Colourful wooden vernacular architecture sits on the edge of a harbour.

The town of Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, from across Lunenburg Harbour.

By Peter Coffman

(During my current sabbatical, I am gathering material from across the country for a new course we’re planning on Canadian architecture. I’ll occasionally use this blog to think out loud about some of the places I visit and the issues they raise.)

🎶 The foot bone’s connected to the leg bone.
The leg bone’s connected to the knee bone.
The knee bone’s connected to the thigh bone.
Doin’ the skeleton dance
. 🎶
(The Skeleton Dance)

I remember singing this ditty as a little kid. More than half a century later, it strikes me as a great metaphor for architecture. And my recent trip to Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, put this into sharp focus.

We think of Lunenburg as a ‘fishing town’, and for good reason. Founded in 1753 as an agricultural community, the settlers fairly quickly realized that the sea yielded far more than the soil. By the later nineteenth century, Lunenburg had grown into one of the busiest fishing ports in Canada.

What really struck me while wandering around Lunenburg was the complex web of built things needed to underpin the prosperity of the fishing industry. Everything is connected to everything else. It’s a whole eco-system of structures, each of which functions like an organ within an organism that we call a ‘fishing town’.

Most obvious, perhaps, are the fishing boats themselves. It may seem odd to consider boats as ‘architecture’, but given that men lived in them for weeks (or sometimes months) at a time, they have to be considered crucial parts of the built environment of the fishing industry.

For generations, the most celebrated type of boat in the Lunenburg fleet was the schooner. This one, the Theresa E. Connor, was launched in 1938 and served until 1966. She could carry up to 425,000 pounds (193,000 kg) of fish.

A fishing schooner sits in Lunenburg Harbour.

The Teresa E. Connor, launched in Lunenburg in 1938 and now part of the Fisheries Museum of the Atlantic.

The schooner’s job was to go to sea and bring back fish. But it was also where the crew of nearly 30 lived, ate, slept and entertained themselves for weeks at a time. These sleeping bunks may look more like coffins than bedrooms to us. But for the crew, this floating fish warehouse was ‘home’.

Eating and sleeping quarters inside a fishing schooner.

The eating and sleeping quarters of the Teresa E. Connor.

But to have schooners, you need to build schooners. That requires architecture. The Teresa E. Connor was built in Lunenburg in the shipyard of Smith and Rhuland, famous for building (among many other ships) the Bluenose, Bluenose II, and the replica of the Bounty. Where there are shipyards, there are boat sheds. Smith and Rhuland’s was recently restored and enlarged by the Lunenburg Marine Museum Society, and is still in use.

Interior of a shipyard workshop.

The ‘Big Boat Shed’, originally the Smith and Rhuland Boat Shed, Lunenburg.

The schooner may have been the most glamorous member of the shipping fleet, but the workhorse was the humble dory. In fact, you could argue that the schooner wasn’t really a ‘fishing boat’. The schooner’s function was to carry the real fishing boats – dories – to the where the fish were. It was in dories that fishermen rowed out to lay the fishing lines, and in dories they carried the catch back to the schooner. Piloting a dory was an incredibly grueling and perilous occupation. The Teresa E. Connor carried twelve dories, stacked on deck like bowls on a shelf, in two piles of six.

A dory sits on the deck of a schooner in Lunenburg Harbour

A Dory sits on the deck of the Teresa E. Connor.

Like schooners, dories have to be built. Which means you need premises in which to build them. The simple shed below was constructed around 1890 and purchased by Henry Rhuland in 1917, who used it for building dories. One hundred and six years later, that’s still what it’s used for.

A rustic wooden shed is perched on the edge of Lunenburg Harbour.

The Dory Shop, Lunenburg.

Once brought to harbour in the schooner, the catch had to be prepared for market. This required fish processing facilities, built right next to the harbour to make the transfer of the catch as easy and fast as possible. Lunenburg’s Fisheries Museum of the Atlantic is housed in a complex of buildings originally used for this purpose.

A bright red wooden building next to the wharf on Lunenburg Harbour.

The Fisheries Museum of Atlantic Canada is housed in what was previously the Lunenburg Fish Processing Plant.

The fish plant needed to move supplies both in and out, and therefore needed easy access to transportation infrastructure. The harbour provided one crucial means of transportation, but in the later nineteenth century, another hugely important one arose: the railway.

The railway is long gone from Lunenburg, but in the archival photo below you can see that the processing plant (now part of the Fisheries Museum) was sandwiched by the harbour (just visible on the right) and the railway (on the left).

Archival photograph of a grouping of wooden industrial buildings by the edge of Lunenburg Harbour.

Archival photo of the Lunenburg Fish Processing Plant, now used as part of the Fisheries Museum of the Atlantic (photo: Fisheries Museum of the Atlantic).

The railway, of course, brought its own infrastructure and architecture, including stations for passenger service. Here’s Lunenburg’s station, also (alas!) long gone.

Archival B&W photo of an old train station.

Nova Scotia Central Railway Station, Lunenburg (photo: Nova Scotia Archives).

At the top of the social pyramid were those who benefited most from the thriving web of industries that fed the fishery – especially those who owned and built the fishery and its infrastructure. They lived in some of the houses for which Lunenburg is famous – and which formed part (but only part) of the reason why it received UNESCO World Heritage Site designation in 1995. The earlier (eighteenth-century) houses tend toward a Classical sense of calm, but as the nineteenth century progressed and Victorian taste evolved (and Lunenburg grew in affluence), the houses became more and more ornate. These houses bear witness to the growth and prosperity of the Lunenburg fishery.

A simple, symmetrical vernacular wooden building.

The Knaut-Rhuland House, built ca. 1793 and owned by a succession of affluent and influential Lunenburgers. It is now a house museum owned and operated by the Lunenburg Heritage Society.

An ornate Victorian wooden building on a street in Lunenburg.

Kaulbach House, built ca. 1890 for Dufferin Kaulbach.

The buildings (and other built things) that I’ve illustrated here are all very different from one another. But like the foot bone and the leg bone and the knee bone in the song, they’re inextricably and symbiotically connected. None of them could exist without the others.

When we study architectural history, we often isolate and analyze individual, iconic buildings. But the built environment is a complex system, not a collection of independent objects. Exploring that system’s intricate interrelations is one of the most rewarding and revealing ways of studying history through architecture.

Peter Coffman