The third generation of a family of architects credited for having built much of Halifax, Phil Dumaresq felt he had little choice but to follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather.
“Architecture got into the blood somehow,” he said in an interview two years ago. “Can’t get rid of it.”
Having practised architecture in the Maritimes since the 1860s, the Dumaresq family designed many of Halifax’s best known buildings, including several on Dalhousie University’s campus and Memorial Tower. Known as the “Dingle Tower,” the local landmark sits on a grassy hill overlooking the city’s picturesque North West Arm.
Designed by Mr. Dumaresq’s father Sydney (along with Andrew Cobb), the tower, now a national historic site, was built between 1908 and 1912 to mark the 150th anniversary of the establishment of representative government in Nova Scotia, considered to be the first elected colonial legislative body in the British Empire at the time.
When the aging tower found itself in need of restoration two years ago, Mr. Dumaresq and his son Syd, who continues the family tradition as owner of SP Dumaresq Architect, were called to help. Well into his 90s at the time, Mr. Dumaresq worked with his son to bring the towering stone, slightly tapered structure back to its original state.
Refusing to retire and fearing he might miss out on something, Mr. Dumaresq was never far behind his son on the job, even when it meant climbing the tower’s steep circular staircase. Syd remembers one day reaching the top of the tower, after not only climbing many stairs, but crawling on hands and knees under scaffolding. He turned around in surprise to find his 94-year-old father two steps behind him.
“You can’t retire, really,” Mr. Dumaresq said in an interview with Halifax Magazine in 2011. “You may try to do it, but you can’t.”
Born in 1916 in Halifax, Mr. Dumaresq was known affectionately as “buddy boy” by his mother. He could do no wrong in her eyes or those of his three sisters.
His charmed existence was put to the test on Dec. 6, 1917, when what became known as the Halifax Explosion – the largest man-made explosion the world had ever seen (the SS Mont-Blanc, a French cargo ship laden with materiel, collided with the Norwegian SS Imo) – blew in two windows in his family’s home, while he was in his bassinet in the kitchen. According to family lore, the windows created a perfect A-frame to protect him from the plaster ceiling that fell from overhead. “They thought he was dead,” Syd Dumaresq said. “He had no scratches.”
When the Second World War broke out, Mr. Dumaresq went overseas to the Netherlands and Germany, serving as an artillery officer. During a stop in Newfoundland during wartime, he met Leila, the love of his life. After an eight-week courtship, they married. They were together for close to 70 years in a marriage that produced four children. He affectionately called her “lover” or “the doll.”
After the war, he went to Massachusetts to get his civil engineering degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He later added registered architect, surveyor and town planner to his credentials. His father had died during the war and his architectural firm closed, so Mr. Dumaresq returned home to Halifax and got a job as a planner and architect for the City of Halifax.
Eventually he founded J. Philip Dumaresq and Associates, which later became Dumaresq and Byrne. Over the years, he designed more than 100 schools in Nova Scotia, as well as Dalhousie University’s Tupper Building, Dentistry Building and Fenwick Place. The 33-storey residence was considered an eyesore by many in the city, but the criticism never bothered Mr. Dumaresq, who proudly declared that it was the tallest building east of Quebec. Plans are now under way to redevelop the building.
Service, Mr. Dumaresq believed, was architecture’s guiding principle – that and the customer is always right. “Tell us what you want and we’ll conceive it,” he told Halifax Magazine. “Of course it takes more than one try [to get it right] … it’s all about accomplished dreams.”
Apart from architecture and engineering, Mr. Dumaresq was a developer too. Along with three business partners, he started Commodore Industrial Estates, Nova Scotia’s first industrial park. Later bought and expanded by the City of Dartmouth, it become part of what is now Burnside Business Park, the province’s largest park of its kind.
“He was a major contributor to Halifax,” said Bill Hayward, a friend and colleague.
When he wasn’t working, you could find Mr. Dumaresq on his sailboat.
He loved sailing his Norwegian cutter with family and friends around Halifax, Chester and Cape Breton Island’s Bras d’Or Lake. He also managed to solve many of his work problems while on the water with colleagues.
“He had a charmed life,” said Syd. “I think he was born with a positive attitude.”
Mr. Dumaresq died May 22 in Halifax after suffering an aneurysm. He was 96. Predeceased by his son Peter, he leaves his wife Leila, sons Syd and Marc, daughter Daphne, 13 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
Special to The Globe and Mail