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Celebrate Amherst's rich Victorian architectural heritage

Community Editorial Panel with Leslie Childs

Overheard in downtown Amherst a couple of weeks ago, … “I love Amherst houses.” That certainly made my heart sing!

I’ve always felt this way, right from my first visit in 1990. I remain fascinated by the Victorian grandeur of the main streets, the leafy side streets, and the many elegant homes.

Once we arrived in 1999, it wasn’t long before I was volunteering at the museum and became immersed in the pivotally important history of Amherst, Chignecto, and Cumberland. No other place in Canada, in my opinion, played quite such an important role in making Canada what it is today…and that includes much more than the Four Fathers of Confederation. Then I got involved with Amherst Area Heritage Trust (AAHT) because they worked to preserve, protect, and promote Amherst’s built heritage.

So, you can imagine my delight when an old friend visited last week and also said “I love Amherst’s houses”. What an invitation! I hustled her into the car and gave the AAHT’s history tour; she was beyond fascinated. A day later, she said, “Can we go around and look again?” We did and then right before she left, she asked for a third tour. She couldn’t believe all the wonderful house, big and small, and how so many were loved and looked after.

We have, however, lost several of pieces of built heritage over the past weeks/months and it looks like several more will go because neglect has made them unsafe to enter or even to walk past in some cases. It is sad to think that photos are all that will remain of their stately facades and someone’s hopes and dreams.

But, there is good news!

Many of our older homes are being lovingly maintained or sympathetically repurposed and restored. If you are curious, here’s your opportunity. On Oct. 18 from 6 to 9, AAHT will open two homes: Barker’s at 6 Regent St., and Rhodes’ at 57 Havelock and Robie. Each site will participate in the Fibre Arts Festival with displays of vintage handwork, like quilts, knitting, wall art, and more.

The Barker house is just now starting down the long road to restoration to become a single home again. It was built in 1914 for Albert A. Barker by Amherst’s very own master builders, the “Allen boys”. Albert and his brother George M. Barker arrived in Amherst from Saint John, New Brunswick, in 1903. They set up shop on the second floor of a long wooden building on the northeast corner of Eddy and East Victoria, and they brought with them a brand a brand-new entrepreneurial philosophy. They believed that doing a “big” business, would save 10% by buying wholesale in larger quantities and that by selling only in cash an additional saving could be made in bookkeeping. They must have been right because only four years later, in 1907, they built their three-story upscale department store across the street, The 2 Barkers. Today we call it Dayle’s Grand Market.

Albert Barker’s house is said to have had 39 rooms, including a ballroom on the third floor and been built on a steel frame. Its square architectural lines speak to the tastes of the Industrial Revolution and the new trend towards functionality and the soberness brought on by WW I.

The second house at 57 Havelock is entirely refurbished. It was built in 1890 for Nelson Admiral Rhodes and his wife Sarah Curry by his Rhodes own construction company, Rhodes Curry & Co. They also built many of Amherst’s fine homes as well as First Baptist Church. They used the finest materials and the best craftspeople in town. The house has five fireplaces with Italian marble inlay as well as 68 windows, many of which are stained glass. The finely carved woodwork adds elegance at every turn.

One of Rhodes Curry’s first projects was the main building and ladies’ seminary at Acadia College in 1878. Later, they built Marconi’s telegraphy towers in Glace Bay, a variety of railway carriages, as well as the train station in Amherst.. The company employed 1,200 people.

Come have a look. The Barker home and Rhodes Manor will be open for tours on Friday, Oct. 18 from 6 to 9 p.m. Admission is $5 at the door to support Amherst Area Heritage Trust.

Leslie Childs is a member of the Amherst News Community Editorial Panel.

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