A   V I E W   F R O M   C H A R L O T T E T O W N ,   P R I N C E   E D W A R D   I S L A N D


A Post Office Delivered My Post

This is a talk I gave on Heritage Week to the Lucy Maude Montgomer Lecture Series. It is a little long and a bit peculiar because is was written as a speach.

The Little House That was Delivered By Post (And the mysterious Stan of Green Gables).

I am going to talk about Stan first, since your curiosity about him probably brought you here tonight.

Stan was the only child of a Gravenhurst, Ontario dentist and he studied Architecture at U of T, graduating in 1948. The friends that graduated with him remember him as rather eccentric even then. Those were the days of post-Bauhaus architecture and most students there were interested in modern architecture. As a matter of fact, they got very little on their own history of North American architecture. A situation that we have suffered from greatly. There was an exception on the faculty at U. of T however: Prof. Eric Arthur was a believer and a supporter of the architecture that surrounded him.

{Does anyone remember when he came here to speak one time - 1963, I think; he was so inspired by Charlottetown and Saint John and St. John's and I suppose Halifax that he got a Canada Council Grant to survey Maritime Architecture. He said it was the urban flavour in our residential streets that was always rare in the rest of Canada, and, James Acland said of him that he great skill as a catalyst, shaping research in areas that had long been dormant.}

Arthur would send his students off to measure and draw the old buildings in Toronto. He generally steered them towards Classical and Georgian Revival styles as a way of teaching them an appreciation of proportion. Stan was an apt pupil in these courses. As a matter of fact his wife became one of Eric Arthur's research assistants so Arthur continued on as an influence and as a friend. Today Stan White would be looking closely at the Peter Halloran House at 95 Fitzroy Street and Public Works Canada would be listening.

Stan worked for over 25 years for Public Works Canada. He was a rare bird there, too. They generally let him look after "interiors", but his influence was felt in many directions. His beliefs led to the establishment of FHBRO, that is The Federal Heritage Buildings Review Office. It is the department that reviews, protects and forces a second look at the federally-owned heritage building stock. And that is no mean stock. Stan affected that on the coat tails of the loss of so many wonderful public buildings through-out our land; like our own old post office building in Queen Square. He talked adaptive re-use and rehabilitation. He saved the Georgetown Post Office and he played a major role in restoration of the East Block on Parliament Hill. He also was part of the generifaction of the market area in Ottawa. He moved in and worked from the inside. And what I care about deeply is, that he was the instigator of Tin House Square just off Sussex Drive. Look at it the nest time you go to Ottawa. Its focal point is the 1905 tin facade that had decorated the house of a local tinsmith. When the house was demolished Stan saved and storied the facade and found it the perfect piece to hang on a large bare brick wall in the square - a piece of public art. I spent many enjoyable hours at the Whites' over looking that space.

But the first time I met Stan White I was ready to "tweak his nose". It was the summer of 1972. I was one of the two paid staff at the PEIHF and we were very busy. '73 Centennial Year was around the corner and we had just acquired Beaconsfield and also had a responsibility at Green Park, Orwell Corner and Basin Head - among other things. It was late on a Friday afternoon in August and I walked into the office we had up on Kent Street to be stopped by this person who put his both hands on my shoulders [he had been trying all day to catch me] and he said "I need a building in Cavendish by Monday". There were no spare buildings in Cavendish, but as the story unfolded I knew we had to give it some effort.

Public Works Canada had been commissioned to build a Post Office in Cavendish. Stan had gone out and surveyed the situation. He was not impressed. That intersection drove him crazy - how was he going to add to it in any appropriate way? He decided it had to reflect somehow the Green Gables story and that gentleness, but what to do? He was pretty theatrical about things - weak on details, but creative. He was in "a part of his life" a set designer and he did wonderful sets... so he liked theatre.

I went out on the weekend to see Dr. Bolger who confirmed that there were no spare buildings in Cavendish and at the same time he bemoaned the fact that the MacNeill House had been torn down. Lights went on. I hadn't remembered at that moment the post office connection with LMM and certainly Stan did not even know about it. I remembered we had recently been given a wood-cut of the house and I knew, architecturally, it was a familiar design on the Island. What they call today Maritime Vernacular. We got a copy of the wood-cut and sent it off to Stan - who at this time was going mad over the post office connection - and we sent him off Barbara Humphreys and to test the newly established Canadian Inventory of Historic Buildings. With all its faults and incompleteness it came out with 110% for what we needed. It spit out so many examples of similar houses from all over the Island that Stan was ecstatic. In a second Stan made his choice and pointed one of his weirdly shaped fingers to a house that was at Rocky Point.

Stu Veale, who was the director of Public Works here in town, took off to look at the house. It was right down on the Rocky Point Wharf, half over the bank, shuttered up and FOR SALE. That was it - the building would be moved.

There was a funny story there, too. Walter Shaw , former premier and not long out of politics, was on the board of the HF and of course Rocky Point was in his district. He got up on his high horse about the Feds taking an historic building out of Rocky Point and you can just hear him. Well, that cause did frizzle out and the house started on its way - around 40 miles to Cavendish. It was moved in one piece with Alexis McQuaid at the helm.

All I know is that it was an adventure that involved a slip or two, the taking down of one side of a bridge and things like that.

When it arrived at the Cavendish intersection the holler went up - raised by the business community - wax museum etc. about this wreck of a building that had been moved into their midst. That in itself was ironic since Stan felt their buildings were far more ugly than his newly found treasure.

It was, and is, a dear little house and Stan's theatrical background snapped into play when he began to address it. The outside he restored lovingly and then turned his attention on the interior. The Post Office - at the time - wanted a place to exhibit and market their numismatic paraphernalia. So they wanted a setting for that and they wanted a seasonal post office. Stan designed an addition for their practical needs and then set to work on the house.

Wallpaper was a big thing and William Morris who in his day would have had no impact what so ever on the little house was called on for the parlour, the hall and the post office room. The house had many nice details, the stairs for instance. So it was papered and painted and Irene Rogers and I laughed about the electrical and heating intrusions. Stan wouldn't mind then at all.

Now the place was ready for furnishing. Stan wanted mailboxes for the "pretend" post office. We were all at a meeting in Stu Veales's office and I mused that the post office that I remembered, and loved, was the one in Victoria By The Sea - it had little boxes with windows and lots of brass. Stan said perfect "We want that". I reminded him that my memory was at least 30 years old, but he didn't hear or listen. They'd go to Victoria [that's PEI] and they did that very afternoon. They found it - up in a barn covered with straw and bought it right then and there. It turned out to be the one that had been in Cape Traverse in the ice boat time. What a treasure!

Other things that Stan wanted were a Franklin Stove for the parlour, a stove for the Post Office, spittoons, lamps, carpet, a ticking clock, an "In God We Trust", etc AND a set of parlour furniture covered with horse hair! And he expected us to find it for him. A "set of furniture covered in horse hair", I said, "No way, Stan, I've not seen a full set in years and if we could find one the horsehair would be gone or torn ....". He didn't listen.

It was such a busy summer Green Park, Basin Head, Orwell Corner were opening and we were all over the place. George Mullally from Souris called me one day to say that John Milton Dingwell's house in Fortune was going to be sold and we should come up and see if there was anything that the Foundation might need. So on my way up to Basin Head one day I met George and John Francis, who was looking after things, and we went into the house. There in the first room we went into - the parlour - was a complete set of parlour furniture covered in horsehair - in perfect condition!

This whole project was peppered with serendipity events. I forget where we got the stoves and the ticking clock, but I know it all came together for a grand opening on August 25, 1973. The Post Master General was there and so was Dr. Stuart MacDonald and his family. Stan had insisted that the MacNeil post office genealogy be hung on the wall and, of course, he also insisted that it be done in needlework,. Marjorie Wylie in Summerside did a most beautiful job of that.

Stan, had also, put great emphasis on the landscaping creating a setting that was perfect for a little house of its time. He did not get the privy that he wanted and that he was hoping to talk the telephone company into using as a pay telephone booth! But what ever, Stan did become for ever after to be know as Stan of Green Gables to us and a lot his friends.

Was it a good project - it's hard to say. It was a new experience for the Post Office and I'm sure moved their adaptive re-use program along. Did the Wax Museum and the Motel across the road come to terms with the little building. I never heard anything more on that. The project did add a tender little touch to the roadscape. The church next door have done little landscaping and Cavendish still has a lot of growing pains that are hard to understand. The street lights that I found there on my visit last week appear pretty incongruous to me and I'm sure they would to Stan. Rather urban for such a rural setting.

I know the house and its similarities to the McNeill house has probably been a problem to Jeannie and John McNeill, but we'll ask them to speak to that. But in Stan's mind it was never to be the MacNeill House. His concerns were more landscape directed and he certainly was the stage designer through out.

I never was there much after it opened to know how the public responded, and now it is all changed inside anyway, The flair is gone, so is the horsehair set and the embroidered family tree. The post office boxes remain but they are in an unfriendly corner that doesn't make sense and the rest is simply a hard edged display on colourless walls of information that must be read to be experienced. Fashions change, history will have to decide which was best, but my friend Stan who before he died moved back to Gravenhurst "Gravey", [he called it] with his wife Huguette whom he called Pussie and,who use to cut his hair herself, I always said with the help of a bowl, continued to care and carry his message to all who would listen. He received the Gabrielle Leger Medal from Heritage Canada in 1983 - a medal he greatly deserved and Canada is still benefitting from his time on earth.

I think tomorrow in his memory we should call up Public Works Canada and tell them of the beautiful proportions of the Halloran House on Fitzroy Street and how every effort should be made to preserve it. There would be no better way to say Thank You to Stan of Green Gables.

Written Wednesday, March 14, 2001 at 12:47 PM

(c) 2000 by Catherine Hennessey. Questions or comments? Email me@catherinehennessey.com

Website design and construction by Reinvented Inc.

ISSN 1496-3108