Halifax History / Local Tips April 9, 2018

5 Local Secrets from Halifax – Part 2

Here are 5 (more) LOCAL SECRETS from Halifax – with these secrets in-hand, you can take a self-guided tour and experience the mysteries of the city for yourself!

1 – The Graveyard Under Your Feet

If you have ever visited Halifax, chances are you’ve spent some time in Grafton Park, even if you didn’t know that was its official name. Grafton Park is the small triangle of green space in front of the Halifax Memorial Library on Spring Garden Road, home to the Winston Churchill statue.

Did you know that this was the site of a 19th century poorhouse cemetery? This green space is the final resting spot for Hessian soldiers, pirates, paupers and Canada’s first French-Canadian novelist Philippe-Ignace-François Aubert de Gaspé Jr.

On the topic of graveyards, did you know that Major General Robert Ross is buried in Halifax’s Old Burying Ground? Ross was involved in numerous influential battles, including a march on Washington in the War of 1812, which resulted in setting fire to the White House.

2 – From the FIRST library to the NEWEST library

It’s certainly not a secret that Halifax has a gorgeous library in the downtown core, but did you know that Halifax was home to the first public library in Canada?

On February 19th, 1864, a defense attorney in Halifax purchased the subscription-based Halifax Mechanic’s Library and donated his personal collection of books to get the new ‘Citizens Free Library’. According to the rules, anyone “above the age of 18 who were of a known and respectable nature” could borrow one book at a time. Ratepayers, professionals, clergymen, teachers and their pupils were frequent patrons. Overdue fines were set at two cents a day. Visitors could use the facilities and borrow if they were registered in the “stranger’s book”.

The Citizen’s Free Library was without a permanent home until 1890, when it moved into the second floor of City Hall, a space now occupied by the Mayor’s office. The Citizen’s Free Library was closed in 1949 when the Halifax Memorial Library opened on Spring Garden Road.

3 – The Mystery House in Dartmouth

The Halifax region has over 30 entries on the List of National Historic Places. One of those is the ‘Mystery House,’ located at 95 King St. in Dartmouth. Celebrated as an example of the Neo-Classical style, the Mystery house is one of only a few examples of this style of home in Nova Scotia. The house was built in 1845, and was rented out to Dr. John McDonald.

One winter evening, Dr. McDonald went out and didn’t return. His disappearance piqued the interest of the neighbourhood, as some people reported seeing a trail of blood in the snow. Additionally, a water-filled mine was drained and a skull (reportedly that of a pirate) was found under the house.

It was also believed that on the night of his disappearance, Dr. McDonald had in his possession a large sum of money. Ever since that night, the house has been known as The Mystery House.

4 – The Capitol Theatre

Sitting at the heart of downtown – on the corner of Spring Garden Road and Barrington Street – is the Maritime Centre, a familiar building in Halifax. Unsurprisingly, that space wasn’t always occupied by offices. It was initially home to The Academy of Music, which opened in 1877. Playing host to many musical and theatrical events, the Academy of Music featured one of the most famous literary figures to visit Halifax: Oscar Wilde. On the evenings of October 9th and 10th, 1882, over 1,500 Haligonians attended his 2 lectures on the Aesthetic Movement.

The Academy of Music (which had since been renamed the Majestic) was demolished in 1929, making way for the Capitol Theatre, which opened in October 1930. The movie house and theatre was designed to look like a castle on the inside, and was a popular destination for locals.

You can read more about the elaborate building in an article from Spacing Atlantic. There are still a few reminders of The Capitol Theatre in a small display on the basement (food court) level of the Maritime Centre.

5 – The Connection Between Siam and Halifax

Halifax has been home to many writers over the years, including Anna Leonowens. You might recognize Leonowens as the governess and tutor to the King of Siam’s 67 children. Her story was turned into the film, “Anna and the King of Siam” and the musical “The King and I”.

Leonowens founded the Victoria College of Art and Design, which would eventually become Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD) University. To this day, the school has a public exhibition space and resource centre named after her.

Don’t miss Top 5 HalifaxLocal Secrets – Part 1!

Originally published February 10, 2015. Updated April 2018.

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