.

In the 1960s, the council invited representatives from African Nova Scotian churches and other Black women’s groups to become members.

“It’s a shame that not more of us know about the Local Council of Women,” says Guildford. “From time to time, it exerted a very positive influence over social policy and social conditions in Halifax.”

Full steam ahead
When she took over as president, MacLennan remembers getting help from two women in their eighties: Eva Cromwell and her sister Laura Daye, the quiet force behind her husband Buddy Daye’s activism in the African Nova Scotian community.

“They were there as long as they could hang out,” she says. “That was the problem at that time. People were getting older and there were no new members. Organizations go through those cycles a lot.”

MacLennan, now 83, is happy new life is being breathed into the council and the property. “They both played such an enormous role in the history of Halifax,” she says. 

With so many historic homes torn down on upscale Young Avenue, many Haligonians wondered if the decrepit-looking George Wright House was in danger of the same fate. The property is assessed at $1.45 million. The empty lot next door, without the constraints of a heritage home, is assessed at $2.58 million. 

MacDonald says the council has no plans to sell either. “There’s no way,” she says.

Instead, it’s full steam ahead on tending to the home, which was built for Wright between 1902 and 1903 by James Dumaresq, the patriarch of a family of architects who designed many of Halifax’s best-known buildings. 

MacDonald says the council is seeking major funding, primarily through grants for now, to renovate the building. Accessibility, longevity, and energy efficiency are the goals.

To ensure its heritage is preserved, the council enlisted Dalhousie Architecture and Planning experts to complete an entire internal and external scan of the home. They produced “as-built” architectural drawings and plans for a more accessible first floor. “Now, when we need to fix things, we can in a really accurate and skillful way,” says MacDonald.

The council isn’t sure yet how much money is needed for all the work that should be done over the next decade, she says. “That’s why we’re using part of the funds we have to build a solid understanding of what shape the building is in now and develop a plan.”

Top on the agenda is creating an accessible washroom on the main floor, something that will be a requirement for all buildings by 2030. “What we learned this year is that it’s very expensive to create a truly accessible washroom, whether or not it’s in a heritage building,” MacDonald says.

The estimate is about $60,000. MacDonald is applying for grants and hopes to get the retrofit done in the spring. 

Fixing up the building’s exterior is also high priority, and not just for aesthetics. “If something isn’t painted, the building underneath it isn’t going to be in really good shape,” says MacDonald. 

One thing already taken care of is the jungle that was growing on the exterior and around the property. “We hired an all-women-owned landscape company that did wonderful job clearing and making it manageable,” says MacDonald. 

Mason quietly donated $50,000 left over from his district capital fund to kick off the fundraising effort. “I’m on board with we need to save this building and we need to save the organization,” he says. 

Cash from the new office rentals keep the lights on. Membership dues and the community space, which is available at $40 an hour for public rentals and half that for members, are a help.

The community rooms were booked up before COVID-19, with events ranging from Pride celebrations to Girl Guide meetings. MacDonald expects things to pick right back up once concerns about the pandemic ease.

“Traditionally, people have always been interested in the space,” she says. “More and more people are interested in the advocacy piece, that really old idea that the council worked to further different political issues. That’s exciting to see.” 

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