Shoppers and tourists strolling boutique-lined Spring Garden Road during the summer saw history emerge at their feet – the foundations of a two-century-old mansion where Halifax's elite once mingled with royalty.
On a busy corner, archeologists have been uncovering the remains of Bellevue House, built in 1801 as the residence of the commander of British regiments stationed in the city, in search of clues to Halifax's early history.
"It's our heritage and it's really irreplaceable," said archeologist Laird Niven, whose firm In Situ Cultural Heritage Research Group has been excavating the site before construction of a $55-million downtown library begins this fall.
"The public finds it really surprising that so much can be found just below the surface, particularly in what was a landmark so familiar to a lot of people."
That landmark was a parking lot installed after Bellevue was torn down in 1955. It was also the site's saviour – if the neighbouring technical school had erected a new building as planned, evidence of the mansion would have been obliterated.
Mr. Niven's small team exposed basement fireplaces, drains and a jumble of stone and brick foundations that trace the building's evolution into officers' quarters and a hospital for victims of the 1917 Halifax explosion before ending its life as a telephone company's offices.
In its 19th-century heyday, by one account, Bellevue was "the scene of many brilliant receptions, levees, balls, and other social events." A newspaper story describes a two-and-a-half storey "almost palatial residence" with formal gardens that "present a pretty appearance."
"All kinds of royals trod the floors of that building," said Garry Shutlak, senior reference archivist with the provincial archives. "Every member of the Royal Family that came to Halifax . . . would have visited there."
He's certain Edward VII was entertained there as Prince of Wales in 1860. And Mr. Niven has found a reference to Edward's son, the future George V, attending a ball at Bellevue as commander of a visiting warship.
Queen Victoria's father, the Duke of Kent, bought the land in 1800 while based in the city as commander of British forces in North America. He directed a building boom that transformed Halifax and left some of the city's best-known structures, Mr. Shutlak notes, including the Town Clock and St. George's Round Church.
Bellevue's grandeur faded – British commanders refused to live there after 1878, when the Halifax Citizen dismissed it as "an old fashioned, inconvenient box." It was gutted by fire in 1885, but rebuilt.
The archeologists are just as interested in what was on the site before Bellevue. They have found bits of pottery and dishes and a marble-sized musket ball that date to the time of Halifax's founding in 1749, as well as a smaller foundation believed to predate the mansion.
"We're hoping this may be the original structure," Cameron Milner, a 24-year-old graduate student in archeology, noted one afternoon as he brushed soil from a row of neatly stacked stones.
A treasure-trove of artifacts was located earlier this month – an old well filled with bottles, plates, clay pipes and other items dating to the mid-19th century. Fragments of hand-cut glass and fine china, an 1860 Nova Scotia one-penny token and British regimental buttons are among the finds.
Mr. Niven and his team often set aside their tools to chat with passers-by and to show off their latest discoveries. "This is a very public dig," he said over the rumble of a passing bus. "We talk to a lot of people . . . they're all very excited to see it happening."
Special to The Globe and Mail