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Heritage and Cultural Landscape Brief: Belvedere Convent and Orphanage

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The Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador, St. John's, Newfoundland, 2000

Table of Contents:


The Belvedere Property is made up of two existing buildings, the Belvedere Convent and Belvedere Orphanage, along with a number of significant heritage and cultural landscape features. There are a number of landscape features that should be preserved. The most important of these is the formal garden or courtyard immediately in front of the main entrance of the Convent. It is a highly rare example of early landscape architecture, and is an important part of the heritage fabric of the site. As well, the tree-lined Belvedere Lane leading to the property from Bonaventure is of historical note. Some of the most beautiful and oldest trees in St. John's line Belvedere Lane and surround the Convent and Orphanage, both of which have been designated as Registered Heritage Structures. Linking these features are a number of footpaths and pedestrian walkways. Altogether, the Belvedere Property is a well-preserved enclave of extraordinary harmony, history and continuity.

The Belvedere Formal Garden

Starting in the eighteenth century and continuing well into the Victoria era, pleasure gardens were very much in vogue. This institution was fed by a proliferation of popular books on the subject. With the Georgian style of architecture and its attention to symmetry came matching planned gardens, laid out on a central axis and composed of geometric arrangements of walkways and planting beds. The formal garden immediately in front of the Belvedere Convent is of this style, and is perhaps one of the very few remaining planned formal gardens of its period in Newfoundland.

In St. John's, there are very few remaining examples of nineteenth century landscaping. Both Angel House on Hamilton Avenue and Howard House on Garrison Hill have fine examples of Victorian urban landscaping, and both buildings and their grounds have been designated by the Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador. The formal gardens at Belvedere are much older than those of these two properties and should be preserved as part of the character of the property.


The treed garden immediately in front of the Convent and Orphanage form a beautiful courtyard, enhancing and reflecting the historical and architectural significance of the buildings. The gardens Belvedere Landscapedemonstrate how the buildings were tied to the site as part of a larger whole, and are a fine example of the importance of proper site planning. The courtyard area should be preserved and maintained if at all possible, as it frames and displays the properties to their full effect. Taken together, they are a perfect example of synergy, where the sum of the parts is greater than the whole. Quite simply, without the garden, the facades of the two properties would be divorced from their historic surroundings.

The Belvedere Formal Garden is a perfect 19th century example of what is defined as a "Historic Designed Landscape". This is a landscape that was consciously designed or laid out by a landscape architect, master gardener, architect, or horticulturist according to design principles, or an amateur gardener working in a recognized style or tradition. A Historic Designed Landscape may be associated with a significant person(s), trend, or event in landscape architecture; or illustrate an important development in the theory and practice of landscape architecture. In this particular situation, the Belvedere Historic Designed Landscape is a good example of a nineteenth century pleasure garden, and is associated with both the Sisters of Mercy and earlier, with Rt. Rev. Bishop Michael Anthony Fleming and the Franciscan brothers. As mentioned earlier, there are few surviving examples of this type of designed landscape in St. John's, and the Belvedere Property is one of the best.

belvedere-architectural-features8.jpgBelvedere Lane

Radiating out from the formal garden is a beautiful lane of mature trees known as Belvedere Lane. This type of arboreal laneway is fairly rare in St. John's, as most historic plantings of this period and form have been cut down to make possible road expansions and new developments. Belvedere Lane may need some pruning, thinning, and replanting along its length, and could certainly benefit from the input of a professional arborist.

Belvedere TreeThe Wisdom Tree

Just west of the Convent towards the Belvedere Cemetery is a historic tree known variously as "The Wisdom Tree" and "The Shade Tree". This huge 150 + year old European Beech, famous to generations of schoolchildren, is interesting for its age, placement, and for the fact that it has attained something akin to landmark status in neighbourhood folklore. 

Brother Brennan's Field

The open space on the north east corner of the property, fronting on Bonaventure Ave is the area commonly known as Brother Brennan's Field, which has been used as a public open space for many years. The space was developed by and is named after Brother Augustus F. Brennan, former Superintendent of the Roman Catholic School Board in St. John's. Brennan guided students to develop the land as a usable open space, as part of his strong commitment to environmental education. In response to his work for the educational community, Brother Brennan was awarded the Canadian Teachers' Federation Special Recognition Award in 1981, an honourary Doctorate from St. Francis Xavier University in 1982, and the George Croskery Award by the Canadian College of Teachers in 1988.

Historical Context

According to the "Appleton Charter for the Protection and Enhancement of the Built Environment", published by ICOMOS Canada, Ottawa, Canada, August 1983, under the section pertaining to historic settings, "Any element of the built environment is inseparable from the history to which it bears witness, and from the setting in which it occurs. Consequently, all interventions must deal with the whole as well as with the parts."

A landscape such as Belvedere's with such a high level of integrity and authenticity suggests preservation as the primary treatment. Such a treatment emphasizes protection, stabilization, cyclical maintenance, and repair of character-defining landscape features and the safeguarding of existing resources. In all cases, treatment should be substantiated by the historic research findings and existing conditions documentation. Restoration and reconstruction treatment work should avoid the creation of a landscape whose features did not exist historically.

In general, a harmonious outward appearance of all buildings and their placement in a historical landscape context should be preserved. Where possible, new construction on the property should proceed in a manner that is harmonious with existing Registered Heritage Structures and Historic Designed Landscapes. New modern buildings should be constructed in historic styles, and a general harmony as to style, form, colour, proportion, texture and material of existing structures should be maintained. The goal is not to create something which was never there, but rather to ensure that future development is consistent with the important historical context in which it is proposed.

Heritage and Cultural Landscape Recommendations

  • Maintain and restore Belvedere's Historic Designed Landscape comprised of the courtyard and formal garden in front of the Convent and Orphanage, following the pattern established by both existing flower beds, walkways and lanes, and by historic photographs and plans;
  • The existing open space areas and historic buildings should be conserved and used as a framework for future development of the institutional land;
  • Maintain the old trees planted along Belvedere Lane, with the appropriate arboricultural treatment to ensure their continued presence along the street;
  • Undertake a thorough arboricultural assessment of the existing trees and shrubs throughout the development area to identify those specimens for removal or retention to be used to provide structure, scale and serve as an organizing element. Special attention should be directed at protecting the old European Beech "Wisdom Tree" on the west side of the Convent;
  • Brother Brennan's Field be set aside as a developed green belt buffer with a proper walkway, lighting, benches, garbage receptacles, etc. as a usable pedestrian linkage and open space between adjacent school properties;
  • The designated Registered Heritage Structures should be preserved and developed through adaptive reuse to serve as visible, living reminders of the historical and cultural heritage of the city and the province, following the Heritage Guidelines as defined in the Belvedere Convent and Orphanage Building Preservation Brief;
  • New modern buildings should be constructed in historic styles, and a general harmony as to style, form, colour, proportion, texture and material of existing structures should be maintained; and
  • Overall, that the historic context of the landscape and property be preserved and maintained as an integral component of any future development.

Heritage and Cultural Landscape Brief: Belvedere Convent and Orphanage . Edited by Dale G. Jarvis, Heritage Preservation Officer. © Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador: St. John's, Newfoundland, November 2000.