Memories of life at the Elmwood

Dozens of former tenants from the past four decades share their stories about living in the iconic Halifax apartment building.

click to enlarge The property at 1585-89 South Street, as it stands in October, 2017. - LENNY MULLINS
The property at 1585-89 South Street, as it stands in October, 2017.

While researching this week's cover story on the history of the Elmwood building at South and Barrington, The Coast ended up speaking with dozens of current and former tenants from the past 40 years. They shared their memories—and a couple ghost stories—about what it was like living at the ageing historic property. Here's what they had to say.

“I lived in the Elwood for about five years, probably from about 1974 to 1979. A lovely old building, freezing in the winter but such character—high ceilings, large rooms, hardwood floors, working fireplace.” —Heather McQuinn, resident 1974-79

“I worked at Public Works at the time and walked home every day for lunch. Sat in the bay window and read the paper. It just had a nice vibe.” —councillor Sam Austin, resident circa 2008

“It was beautiful and if the units had of been kept-up and updated they could have been worth so much.” —Briana Carr, resident 2015

“I loved the high ceilings and huge windows; the giant walk-in closet; the black-and-white checkered-tile bathroom. I often sat on the deck drinking coffee watching the trees.” —Lukas Pearse, resident 1999-2001

“Listen, I can tell you right now the house was incredible. I don't think anywhere in Halifax brought together so many vibrant personalities. Not notable people in their own right, but notable in what they possess and that was character, conversation and panache.” —Brendan Kian Stephen Jones, resident 2014-2016

“I had kind of admired the building and was very excited to be living there.” —former HRM poet laureate Sue MacLeod, resident circa 1977-79.

click to enlarge VIA JENNIFER HUSTON
“It was my very first home! My mom and dad lived there back in the  ‘80s. My dad has a painting of it.” —Jennifer Huston, resident circa 1984

“It was an eclectic group: singles, families. I was working in dinner theatre at the time so I seemed to be off-hours for meeting people. The building was old but well-kept and so pretty. Our kitchen was vintage red-and-chrome, hardwood throughout and a non-working, green-glass brick fireplace in the living room. My roommate and I both met our husbands while we were there and each moved out to start new happy lives. That place holds a very warm place in my heart. The window in the living room bumped out just enough to fit a loveseat perfectly. I spent many hours watching people coming and going from the Westin Hotel and folks in the park. There was no Superstore just old buildings and you could see down to the end of Barrington Street.” —Angela Vermeir, resident 1989-91

“We were on the first floor and we were near the door, so people would knock on the window. It seemed like something people couldn't resist. Visitors would always knock on the window on the way to the door.” —Sue MacLeod

“The only other tenant I remember was an elderly woman and her husband who lived in the top west apartment. I helped her carry groceries a few times and she gave me some homemade biscuits inside her place. She told me she had lived there for, I think, about 40 years. Her place was lovely and looked like my image of a hip, 1940s pad and we talked about how she used to frequent Pepe's to hear jazz. That was the main reason she and her husband moved downtown, was to be near the nightlife and live music.” —Lukas Pearse

“We used to sit out on the top deck barbecuing, and having drinks with the neighbours above and below us and sometimes even from the other side of the building. My buddy married the girl who lived downstairs, a few years after coming over one night and mistakenly ringing the wrong buzzer.” —Rebecca Costello, resident 2008-09

“[He] was visiting his friends who lived above me, but rang the wrong buzzer and got me instead. Eight years later, married with two kiddos. That building definitely has a place in my heart.” —Susan Reed, resident 2009-10

“There was a little old Spanish man named Leno that would stand out on the balcony several times a day smoking. I would practice my Spanish chatting to him about coming to Canada, him and his wife, their children and other simple topics. It was always a highlight of my day to run into him.” —Rebecca Costello

“Ellen Page lived there for a year or less, with her dog and a couple of her friends.” —Cody Petruk, resident 2006-08

“She didn't like the fact that people were looking at her, following her around.” —Ruth Farquhar, building owner 1994-2014

“The whole first year that Like a Motorcycle existed, when we made our first EP, I was living there…We played music and wrote music in that place.”—Jillian Comeau, resident 2011

“A bunch of us would get together and watch Absolutely Fabulous weekly. I watched my long-term boyfriend leave for employment in Taiwan through my living room window. Later I had to leave my apartment in the hands of friends, as I was off to Taiwan myself. I heard that Sloane stayed at my place while I was away. My parents helped me move a sofa once, and it would not budge from the second-floor balcony. Lots of tears that day.” —Ellen Elizabeth Landry, resident mid-‘90s


“I think it's long been a sort of Montmartre-type cultural island in the south end”

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“We lived on the same floor and we had a shared balcony that wrapped around the whole front of the building. I used to climb through [my neighbour’s] kitchen window and we would hang out and jam. Everybody in the building just seemed very chill.” —Kendall Lee Cogan, resident 2015-16

“We would dance, do swing dancing, have philosophical debates around political, socio-economic or historical subjects. We would host dinners there. I remember one time people probably thought the house was a living brothel because you could hear jazz music coming out of the windows and balconies. There were about 50 people—women dressed as flappers and men in suits smoking cigars—on the balcony. It was quite a site. It wasn't a red Solo cup party if you know what I mean.” —Brendan Kian Stephen Jones

“Often when there was a party in the building, they would include multiple units. If we were having a party we would kind of spill out into the driveway a little bit.” —Samson Learn, resident 2012-13

“It was definitely a really chill environment, which it had to be since you could hear everything that was going on in your neighbour's apartment. It wasn't horrible, but the walls were pretty thin.” — Kendall Lee Cogan

“It was just very plain. I think it was all kind of beige. But very cute little kitchen. The bathroom was nice, old-fashioned feel to it, maybe with some black-and-white tiles, I'm not sure.” —Sue MacLeod

“We lived on the second floor, right off the balcony. It was a beautiful unit. It had been renovated for the owner's family...Great kitchen, high ceilings and lots of original features like mouldings and trim. The frosted Elmwood glass at the front door was neat. Only part that sucked was the bathroom was only accessible off the bedroom.” —Sam Austin

“The stairwell that went up by our door, it was very, very skinny and very tall and strange and impossible to move anything up. People would have to rig things up to like, bring their larger furniture from the lower deck to the top deck using ropes and stuff.” —Jillian Comeau

“My roommate the year before and her sister ended up renting the other apartment in the building. We just found out the day we were moving in...They were in apartment 11. Right below us was a family with two young kids.” —councillor Waye Mason, resident 1991-92

“I also remember that when we moved in, the paint colours were really strange. The landlord let us paint over, so we chose our own favourite colours, which included painting the bathroom hot pink. We figured as young university students we may never again get to have a hot pink bathroom, so this was our chance.” —Jane Catherine Pfeil, resident circa 2004

“We would occasionally have shows in our apartment. We had comedy shows, things like that. Especially comedy. We'd have a microphone set up and we'd have people sit around on cushions on the ground and have shows there. But I know we weren't the only ones. A lot of friends of mine in the music industry have talked about having passed through that place as either guests of musical friends or as tenants themselves. I think it's long been a sort of Montmartre-type cultural island in the south end.” —Fiona MacGillivray, resident 2014-16

“A daughter of a very good friend of ours lives there now. She just moved in about a month ago.” —Heather McQuinn

click to enlarge A newspaper ad for the former Elmwood Hotel. - NOVA SCOTIA ARCHIVES
A newspaper ad for the former Elmwood Hotel.

“I never believed in ghosts until I moved in there”

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“I loved exploring the old rooms. There were a few old storage rooms where the old rock foundation was exposed, and the floor was just gravel. Also, there was the ‘boiler room/mechanical room’ accessible through both sides of the house. When we were drinking, and having friends over, we loved showing them the old spaces as they were creepy and obviously held so much history. They were usually drunken haunted tours.” —Rebecca Costello

“I also remember the beautiful sunlight coming in the windows on a warm November 11 when a goldfinch flew in the window, announcing my grandfather's passing. Shortly after I managed to chase the bird out, I got the phone call confirming this omen.” —Lukas Pearse

“I never believed in ghosts until I moved in there. I swear to god I saw some weird things. It was never just me, it was multiple people...It's almost as if when we had our themed parties, the jazz music we played would echo through the halls and bring to life spirits of old. Once, we were all in the parlour, just sitting down have a few drinks, and we heard the plates or something moving in the kitchen. All of the plates above the sink had been turned upside down.” —Brendan Kian Stephen Jones

“My boyfriend doesn’t believe this one, even though he was there this one night and I had to wake him up cause I was so spooked, but one night I was woken up suddenly and could feel these eyes looking at me from my bedroom closet. It was a young boy. I immediately turned the TV on to light the room and add some noise. Other than that one time, I was never scared to be there; it was a cozy, beautiful, old apartment.” —Rebecca Costello

“If we didn't lock our doors we'd have people come into the apartment”

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“That building was right around the corner almost from Ginger's Tavern. Talk about a great location...It was just kind of an iconic thing, Ginger's. Those were the days when Rita McNeil, nobody's heard of her, and she would play concerts there sometimes.” —Sue MacLeod

“I thought that was one of the most exciting neighbourhoods at the time. Gottingen hadn't started to kind of rebound. That happened about three or four years later...It was not the neighbourhood it is now. The Lighthouse tavern was still there—still had the strip club in the corner. The Superstore hadn't been built yet. Actually, walking home from the bar I worked at on the weekends, you were walking down the stroll. There were a lot of illegal boarding houses on Barrington and Hollis, and that was the neighbourhood that prostitution was happening in.” —councillor Waye Mason

“The ladies of the night weren't there when we first moved in, but they were there on the corner of Barrington by our last year.” —Heather McQuinn

“It was spooky. We were on the ground level so weird stuff would happen. If we didn't lock our doors we'd have people come into the apartment. We were also on the same level where you could get to the laundry, so I had people come into my bedroom before if those doors weren't locked.” —Alexandra O'Donnell, resident 2004-05

“One night a fellow visiting a friend in the building decided I was someone he knew and nearly knocked the door down. I called the police. After they left he was right back at it. Rough night. I fought off a bunch guys beating up my husband on the front porch with my house keys.” —Ellen Elizabeth Landry

“We had gone out to the bar one night and when I got home there was a pair of shoes and a pair of pants like someone had literally vanished and they just crumpled at their feet, right outside our door. I thought that was particularly odd.” —Samson Learn

“Once in a while, we would find someone asleep in the downstairs hall, just because the downstairs door wasn't always locked.” —Heather McQuinn

“The locks were so old that a brand new key wouldn't work. I was waiting over an hour for [the landlord] to come let me in because my key didn't work...It was taking so long that I ended up having to climb through my own living room window. There were these two older ladies on the sidewalk down below who were looking up at me, trying to pry open my living room window from the balcony. They were just horrified. I had to yell over the side, ‘I live here!’” —Kendall Lee Cogan

“I do remember one New Year's Eve coming home late, at 4am, with my then-boyfriend, now-husband, and didn't have a key. So he climbed up the fire escape and tried to get in through the window from the fire escape. My roommate and her boyfriend were in bed, and he scared the holy bejeezus out of them. I was waiting outside the apartment door and could hear all this screaming going on and I didn't know what was going on.” —Heather McQuinn

“One hot summer night I awoke to a rustling sound around my room. I put on my glasses and turned on a light to discover a raccoon in my bedroom. It had climbed up the fire escape and right into my room though the open window. I threw a pillow at it to get it to leave.” —Jane Catherine Pfeil

“There were multiple times where, a gentleman who lived in the basement, someone broke into his apartment and stole all his stuff. I had the police come to my door several times asking me questions about various things. It seemed to attract an interesting, vibrant crowd but also a little bit of the under-scene as well.” —Brendan Kian Stephen Jones

“The way to get to the laundry room was through the veranda...I went to do laundry one time and there was about four people engaging in group sex in the laundry room. I don't believe that they were members of the building. The fleeting glimpses I had were quick, but when they ran out of the laundry room, one person ran further into the building and hid. I turned around and kind of walked out like, ‘Oh, I'm sorry.’ But I still waited by the veranda door because I still had to do my laundry. But they never came out. I think they hid under the veranda. I feel like I broke it up, but only really put it on pause while I did my laundry and left. I would assume they continued doing whatever.” —Samson Learn


“I don’t think anybody came in and fixed anything for us the time we were there”

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“One of our neighbours used to take [the fire extinguishers] and play with them, like chase his friends around in the street. Our landlord knew and there were never any fines placed, and as a result we just never had them.” —Fiona MacGillivray

“Every room had a fire escape. My bedroom had an old prickly rope bolted in my closet that I was supposed to throw out the window. It gave you splinters so I joked I had to get fire gloves to keep by it. Also, off the kitchen window was the back fire escape, I think five or six units had access to it, and we would climb over to our friends unit on the other side of the building.” —Rebecca Costello

“I more than once had to withhold my rent to get things like fire extinguishers or to have like suspicious smells and moulds around the staircase...The balcony upstairs, the wood was literally rotting and collapsing.” —Fiona MacGillivray

“When we first bought it…it was ready to burn down. We had to rewire everything.” —Greg Farquhar, property manager 1994-2014

“The upstairs balcony was very unsafe...and filled with old barbecues and chairs from previous tenants that were never removed. The windows in our unit were cracked and leaked, we had to tape up holes ourselves. The hot water tap in the bathroom did not work. The taps in the kitchen would spray water onto the ceiling if turned the wrong way.” —Shelby Ivany, resident 2013-15

“The balcony on the second floor was about to collapse at any moment, and people were always going out there talking and socializing.” —Brendan Kian Stephen Jones

“It clearly wasn't being maintained very well...The year before the landlord had lost his tenancy because at a certain point in the calendar he just stopped heating the building.” —Waye Mason

“We had black mould in our bathroom. Both my roommate and I were sick. That's actually how we got out of the lease.” —Alexandra O'Donnell

“I loved that apartment, but the maintenance—whether they were unwilling or unable to do the maintenance on the place, there were broken windows, no heating, there was mould.” —Brent Rockwood, resident 2004-05

“It's part of what made the heritage element of it so interesting. Because the building was so badly maintained, a lot of the original details remained within.” —Fiona MacGillivray

“It wasn't fancy, but I think it was in reasonably solid shape...I've seen it when I visit the last couple of years. It certainly looked better then than it does now.” —Sue MacLeod

“There was a mouldy spot in my bathroom that was just painted over (looks like several times). It recently started growing mushrooms, and they say they are going to fix it, though the issue looks like an ongoing one.” —Erin Jones, current resident

“Towards the end of our time there we contacted our landlord immediately after waking up one morning in February to water dripping from the ceiling onto our bed...Fast forward a few weeks of the landlord ignoring us and the water pooled in the ceiling which cracked open and leaked water. We had to move our bed into the living room which is where it remained until we moved out as soon as my fiancé finished school in May.” —Shelby Ivany

“We would literally hunt the mice and try to capture them with a margarine container or something and release them in the Cornwallis Park across the street. Lord knows they just kept coming back because that's definitely not far enough for a catch and release program.” —Samson Learn

“I don’t think anybody came in and fixed anything for us the time we were there.” —Jillian Comeau

“There are just little things like the windows don't work. But there are also some bigger things like the toilet doesn't flush. Right now I'm actually trying to figure out how to fix the toilet today.” —Chelsea Innes, current resident

“We actually went three months without a functioning shower. I asked for a plumber on multiple occasions and he kept putting it off, putting it off until eventually, I had to fix it myself.” —Kendall Lee Cogan

“The building had a problem from a maintenance standpoint, but from a bones standpoint, it's beautiful. The interior is beautiful. It's just such a pretty building on that corner.” —Brent Rockwood

“I remember getting mad at my boyfriend for flushing the toilet in the middle of the night because of the never-ending pipe noises. It was my first time living with someone and falling in love there. Although we are not together anymore, I hold those memories dear in my heart.” —Lynne Dumont, resident 2003-04

“The place is one of a kind and is definitely not too far gone to be saved”

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“It wasn't a big one for a money-maker, but it was, well, OK…It was a good way to make a little money other than accounting, at the time.” —Ruth Farquhar

“It was my first apartment. I just loved it when we first moved in.” —Heather McQuinn

This was the first place my then-girlfriend and I moved in together, and we are happily married almost 20 years later, still living elsewhere on South Street.” —Lukas Pearse

“As a young couple starting out with the intent of having kids in the years ahead, we asked the landlord before we moved in if they would have any problem with a baby in the building. Knew we didn't have to ask, but didn't want to squabble if they were going to have an issue. His response: ‘Hey, if you want to wreck your life that's your business.’ Said with a twinkle in his eye.” —councillor Sam Austin

“I'm a true believer in landmarks in Halifax, and I think that that is one. I'm in Cape Breton now, but I know when I come to Halifax I still like to see the old yellow building. If they could save it I think that would be amazing.” —Alexandra O'Donnell

“I still would love to see it get renovated. There's a lot of things about it that I think would be hard to retain in a renovation, but it's just such a beautiful building and it's got so much character. It'd be great to see it saved.” —Waye Mason

“Halifax as a city hasn't quite mastered how to protect and maintain the things that make it unique and special. It's sort of trapped between wanting to be Montreal and wanting to be Toronto.” —Fiona MacGillivray

“Once that architecture is gone, it's gone forever. Halifax isn't a large city like New York or Montreal where they have thousands of old buildings. It has select old buildings, with intimate stories as the people of the province has.” —Brendan Kian Stephen Jones

“It's definitely in need of repairs, but it's not so far gone it needs to be destroyed.” —Kendall Lee Cogan

”You can’t tell somebody to keep it, but at the same time, I cherish it…It’s just sad when you have a whole ton of memories attached to a place.” —Jillian Comeau

“The place is one of a kind and is definitely not too far gone to be saved. We have basically no multi-unit buildings from that era left. It's Elmwood, 5275/5269 South Street and Victoria Hall. Tearing it down is civic vandalism.” —councillor Sam Austin

“I think that area is a passage traversed by a lot of tourists when they come in down on the waterfront. So, unfortunately, it's the antique and vintage face of Halifax that's going to be scraped off in favour of very modern buildings which are really not going to be distinctive at all. I just think it's a very near-sighted thing to do.” —Fiona MacGillivray

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