Fredericton City Hall, the Justice Building and other historic buildings in the city might not exist today were it not for a passionate architect and the cancellation of a city council vote in the 1970s.
This moment in history is chronicled in Vancouver author Adele Weder’s new book. Ron Thom, Architect: The Life of a Creative Modernist published by Greystone Books.
The late Ron Thom was a renowned Canadian architect. He is well known for his work at Massey College and the waterfront campus of Trent University.
But Weder said Thom is also known for saving a number of Fredericton’s historic buildings.
Weder said the city was discussing the possibility of urban renewal, and in 1972 a proposal from Marathon Realty was accepted to replace much of the historic downtown core with a modernist shopping complex. Weder said the board backed the proposal by a 6-5 vote.
John Leroux, a trained architect, architectural historian and director of collections and exhibitions at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, said cities at the time were tearing down “enormous” sections of historic town centers to replace them. by major commercial developments.
“Then they realized the error of their ways, but by then it’s usually too late,” Leroux said.
According to him, this “urban renewal” would result in the demolition of the town hall and about “half of the institutional monuments of the city center”.
He said it started a heritage movement in Fredericton, which included two people who were at the heart of the movement: Bruno and Molly Bobak.
The Bobaks, two prominent artists from Fredericton, were upset by the decision, Weder said. She said Molly attended Vancouver Art School with Thom.
By this time, Thom was a nationally known architect, and the couple called on him to help convince the city council to reverse their decision.
“It’s a misnomer that all modern architects just want to destroy history,” Weder said. “Architects like Ron Thom want to preserve, learn and be inspired by history and have it enrich contemporary architecture, so he loved historic Fredericton.
Weder said she came to Fredericton in 2011 and spoke to the Bobaks. She said they remembered Thom’s call to the council as a “fiery speech”.
She said Thom had worked with local historians from the Heritage Trust to create local opposition.
“He lent him external authority, moral strength, because he had national fame,” Weder said. “He came with this moral authority of being a contemporary architect and saying, ‘It’s wrong, you mustn’t destroy your past. “”
Weder said the city council narrowly overturned the decision, 6-5 on a technicality.
“A very different place”
Leroux said the same company that wanted to build a development in Fredericton’s historic downtown plaza ended up building Kings Place a block away.
“Imagine Kings Place, you know, but twice as big, replacing a lot of the beautiful historic buildings downtown,” Leroux said. “And that’s what downtown Fredericton would be.”
Leroux said he thinks Fredericton would be a very different place if the development had taken place.
“I think you would have a real dead zone in the middle of downtown… Its civic identity is based on the idea that we have these streetscapes and these heritage neighborhoods,” Leroux said.
“Phoenix Square is where people congregate, it’s where they go to celebrate and support and protest and congregate and so it would go away. Because nobody’s doing that now outside Kings Place.”