History of The Old Building is a storied one
When a beautiful building has hosted many generations, inevitably people stand admiringly before it and ponder what stories it could tell if its walls could talk.
Sometimes, as in the case of the red brick building on the corner of Main and Westmorland streets in downtown Moncton, walls can tell their stories through the chronicles of past researchers and the memories of those who once spent their days there.
The 116-year-old building at 828 Main Street, commonly known as The Old Transcript Building and now headquarters for the law firm of Ellsworth Johnson & Partners, is one of those rare structures that can still speak to us.
Its voices come from news reports, from historical records, and most poignantly from those who once made their way into it every working day of the week. And when a large part of its lifespan is spent as the home of a daily newspaper, the stories chronicle the history of its time.
For example, Reggie Remington, now 82, says he remembers the intense action in that building on the evening of the 1958 Springhill Mine Disaster that left 75 men dead. A young linotype operator at the time, he worked on the second floor in an area known as the composing room. The compositors shared the floor with the news reporters who, upon completion of their stories or receipt of stories by wire, would edit them and rush them to composing to get typeset.
The pressroom was located in the basement, while the sales and customer service staff were situated on the second floor.
Accounts of the First and Second World Wars were hammered out on the old typewriters when they involved local heroes, and ripped from the two teletypes when they were coming from far away sources.
More memories come from historians who chronicled the life story of the Transcript’s most colourful publisher, John Hawke, the man who had the building constructed originally in 1900. He would emerge from his office inside the building’s prominent three-story capped tower onto a balcony over the main entrance and read his spirited editorials.
Hawke, who purchased the paper in 1887 with support from the federal Liberal Party, continued through the early 1900s to argue for commercial union with the United States and the abolition of high tariffs, to criticize the growing ranks of the federal civil service, and to advocate that members of the Senate should be elected.
Before a fascinated public, he also pledged that his newspaper would promote the interests of all of the Maritime provinces, the Province of New Brunswick and what was then the Town of Moncton.
The strong link between the local community and the building continues to this day as members of the legal team working inside assist local residents with their issues and personally contribute many hours of volunteer work to local organizations.
It was the law firm's Managing Partner, Scott Ellsworth, who originally saw potential to restore the old building, which had fallen into a state of disrepair.
“When we bought it, you could stand in the basement and look up and, in places, you could see the sky,” he said.
Ignoring the initial advice of contractors to gut the interior and consider tearing down the entire building, he persisted in the massive restoration project and tried to stay true to the original architecture. Because of that there are still signs of the old wooden posts and beams and the exposed brick wall is now a backdrop for an impressive library in the busy law firm.
Ellworth praises the insight of Toronto designer Donald Gustavson who helped bring his vision to life, as well as the work of a large number of local contractors who did the work.
In 1996, the building was formally recognized by the Canadian Register of Historic Places. Its heritage value was summed up as pertaining to three key areas:
Its authentic expression of Italianate architecture
Its significant level of preservation
Its importance in the development of journalism in Moncton
To understand the story of the building is in large part to understand the founding and growth of the newspaper it housed for so many years.
F.W. Bowes founded the Transcript and originally published it weekly from Sackville. Shortly afterwards, he moved the operation to Moncton, setting up in a small frame building on leased land in the exact location where The Old Transcript Building still stands today. The first issue of the new daily paper appeared May 24, 1882.
The newspaper struggled for financial solvency over the early years, and ultimately it failed to meet its debt payments and, in 1887, was sold at auction to a man from Dorchester. Five years later it was sold again, this time to John T. Hawke. He bought all the old equipment and leased the same building the Transcript had formerly occupied.
Then he bought the property outright in 1897 and moved forward with his plans to establish a new building right at that location.
The mood was full of excitement when the new building began, and in many ways it was trendsetting for its time in history.
As the Transcript itself reported August 6, 1890, the building was designed to be “one of the finest, if not the finest, newspaper office building in the three provinces, outside of the Cities of St. John and Halifax.”
It was to take full advantage of the natural slope of Westmorland Street.
Among the building’s most unusual features was its basement that had a ceiling height of 12 feet to accommodate the heavy machinery of the printing presses.
“It will be the finest basement wall in the city,” the Transcript reported, noting it would even be finer than existing public buildings. Much was made of the basement, the object of which was to secure strength allowing for the considerable unsupported height of the basement and the natural lateral pressure of the streets.
The building had a red brick front with a small number of steps to the main floor where the business offices of the newspaper greeted visitors. The three story capped tower was a highly distinguishing feature as was a balcony over the main entrance.
The development of the new headquarters for the newspaper was coupled with modern new technology. In an innovative move, Hawke replaced all the old steam-powered machinery with gas engines, the first of their kind ever used in Moncton.
The character-defining elements relating to the Italianate architecture, as defined by the Canadian Register of Historic Places, include brick pilasters with Doric sandstone capitals, Roman arch window openings in voussoir brick and sandstone keystone, a square tower with ornate copper cap and triple Roman arch windows, rectangular windows with plain trim, Roman arch transom lights, polygonal footprint following Westmorland Street, freestone foundation, the inscription stone “Transcript Building” and the date stone “1900,” as well as spectacular wooden support columns and exposed brick along the western wall.
Hawke continued to run the newspaper until his death in 1922. He acquired a huge reputation for his daily editorials and no topic was too big for him to tackle. He believed that the British North America Act should be amended to eliminate the office of the lieutenant governor, and he suggested that the latter’s responsibilities could be shared by the chief justice.
He was death against the sale of liquor and believed that the question of prohibition should be settled by a direct vote of the people, not during an election. At one point he got into serious trouble by suggesting that a politician had taken bribes and found himself in contempt of court. He had the opportunity to apologize but he refused and ended up serving two months in prison and paying a $200 fine.
After Hawke, the newspaper was taken over by Otto Ludwig Barbour of Saint John. Barbour died in 1936.
In 1940, the newspaper became The Transcript Limited and that company was purchased in 1945 by Moncton Publishers Limited, which had earlier purchased The Times. An extension was made to the building at that time to accommodate the necessary presses.
Reggie Remington, now a local musician, remembers that he joined the Transcript 60 years ago, in 1956. He left the Amherst Daily News to take the job, where he had been earning $20 a week. His new pay was $65 a week and he laughs now because he remembers not quite knowing what to do with all his money.
The machine he worked on was huge, with a 90-character keyboard. It was different from a standard typewriter keyboard so the linotype operators had to be specially trained and to maintain a speed of 40 words per minutes to qualify for the job.
The typed story would then be placed inside a metal form the size of a page of the newspaper, and proofed on an ink press. Then the results were sent to a proofreader who corrected them and presented them to the man who inserted them into the correct spot in the galley.
After the final news item was placed in the page, it was tightened and rolled to a machine that made an exact copy of the printed word, and that plate was then put in a chute and sent to the pressroom.
When everything was ready, the press rolled into high gear and the papers rolled off the press and were conveyed to the mailing room, where they were sorted for delivery. Rough estimates are that in the time the newspaper was located within this building, about 10,000 delivery boys and girls would have crossed its doors.
At one time the headman, Clarence Wilson, had a small office in the composing room where he paid the employees cash in an envelope. Later the process was done by cheque and these were cashed at the Bank of Montreal on Main Street.
Lunch was eaten at the employees’ worktable. Parking was behind the old Paramount Theatre and on the street beside the building. There was a grocery store at the time further down Westmorland Street.
The publication of a daily newspaper continued in the building until 1960, when both The Times and the Transcript were moved into the new headquarters at 939 Main Street. Entrepreneur K.C. Irving acquired the newspapers along the way and they are still family owned with J.K. Irving now at the helm. In 1990, the property was sold to Ellsworth for purposes of housing the law firm.
Ten years afterward, a disastrous fire on Main Street destroyed the adjoining Dewey Block and extensively damaged the Transcript building. Ellsworth's insurers at the time deemed it to be a constructive total loss, and he was informed that it could not be rebuilt. With the same persistence he demonstrated when first revitalizing the structure in 1990, Ellsworth ignored that advice and set out to once again repair and restore it. One year later the law firm returned to its home, and The Old Transcript Building regained its historic presence in downtown Moncton.