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Nova Scotia: Lunenburg, First Stop

by Kristin Nord

When we first approach the town, just 50 miles west of Halifax, it is the bracing Lunenburg Academy that sets the tone. The regal Second Empire Victorian building, perched atop Gallows Hills, the last surviving school of its kind in Nova Scotia.  It has been painstakingly restored -- and serves as the starting point for a journey that will take us into a world of narrow streets and fanciful houses.
     In minutes, we reach the waterfront, where trawlers and sailboats are setting forth from a lively harbor on this sunny day. Brilliant red and blue warehouse buildings on Bluenose Drive are further signs that weve entered serious maritime country, even before we see the large vessels moored beside the Fisheries Museum of the Atlantic. Leftover paint from the shipyards was often applied to buildings in maritime villages,  but Lunenburg expanded upon this, by integrating English, German, French and Swiss influences. Carpenter Gothic, New England Federal and British Georgian houses sit cheek by jowl in Old Towns steep streets, embellished with master shipbuilders carpentry. The cumulative impression is surprising, and often magical:  part-Victorian, part-Medieval.
      Lunenburg has become a major tourist destination, though so far, it has managed to hang on -- through its wits and ingenuity--to its fishing fleet and to many of its supporting industries. You will still find many descendants of the towns settlers living here, and youll still encounter German cuisine and German surnames in great profusion.  Their forebears came from the farming districts of the Upper Rhine some 250 years ago--wooed by British colonists and the promise of free land.  From the British vantage point, this was not a selfless offer--it was colonial policy to recruit settlers to counteract  the French presence at Louisbourg. 
     The largely German Calvinists who settled in Lunenburg soon proved they were industrious by nature. Through necessity, they transformed themselves into some of the worlds finest seamen and shipbuilders. The traits of innovation and ingenuity would become the stuff of legends, as Lunenburgers became instrumental in the development of the Grand Banks fishery. With a mile-long line anchored in the water and a resulting increased catch retrieved by fishermen from a small flat-bottomed dories, schooners could cover greater areas. By 1890, the Lunenburg fishery was booming. 
     At home Lunenburgers were house-proud, and prosperity fueled an architectural explosion. During this time hundreds of the distinctive  'Lunenburg Bumps'  were added to the towns existing woodframe buildings.  These 'bumps' transformed the simple 5-sided Scotch dormers into fanciful multi-tiered structures with often elaborate rooflines. These outcroppings took the form of finely detailed bay windows that could be one to several stories.
    These spaces were put  to use, Eric Croft, a local historian, tells me--as sewing rooms, or lookouts, and quite often, as indoor plumbing was installed, as bathrooms. But the towns carpenters, many of them master shipbuilders with some free time in the winter months, did not stop there.  The decorative finish was where the builder was most likely to express his imagination, and no two buildings in Old Town are exactly alike.  Architectural elements were added like the embellishments a musician adds to traditional tunes.  This often-startling individuality worked, because the craftsmen stayed within the bounds of the form.  We still recognize the underlying melody for Lunenburgs streets, in other words.
      Bill Plaskett, a visual artist and one of Luneneburgs many   'come from aways',  was enchanted by  the houses and streets more than 30 years ago when he took a job as town planner. By then Lunenburgs fortunes had plummeted, and a growing number of the buildings had been aluminum-sided.  Plasket feared the remarkable detailing would be lost if the trend continued.  He and a number of other town leaders set about to assess the properties and to educate Lunenburgs residents of their historic and architectural worth. They helped steer the town in its next economic transition, as a place that would celebrate its maritime history and traditions -- and add tourism to its working economy.
     In recent years the town has been recognized for its architectural and historical  significance;  in 1995, it was named a Unesco World Heritage Site, as a premier example of planned European colonial settlement in North America. Even today, Old Towns original layout, with its steep streetscapes and clearly delineated private and public spaces, remains intact.
     My husband and I joined Croft  near the monument that commemorates the Lunenburgers who have been lost at sea. Fishing the Grand Banks off Newfoundland and Labrador was long, tedious and hazardous work, in often brutal weather conditions, he tells us.
     On this particular day, Croft has elected to begin on King Street, warning us a film crew is in town and part of Old Town has been cordoned off for the days shooting.  We walk past the Zwicker House, a Georgian structure that was built in around 1829 and victorianized 50 years later.  It sports a three-story Italianate bump that moves from the front entrance to the roof  like a layer cake with attitude.
     Though the houses in Old Town are built in many different styles, their gable ends all face the street. Plasket, in one of two books he has published on the buildings,  suggests that its is this orientation that unites the streetscape. As I look down to the harbor, I see what he means.
    We reach the Town Green, a popular spot for on-location filmmakers,  which Croft tells us was dotted with  styrofoam tombstones for the filming of Simon Birch not too long ago. Filmmaking has become a Lunenburg sideline -- on the order of the rum-running expeditions Lunenburgers engaged in during Prohibition.
     A few minutes later, we encounter a block of Old Town that has been transformed temporarily into a street in rural Maine. Rusted cars with Maine plates have been parked strategically. We pause and watch an actress approaching, dressed in work clothes and Wellies and lugging an oil can.. Out from under an unkempt gray wig the fine bone structure of Vanessa Redgrave surfaces.  She flashes a brilliant smile at my husband, who has pulled out his camera hoping to record the scene.  Then she settles into a directors chair and is soon surrounded by a number of assistants.  Extras who have been hired for the day dutifully line up on the streetcorner.
     The lunch trade at Magnolias, there for mussels or a cup of Gazpacho, will have a longer wait than usual.  In the greater scheme of things, this disruption is minor; after all, Lunenburgers have seen ships and, in some cases, generations, come and go. Across the street  a descendant of one of the merchant families threads her way past the lights and cameras on an errand, her unleashed dachshund in the lead.
     Croft returns us to Bluenose Drive and the Fisheries museum. Well  watch a dory being constructed, and admire the intricate sailors valentines. Then well re-encounter  master carpentry on the schooner Theresa E. Connor. This is wood as living history, wood rich with stories.

Next stop:  Annapolis Royal and Blomidon, as two minimalist campers take on nature in the wild.

Photos: The Academy; Lunenburg at night; a 'bump, ®Tourism Nova Scotia


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