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The lettering on the historic Morse’s Tea building in downtown Halifax – shown Feb. 5, 2013 – was painted over by property developers.PAUL DARROW/The Globe and Mail

Haligonians are up in arms after a painter with a bucket of whitewash wiped out part of the city's history on a bright, sunny weekend last fall, painting over two iconic signs on a centuries-old heritage building.

Owner Louis Reznick of Starfish Properties, a Torontonian who has several heritage properties in Halifax, had ordered the paint job on the structure, which Haligonians call the Morse's Tea building.

Many had an emotional attachment to the sign – a large, white band with "Morse's Teas" painted on it across the fifth storey of the six-storey ironstone building that has stood sentinel on Halifax's waterfront since 1841.

Another band of lettering – "Home of Morse's Teas" – on the western side of the building was also painted over.

"It's a symbol of community, history," said Gregor Ash of the Nova Scotia School of Art and Design, which once had studios in the building. "Every time you come downtown, you see that sign. It's just a symbol of where we came from and who we are, and it's an easy thing to keep up there."

The brush strokes were an act of provocation in a city that struggles to balance progress with preserving the old buildings that gave it status as a naval centre during the British Empire. City Hall officials are investigating whether Mr. Reznick contravened the Heritage Property Act by changing the Morse's Tea building, which was designated a heritage property in 1981. The results are expected soon.

If municipal officials find that he did, and he is found guilty of the offence in provincial court, Mr. Reznick would face punishment including a fine of up to $250,000. The city could also bring the issue to the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia.

Mr. Reznick told The Globe and Mail in an e-mail that he would say only that he believes the restoration of the building he undertook in 2007 is "truly (in my opinion) amongst the best work we've done or anyone has done in Halifax."

The building houses a Baton Rouge restaurant and bar featuring exposed brick and wooden beams, and five floors of office space above.

It's still unclear why the owner had the signs painted over.

The Georgian-style structure has served many purposes since it was built as a warehouse. It was first known as Jerusalem Warehouse, after the Jerusalem Coffee House, an earlier building on the site that was destroyed by fire. The Morse's Tea company bought it in 1910.

It was one of the many historic buildings saved from demolition in the 1970s, when city fathers were planning to rip up the waterfront to put in an expressway. The waterfront is now one of Halifax's most important tourist attractions.

"For a long time, the real struggle was: Should we preserve heritage buildings or not," said Paul MacKinnon, director of the Downtown Halifax Business Commission. He said that argument has been won, but is now evolving into what preservation actually means: "Do we kind of encase [heritage buildings] in amber and don't touch anything?"

A report by city officials released last month noted that "the painted signs are character-defining elements that strongly contribute to the heritage value of the building." It said, "the owner did not request approval to alter the signs."

"Substantial alternations to municipally registered heritage properties require the approval of Regional Council," states the report.

City staff spoke to Mr. Reznick, who "believes that permission was not required prior to undertaking the painting of the signs," the report said.

Ross Cantwell, a real estate consultant with Colliers International, thinks people should give Mr. Reznick a break. Mr. Cantwell said he spent months arguing with heritage officials about the colour of shingles on the roof of a building he was restoring. Eventually, he won the argument for grey. And that was his first and only heritage project in Halifax. "The problem I have is if we start layering too much bureaucracy, too many rules, too many requirements associated with the preservation of a heritage building, at some point the development community says, 'Forget it,'" Mr. Cantwell said.

Meanwhile, Waye Mason, the councillor for the district that includes the Morse's Tea building, was surprised by what happened. "Starfish has a history of doing beautiful and sympathetic heritage renewals," he said.

Just after the incident, Mr. Mason sent an e-mail to Mr. Reznick, saying he was afraid the Torontonian was "misinformed about the importance emotionally and historically of that sign."

Mr. Mason said he did not hear back.

"Nobody wants this to be a legally decided thing," he said. "It's certainly my hope as the councillor and as a resident that can be avoided and Mr. Reznick will reconsider and take steps to remediate and restore the sign."