Mired in disputes about its fate, historic St. John’s cottage destroyed by fire

Bryn Mawr Cottage was destroyed by fire early on Friday morning. The historic home had been vacant, and was not connected to electricty. (Submitted by Michael Hall)

Smoke billowed from the historic Bryn Mawr Cottage on Friday morning, mixing into a cold fog hanging low over the east end of St. John’s.

Firefighters did everything they could, but there was no saving the 115-year-old structure from its death. Years of public petitions, impassioned pleas and legal battles to save the vacant home from demolition fell by the wayside in an early morning fire.

Michael Hall, platoon chief with the St. John’s Regional Fire Department, said it was a sight none of his firefighters wanted to see.

“It’s sad because this structure here has been certainly the centre of controversy here for many, many years, and to see something that’s well over 100 years old completely demolished, it’s unfortunate.”

Hall said a taxi driver spotted the fire just before 3 a.m. on Friday. By the time the Kent’s Pond Fire Department — located about 200 metres away — made it to the property, it was fully engulfed.

Court battle dismissed last year

Bryn Mawr Cottage — also known as Baird Cottage — was built in 1905 by architect William F. Butler, one of the most influential builders in the province’s history. It was built for James C. Baird, a Scottish-born merchant who was looking for a summer home on the outskirts of St. John’s.

As the city sprawled outwards, it grew around Byrn Mawr — Welsh for “big hill” — as it remained a sprawling estate in the midst of the hustle and bustle of a growing city.

The home was purchased from the Baird family in 1970 by businessman Jim Steinhauer. The sprawling estate was whittled away over time, as condo buildings and seniors homes were built around the cottage.

Bryn Mawr, also known as Baird’s Cottage, was built in 1907 by renowned architect William F. Butler. Butler was responsible for many of the most significant structures in Newfoundland from that era. (Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador)

The Steinhauer family agreed in 2014 to sell the property to development firm KMK Capital. In 2016, the City of St. John’s declared it a heritage structure, eliminating any potential for the new owner to demolish the home.

KMK Capital and Mildred Steinhauer then sued the city in an attempt to reverse the decision. The legal battle lasted five years, with the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador dismissing the lawsuit in October 2021.

Throughout the court proceedings, however, the building sat empty and untouched. The windows were boarded up and the property fell into ruin.

“Another heritage structure lost to demolition by neglect,” tweeted Tyler Stapleton, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Historic Trust, on Friday morning. “I’m not at all surprised to see the house go up in flames. Designation is not enough. Unfortunately, it was only a matter of time. The erosion of our [built heritage] continues. Where will it end?”

Aggressive fire could have been much worse

Hall said a decision was made immediately to go on the defensive, rather than attack the fire. It was clear there would be no way to save the old cottage, but there was concern for the surrounding homes and buildings.

There are several older homes nearby, as well as condo buildings and the Tiffany Village seniors complex.

“The concern here this evening was the embers igniting the residential structures here in the neighbourhood,” he said. “It would have been a lot more serious. Fortunately for everyone involved, the conditions were good.”

Not much remained of Bryn Mawr Cottage by 5:30 a.m., just a shell of the old Queen Anne-style home. (Ryan Cooke/CBC)

Within three hours, the flames were doused and all that remained were a few flickering embers. A shell of the old Queen Anne structure was still standing, with gaping holes revealing the charred remains of its insides.

“The structure is destroyed,” Hall said. “At this point we’re going to let the investigators do their thing.”

The investigation will be turned over to the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador