A stone wall along Gerrish Street that separates the sidewalk from the graveyard at the Little Dutch Church, the second oldest surviving building in Halifax (after St. Paul’s Church, built in 1750) and a National Historic Site, is now in the midst of a restoration.
Jacqueline de Mestral is the property chair with Saint George’s Round Church, whose parish includes the Little Dutch Church at the corner of Brunswick and Gerrish streets. The German-speaking Protestants who arrived in the city in the mid-1750s worshipped at this church. The building itself was a house that was moved from another plot of land. Another 16 feet and a steeple was then added to the building. The church and property became a National Historic Site in 1999.
Back in 2018, de Mestral said the church learned from HRM that the stone wall that runs along Gerrish Street was in danger of collapse. De Mestral said she and the parish decided a restoration was in order.
“I love this little church,” said de Mestral. “We come here in the summertime. The morning and evening prayer services are led by laypeople. So, I’ve been doing either Tuesday night or Wednesday evening prayer now for maybe a decade. I just wanted to see things happen. It’s true that the walls were in danger of collapsing. And that would be a terrible mess.”
A similar stone wall runs along Brunswick Street from near the church’s main door and down a block. In 2019, the parish got money from HRM to restore that stone wall, which acts a retainer between the cemetery and the Brunswick Street sidewalk. Halifax-based stone mason Christopher Whittle did the restoration on that wall, building the wall back up after stones had long fallen out or were stolen, and replacing the concrete cap on top.
But the work required on the Gerrish Street wall would be much different. While there are about 100 headstones in this cemetery, there are about 1,000 people buried here, most in unmarked graves. The wall protects the grounds of the cemetery, which closed in 1844.
“This was a whole different kettle of fish because the wall was in danger of actually falling over and that is a retaining wall,” de Mestral said. “The cemetery is at a higher level than the Gerrish Street sidewalk. We didn’t know what we’d find.”
De Mestral said she’s not sure how old the walls are, but they were likely built not much longer after the church itself, which was consecrated in 1761. De Mestral said the church has searched the Nova Scotia Archives and found old photos of the wall dating back to the late 1880s, but there are no official documents stating the date the wall was built. There’s only a brief entry about the walls in the vestry books.
De Mestral went looking for funds to help pay for the wall’s restoration. She learned about a cost-sharing program from Parks Canada for projects at National Historic Sites. The goal was $240,000, with half of that coming from Parks Canada, the other half being raised by Saint George’s. De Mestral got money from the province, HRM, the Halifax Foundation, Heritage Trust of Nova Scotia, as well as from parishioners from Saint George, and private donations.
“Everyone we tell about the wall is excited about it, is interested in it,” de Mestral said. “So, we should be spreading the word.”
Restoring the wall took an entire team of experts. Cultural Resource Management (CRM) Group and its archeologists took on the role of the assessments before the work started.
SP Dumaresq Architect Ltd. was hired as the architect and conservation specialist Suzanne Myers made sure the project followed the standards and guidelines required for such restoration work.
And staff at Parks Canada told de Mestral learned about a masonry company in Ontario, Dry Stone Canada, which could do the actual stone work. A team of six masons from Dry Stone came to Halifax last summer.
The walls are made from ironstone, a familiar stone in Halifax.
“If you go down any place where you see blasting, any of the holes and you look down, what you’re seeing there is ironstone. The whole peninsula is covered with that,” de Mestral said.
De Mestral said in about 1919 a layer of concrete was added to the top of the wall. In the part of the wall that still needs to be restored, you can see holes were stones have come lose or where mortar was added to help seal stones together.
The masons from Dry Stone came down in mid-August 2022 and worked for two weeks. The team recorded the design of the wall, breaking it down into one-metre segments, to see how the stones are placed in each segment. Then they took the wall apart stone by stone.
When the dismantling got to about the halfway point, where the wall meets the grounds of the cemetery, an archeologist was on hand in case any bones from the cemetery were found, but none were discovered. If bones had been found, work on the wall restoration would have stopped.
“We were very lucky and everything proceeded very well,” de Mestral said.
The wall was rebuilt using the same stones. In the restoration, de Mestral said the masons arranged the stones in such a way as they’d overlap, locking into each other to stay secure. A thin layer of concrete was placed on top.
De Mestral said it’s important to preserve the wall because it’s a significant historical part of the church and property.
“The fact that people have been worshipping here for 250 years. Where people worship, God is. On one level, it’s as simple as that,” said de Mestral about why she loves the church and site. “It’s something about the simplicity of the place, the lines of it. There’s nothing ornate, there’s nothing ostentatious. It’s very real.”
“Obviously, it meant a great deal to original German Protestants who came here. Within a few years, they decided they needed a church. They’re our spiritual ancestors. It’s because of their efforts that we now have Saint George’s down the road. But that wouldn’t have happened if this hadn’t started here. I have been a parishioner there since 2010 but I am very attached to the round church, but this is where it all started.”
This summer, the work will continue on the other part of the original wall. And coping stones will be placed on top of the wall that was restored last year. Those coping stones, flat stones used to keep the wall secure and discourage people from climbing over, have already been selected from Hutt’s Natural Stone in East Gore.
When the masons from Dry Stone return to the city this spring, they’ll shape those stones before placing them on the wall. Another part of the wall near the corner of Gerrish Street and Portia White Court is much newer, but needs work, too.
The work on the project, from getting the money to pay for it to starting the restoration on the wall, has taken about 18 months so far. It’s a long process, de Mestral said, but one that will restore a seemingly tiny historic part of the city that hundreds of people walk past each day.
“It’s such a privilege to be able to work on something like this,” de Mestral said. “This wall went up maybe in the 1760s, 1770s, and it obviously had to be repaired in some places over the years. But 250 years, that’s not bad. If we can rebuild this wall and know it’s not going to have to be rebuilt for another 250 years, that it’s going to last that long, that feels good. And that means this site is going to be preserved. And it’s an important site; it’s the second oldest surviving building in Halifax. It’s important to all of us.”