Instead of tearing down historic buildings, savvy developers repurpose them — and there’s a great example of such upcycing in downtown St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada.
Murray Premises, 5 Becks Cove, isn’t a cookie-cutter hotel. It’s a classy renovation of the oldest collection of mercantile buildings in the provincial capital. The National Historic Site was originally built in 1846 right on the harbor (although a street and another row of buildings now block sight of the water).
Guests sleep in comfy rooms — a total of 69 — individually carved out starting in 2000 from the office, machine shop and warehouses named for Andrew H. Murray, a merchant of salt, coal, and general supplies for the fishing industry in Newfoundland and Labrador. Each room is different in layout and size, but you’ll find wooden beams, rock walls and exposed brick from the original building.
My room was on the third floor, up under the eaves, with a beamed, slanted ceiling and an electric fireplace. I was there in late August, so I didn’t need the extra heat — but during the winter in Newfoundland, I’m sure it’s an added selling point. The custom-made maple furniture is cozy rather than contemporary — like staying at Grandma’s house. Your well-to-do Grandma’s house.
Murray Premises offers free breakfast, free WiFi and free parking (a special boon among the crowded streets of downtown). It’s maybe 10 feet from the door to the closest restaurant, with at least a dozen more within walking distance. Across the street are restaurants and a bar with live entertainment (and parked just a bit down the street is a food truck offering beaver tails).
What? You’ve not had a beaver tail? That’s what Canadians call their fried dough pastries, stretched to resemble a beaver’s tail. No animals involved, just lots of sugary dough topped with your choice of whipped cream, chocolate sprinkles, sliced banana, M&Ms . . . think: north-of-the-border elephant ears or funnel cake.
St. John’s is known for its colorfully painted wooden townhouses, but its place in history was assured in December 1901 when Guglielmo Marconi assembled a radio receiver at Signal Hill, just outside St. John’s — the closest point to Europe in North America. Signals sent from Poldhu, Cornwall, England, made it across the pond, demonstrating that transatlantic wireless communication was possible.
Of course, Signal Hill was named not for Marconi’s feat, but because it’s where signal flags were raised to communicate with ships approaching Canada. A museum near the always-windy summit provides a history of the site (the last battle of the French and Indian War was fought here in 1762).
Then there’s the cod. It’s no question that industrial fishing put Newfoundland on the map as early as the 15th century, but the numbers of cod plummeted in the mid-20th Century. The Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans issued a ban on Northern cod fishing in 1992. A massive restructuring of the local economy is still underway, with tourism in the forefront.
That’s probably why the tradition of “kissing the cod” persists in local bars even if there are no fishermen hauling ’em in. It helps to have a drink or two under your belt before puckering up.
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(Photos courtesy of Murray Premises and by Susan McKee)