A Living Cell

What made me choose a city block as the subject of my UNB History honours project almost 30 years ago? I wanted to explore Fredericton’s domestic architecture and I think my main motivation for focusing on this block was the fact that the houses on its four sides offered much greater variety than individual streetscapes did and I wondered how and why this had come about. This paper, which I called “A Living Cell,” was never intended for publication in its original form, yet, thanks to the interest of Fredericton Heritage Trust, here it is, warts and all,* unedited (except for the year which has been digitally added to the title page), in the hope that it may be useful and possibly even serve as a model for future studies of its type.

A Living Cell approaches the city as an organism: a living, growing, changing entity. Though common today, this was an unusual way of looking at things 30 years ago (the 20th century preferred mechanical analogies). This study proved to be a puzzle of evolving land development and house construction, based mainly on documents in the Provincial Archives and on first-hand observation of the block and its buildings. The complex social make-up of the block was manifested in its architecture.

Fredericton’s wooden vernacular architecture is unique to the place and to its history. While many visitors flock to see the major attractions - Government House and the Military Compound - many others recognize that what Frederictonians take for granted, their own historic domestic architecture with its human scale and combination of simplicity and ornament, is the city’s greatest asset. It is an asset well worth protecting. It is 26 years since I left Fredericton. In that time, I have lived in three countries and five very different cities. Each time I return home, I marvel at Fredericton’s geographic and historic beauty.

A comparison of images on Google Street View with the black and white photographs in A Living Cell shows that there have been both historically sympathetic improvements and unsympathetic renovations on the block in the last 30 years. The same time period has seen significant change in the city as a whole. People most often turn to Street View to look up their childhood homes, yet I cannot find the house in which I spent the first three and a half years of my life: the Gothic Revival gatehouse of Frogmore, once located at the corner of Beaverbrook and Regent Streets, has been replaced with asphalt and traffic lights. More recent neighbourhoods, such as the one I grew up in, are threatened with larger-scaled infill. Change is inevitable but positive change is the result of informed and intelligent planning and decision-making. In Fredericton, as in all cities, there are constantly choices to be made between healthy and enlivening growth (like Fredericton’s wonderful trail system) or cancerous and debilitating tumorous development. The more we know about our past, the better informed these choices will be.

*I believe that most of the content is very accurate. However, the lyrics quoted at the beginning as being from an Old English folk song are by Austin John Marshall and were set to traditional melodies.

- Carolyn Young, November 2010

About the author

Carolyn Young's contributions to architectural history include: The Glory of Ottawa: Canada's First Parliament Buildings (McGill-Queen's University Press, 1995), work as principal researcher for Dr Harold Kalman's History of Canadian Architecture (Oxford University Press, Canada, 1994), and voluntary work for both The Victorian Society in London, England, and Heritage Montreal.