What’s in a name?
L-R: The Dennis Building; Wright's Building; (top) A.M. Bell and Co.; (bottom) Keith Building
For many of the older buildings in Halifax’s downtown core, the story stretches beyond the year they were built and architectural design.
Many of these buildings were built in the late 1800s and early 1900s and have housed a number of shops and services over the last century. Despite this, many of these spaces still carry the name of a person for which the building was built or a past business. While many Haligonians and tourists pass these buildings daily, they may not know the story behind the space’s name.
Read on to find out about the names of four of Halifax’s most recognizable downtown buildings.
Wright’s Building, 1672 Barrington Street
Wright’s Building was built in 1896 for Halifax businessman George Wright, designed by architect J.C. Dumaresq. Wright was a notable businessman and philanthropist, whose causes included the YMCA and the Women’s Suffrage Movement. Wright died when travelling on the Titanic, which sank on April 15, 1912. Other buildings that bear a connection to Wright are the nearby St. Paul’s Building, which was also built for him, and his home on Inglis Street.
It’s also known as the Marble Building, a name that adorns its lower level. According Elizabeth Pacey’s Historic Halifax, this nickname is due in part to the materials used as “the window pairs are divided by costly red marble colonnettes, which account for the nickname ‘marble building.’”
Over the years the space has attracted a number of different businesses including a broadcasting station run by Guglielmo Marconi. Stillwell, a beer bar, is currently using the building’s lower floors.
Keith Building, 1581 to 1589 Barrington Street
Built in 1896, the Keith Building occupies the space of 1581 to 1589 Barrington Street and was designed for furnishing company Gordon and Keith by architect William Tuff Whiteway. According to an article from Halifax’s Evening Mail dated October 7, 1896, the ground floor of the Keith Building had three storefronts. Gordon and Keith used one and the others were leased out as office space.
According to an obituary from the Annuals of North British Society 1904–1949, Donald Keith worked with the firm of Thompson and Esson until James Gordon bought it in 1860. Keith stayed on and the business became known as Gordon and Keith. Keith, who died in 1916, was involved in many Halifax organizations, which included being a director and shareholder in both the Academy of Music and the Acadia Fire Insurance Company.
The Keith Building is also known by a second name: the Green Lantern Building. This name is a reference to the Green Lantern restaurant that used the space from 1917 until the 1960s. Recent businesses to use the lower floors include the Pógue Fadó, Games People Play and Travel Cuts. From the information available, it is unknown why only Keith’s name is on the building instead of both his and Gordon’s.
A.M. Bell and Co., 1861 Granville Street
Following the Halifax fire of 1859, much of downtown needed to be rebuilt, including the section now known as the Granville streetscape. This group of buildings were designed by architectural firm William Thomas and Sons and according to the HRM’s Heritage Registry, the A.M. Bell and Company building was built 1869.
A biography page from Mount Allison University says that the businesses’ namesake was Andrew Mackinlay Bell. A native of Halifax, he started his retail business in 1875 and expanded operations twice. In 1885, Bell began offering wholesale trade services and in the 1890s he recruited Arthur B. Wiswell as a junior partner and the firm became known as A.M. Bell and Company. Bell was also a member of, among other organizations, the Halifax School Board and Halifax Board of Trade. He died in 1918.
According to photographs, A.M. Bell and Co. wasn’t the first business to occupy 1861 Granville and there isn’t much information on the company’s move to that location. According to the Mount Allison University biography “in 1903 he [Bell] erected his own building on a site that ran between Granville and Hollis streets at Duke Street,” which is the number that is imprinted on the Bell building’s upper floors. Subsequently, the Rogers’ Photographic Advertising Album, which was first published in 1871, identifies dry goods importer Robson and Company as occupiers of the space and an ad in the 1886 Belcher’s Farmer’s Almanack lists A.M. Bell’s location as Bennett’s Wharf.
Today Kew, a furniture store, occupies the space.
Dennis Building, 1740 Granville Street
Built in 1863, the Dennis Building is connected to one of the most longstanding, family-owned news organizations in Halifax, but it didn’t start out this way. The building was originally erected for Thomas and Edward Kenny’s dry good store: T & E Kenny, but it was sold to William Dennis who eventually became the owner of the Halifax Herald. In 1912 the Dennis Building was almost completely destroyed by fire. The remaining structure was remodelled, as architect Henry David Jost added three floors.
According to the Herald’s website, Dennis immigrated to Nova Scotia in the in 1870s. By 1875 had bought one share of the newspaper and was a junior reporter. Eventually he worked his way to editor. By the early 1900s, Dennis had obtained full ownership of the paper when he bought the remaining shares from the estate of John James Stewart.
Along with being a journalist, Dennis was also a city councillor and was served as a senator from 1912 until his death in 1920.
The dates in which the newspaper occupied the building weren’t found, but after it moved the space was repurposed into offices for the Government of Nova Scotia. Recently, it was evacuated after mould was found and it has been suggested that the building might be demolished, but no final decision has been made. From the sources available it isn’t known for sure when the Dennis name was added to the building, but the number 1912 is inscribed above the building’s entrance.
Sources: Heritage Canada/The National Trust website, The Nova Scotia Public Archives, Annuals of North British Society 1904 – 1949, Maggie Holm; Heritage Planner for the HRM, Barrington Street Heritage Conservation District Revitalization Plan, Halifax Regional Municipality Heritage Registry – Former City of Halifax, the Canadian Register of Historic Places, Andrew Mackinlay Bell bio from Mount Allison University, Restoring the Granville streetscape from NSCAD’s website, Our History from The Chronicle Herald’s website, The Honourable William Dennis bio from the Parliament of Canada website, Historic Halifax by Elizabeth Pacey and Alvin Comiter, Roger’s Photographic Advertising Album, and the
1886 Belcher’s Farmer’s Almanack.
This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.