While the Canadian Maritimes have long been synonymous with a tranquil colourful aesthetic featuring pastel-coloured clapboard homes and churches framed against a scenic rocky coast, there remains a significant exception to this rule left behind by the Halifax Explosion of 1917, which was by far the worst manmade disaster in Canadian history. This edition of Cityscape will take an in-depth look at Halifax's famed Hydrostone District, ground zero for the reconstruction that took place in the immediate wake of the explosion, and the birthplace of Nova Scotia's only known example of the Garden City Movement from the turn of the last century.
On the morning of December 6, 1917, at the height of Canada's wartime efforts in the First World War, there was an explosion at the edge of the Halifax Harbour. Equivalent to a 2.9-kiloton blast of TNT, this was the largest explosion ever experienced up until the bombing of Hiroshima in 1945, and it left the small maritime capital — and the Canadian base of naval operations — in ruins.
The result of a collision between the SS Mont Blanc, a French cargo ship loaded with explosives en route to France, and the SS Imo, a nearby Norwegian vessel attempting a manoeuvre, the devastation obliterated virtually every structure within an 800-metre radius, with severe damage dealt to hundreds of structures across the city and in nearby Dartmouth across the harbour. 2000 people were killed instantly by the blast, with a further 9000 wounded, and an unknown number of indigenous Mi'kmaq people were lost when their entire settlement was completely destroyed by the resultant tsunami.
Seen in the above map, the affected area reached several blocks inward from the harbour, with varying degrees of devastation indicated by the half-, one-, and two-mile radius lines outlined in blue. While reports of shattered glass and missing roof tiles were recorded from every corner of the city, by far the worst-hit area remained the Richmond District closest to the explosion, as outlined in red. The ruins of the former Halifax Exhibition Building pictured below, which had been situated within the associated Exhibition Grounds, were found within the second blast radius on the above map, and the adjacent grid of city streets immediately below the Grounds became the centrepiece of the reconstruction efforts that led to the creation of Hailfax's Hydrostone District.
The earliest reconstruction efforts began right away, with the construction of 832 new housing units built and furnished thanks in large part to the efforts of Colonel Robert Low and the Massachusetts-Halifax Relief Fund. The creation of today's Hyrdostone District took notably longer, with the first residents of the new Garden City-inspired neighbourhood to taking occupancy in mid-1919, while the last structures weren't completed until 1922.
The development spans roughly 12 blocks longitudinally along what became Novalea (Latin for "new grassland") Drive (far right) as seen in the above aerial view. The Hydrostone District, or simply The Hydrostone, was the product of a collaboration between Thomas Adams, an English pioneer of modern urban planning and the secretary of the Garden City Association, and the architectural expertise of George Ross, of the Montreal firm of Ross and MacDonald.
Created from the outset as an example of a Garden City, The Hydrostone was laid out in a rectangular grid, broken up into regular intervals by a series of wide, grass-covered boulevards and narrow, back alleys and laneways. The Garden City Movement was born out of the larger City Beautiful Movement, which valued a high level of urban planning and architectural cohesion paired with ample public green space.
Lined on either side by large, often Arts-and-Crafts-inspired attached and detached homes, the picturesque boulevard design, paired with the placement of larger-than-usual homes, created a pleasing streetscape and architectural aesthetic that has helped define this unique neighbourhood and historic district to this day.
Built almost entirely out of the eponymous hydrostone, all 326 homes in the District showcased a relatively new product that was essentially a concrete cinderblock formed via a hydraulic pressing process then finished to give the approximate appearance of cut stone. Selected for its low cost, quick construction, and most importantly, its high degree of heat and fire resistance, the use of hydrostone allowed for the massive reconstruction project to move along as quickly as possible while simultaneously fire-proofing the area against any potential future explosions, fires, or other similar disasters.
Anchored at its southern boundary along Young Street by the vibrant collection of shops and restaurants of the Hydrostone Market, the neighbourhood has in recent years become an enclave of young urban professionals and their families, the formerly working-class neighbourhood within a brisk 30-minute walk to downtown Halifax quickly becoming one of the city's most desirable neighbourhoods.
While the entire Hydrostone District has been registered as a National Historic Site since 1993, the individual homes that make up the neighbourhood are not protected as heritage structures. Despite this apparent oversight, the architectural heritage of the area has remained largely intact, thanks to both the neighbourhood's traditionally slow rate of development as well as the recent uptick in interest from a demographic of homebuyer who appear to value the area for its historic charm and architectural character. Loved for its quirky historic charm and unusual cinderblock construction, The Hydrostone is truly one of a kind, setting the neighbourhood apart from virtually all others of its vintage not only within Halifax, but across the whole of Canada from coast to coast.
For more Halifax coverage check out associated City page, and as always, feel free to join the conversation in the comments section below. Cityscape will return soon with a new installment, and in the meantime, SkyriseCities welcomes new suggestions for additional cities and styles to cover in the weeks to come.