Living in Halifax’s iconic rotunda
The historic rotunda on the shores of the Bedford Basin. Photo: Suzanne Rent
It was the late 1980s when Wendy Murray sent her application. She was applying to be caretaker of Prince’s Lodge—the small, white rotunda that sits on a knoll next to the train tracks along the Bedford Highway. Murray’s mother, Nonie, had lived there for 18 years, so taking care of the house was like taking care of her home. Nonie moved out, and another couple had taken over for five years.
Murray wanted the rotunda back.
She and her mother weren’t the only ones to live in Prince’s Lodge. Prince Edward, Duke of Kent, built it when he was in Halifax in the late 18th century to set up the city’s military defences. The Duke was borrowing and staying at the estate of Sir John Wentworth, who was Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia. The estate sat between Kent Street and Tall Trees off Bedford Highway. The Duke loved English-style gardens. His contributions to Wentworth’s estate were the gardens and several decorative buildings, including the rotunda, a neoclassical style popular at the time. It was likely built between 1794 and 1798. The buildings of the estate fell into disrepair. The rotunda is the only one that survived.
In 1870, it was sold to five owners. In 1877, one family owned it and used it as a restaurant. A family of nine lived there for a few years in the 1950s. The family of Peter Delefes, former NDP MP, once owned it. Later, the province bought it. The rotunda underwent a few restorations, including one in 2004 when Murray lived there. She was its last resident.
Murray did her best to keep the place looking polished. She planted small gardens in the spaces between the pillars. She’d walked to Farmer Clem’s near Kearney Lake Road to buy supplies. Red geraniums looked the best, visible from the Bedford Highway. The building is damp, so she kept it free from mildew and mice. She painted its exterior one year. It took her a week.
Getting up and down the steep driveway was often hard. She remembers in the winters, the hill leading up to the house was often coated in ice. “I actually crawled up there with a spike, like I was climbing a mountain,” she says. She recalls her mother not being able to leave for weeks on end because of the snow and ice.
The train was another obstacle. It often stopped at nearby Rockingham. Murray remembers once she had to climbed over the train, scaling the ladder on the side of the rail car, and making her way back down on the ladder on the other side.
“It was the only thing you could do,” she says. “That was really getting to be a nuisance.”
Also, a train hit her car in 1994.
She lived there for free, but paid the heating bills. At first, the cost was about $200 a month to heat it with oil. The province added a second tank hoping it would get Murray through the winter without a visit from the oil truck, which had its own issues with the driveway. Eventually, they changed to electric heat. The heating bill went up to about $350 a month.
Trips away were infrequent. “I didn’t want to leave it for more than a couple of days,” Murray says. “It was important for me that it remain. I wanted to live there.”
There were many visitors. Friends from her harp and weaving groups would come by for tea. She hosted tours for the Rockingham Historical Society. Some visitors came on their own, such as the Korean couple she found in the house while she was out. They stumbled on the building while visiting their daughter in the area. Murray had the walls decorated with her rich tapestries. A harp sat next to the wall. The couple thought the place was a museum and spent time surveying her weaving work.
The view and the access to the water inspired Murray. She’d often open the double doors to the Bedford Basin and sit there, taking in the view. At the bottom of the knoll behind the house is a beach. From there, she launched her kayak and navigated the waters along the shore.
Sharon and Wayne Ingalls wrote the book Sweet Suburb: A History of Prince’s Lodge, Birch Cove, and Rockingham, about the rotunda and the surrounding neighbourhood. The couple lives on the street that accesses the heartshaped pond in Hemlock Ravine, also built by the Duke. The rotunda fascinated them when they moved to the city from British Columbia. They researched their book for a few years, publishing in 2010.
“When we came here, I believed a lot of the things I read about the area, which were not true,” Ingalls says. “People made up stories about this building because they didn’t understand it.”
During her research, Ingalls learned the rotunda was not built for the Duke’s mistress, Julie Saint-Laurent, who lived with him at the estate. The rotunda was built to be part of the view from the main house.
“He built it because it was the fashionable thing to do and he loved architecture, gardens, and design,” Ingalls says.
As for its future, Ingalls says it should be left as is. “It’s really not celebrated for what it is,” Ingalls says. ‘There’s nothing else like it in Canada.”
Not much remains inside the house now. There is a stove, kitchen cupboards, and a washroom. A set of stairs can be pulled down to access the attic. They aren’t safe to ascend, but lend a view to the dome and the top floor where there were once bedrooms. Murray used this space for storage. The ceiling around where the gold ball on the roof is ripped since a leak destroyed the wood.
Employees from the province check on the building. There are lights on a timer that come on every evening. Over the holidays, a single wreath hung from the one door looking out on the highway.
Murray moved out of the house in 2009. The well broke down in February that year, and the province couldn’t find a way to repair it. They helped her move out to a two-bedroom apartment in Slaunslieve, just across the Bedford Highway. She then moved to a seniors’ co-op in the South End of Halifax.
She wishes she’d stayed in the rotunda longer. “I am pretty agile,” she says. “I could have stayed there another 20 years, maybe. But it didn’t work out that way. When I was living there, you couldn’t have made me go anywhere else. But once you’re gone, it’s different. It’s just that you hang on as long as you can. My mother did. She hung on. We were very worried about her there.”
She says she hopes the province maintains the landmark. She thinks they could put a bridge there, so visitors can access it. But, she adds, they’d need to hire security, too. Moving the house would take away one of its best features, its location, which she says is even more important and enjoyable from the water.
She misses the view from the house, and while she bought a fold-up kayak and still uses it, she also misses her trips along the basin.
“I really got onto it living there,” she says. “I had the ideal life living there.”
This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.