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A people’s place: St. John’s newest designated heritage building has fascinating intangible heritage

Georgestown Inn owners John and Cindy Purtill plan to make the home that was originally named Raheen, Irish for “a people’s place,” true to that moniker once again by hosting the public for events ranging from traditional high tea to Girl Guides meetings. -KEITH GOSSE/THE TELEGRAM
Georgestown Inn owners John and Cindy Purtill plan to make the home that was originally named Raheen, Irish for “a people’s place,” true to that moniker once again by hosting the public for events ranging from traditional high tea to Girl Guides meetings. -KEITH GOSSE/THE TELEGRAM

Georgestown Inn plans to host Girl Guides meetings, high tea

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. —

A small figurine of St. Teresa sits on a shelf in the front vestibule of the Georgestown Inn at 50 Bonaventure Ave., located at the corner of Bonaventure Avenue and Fleming Street in St. John’s.

For the inn’s owners, retired couple John and Cindy Purtill, it’s a sign they were meant to become caretakers of the historic building, which received a city heritage designation in a unanimous vote of city council on Monday.

When the couple was looking at purchasing it last year, Cindy said, she was nervous because they had recently had a few hardships in getting to that point where they could possibly own the home.


The O’Neill Conroys. Many members of the family went on to become prominent citizens - Wikipedia
The O’Neill Conroys. Many members of the family went on to become prominent citizens - Wikipedia


“And when this property dropped in our laps, we went out to my mom and dad’s in Hickman’s Harbour and sat down with my parents, and we were showing my parents the pictures. My mom said, ‘Give me a second, I’ve got something for you.’”

Her mother returned with the figurine. It was a gift from a Presentation sister who visited her at St. Clare’s Hospital while she was having knee surgery.

Cindy said the sister told her mother that whenever she’s worried, to hold St. Teresa and say a prayer. If it’s meant to be, it will happen. If it isn’t meant to be, it’s because she’s being led somewhere else where she’s needed.

Her mother offered Cindy the figurine.

“I said, ‘Mom, you hold onto that, and if this all works out, and we get this property and it’s meant to be, you bring St. Teresa to the house, and you leave her here and she can stay here.’ So, she now lives (here).”

Storied history

The figurine is also a nod to one of the building’s many owners since it was built in 1905.

The Purtills bought it from the Presentation Sisters last year.

The sisters had used the home since 1976 as their residence as well as a place of worship, a meeting space for community leaders, and a refuge for families and children in need.

In 1969, Margaret Dunn of Margaret Dunn Cosmetics, Churchill Square, was listed at the property. It was also around that time, according to the Purtills, that members of April Wine practiced in the basement.

The 1950s saw the home owned by David Rudolph Thistle, a printer and publisher who was the King’s printer and founded the Newfoundland Gazette in 1924. Throughout the 1950s, it was listed in ads for Ruggles Photographic House and J.G. Walker.

Prior to that time, the home appears to have remained with the original family.


The home was built in 1905 for the family of Charles O’Neill Conroy (pictured), a solicitor, and director and general counsel for the Reid Newfoundland Co. Limited, which operated the Newfoundland Railway and the coastal boat service. — CITY OF ST. JOHN'S
The home was built in 1905 for the family of Charles O’Neill Conroy (pictured), a solicitor, and director and general counsel for the Reid Newfoundland Co. Limited, which operated the Newfoundland Railway and the coastal boat service. — CITY OF ST. JOHN'S


According to documents prepared for city council, the home was built in 1905 for the family of Charles O’Neill Conroy, KC, OBE, a solicitor, and director and general counsel for the Reid Newfoundland Co. Limited, which operated the Newfoundland Railway and the coastal boat service.

At that time, the home was on the northern fringe of the city, with farmland on the other side of Bonaventure Avenue.

“Our main purpose for applying is to ensure that this building is here for generations to move forward. And that its initial footprint doesn’t change — that the building that’s standing will stay for generations after John and I are not here anymore.”

Charles Conroy was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1871, to Judge James G. and Elizabeth Conroy. The family moved to Newfoundland when Charles was about 18 months old.

He later studied in Manchester and London, returning to Newfoundland to be called to the bar in 1900. He married Mary Agnes Weathers in 1899.

He was a member of the Bally Haly Golf Club and the Knights of Columbus. Their house was called “Raheen,” an Irish word meaning “a people’s place.”

Some of Charles and Mary’s eight children became prominent citizens: James O’Neill Conroy was a barrister and solicitor to the City of St. John’s who opened a law office in Corner Brook — the only one in Newfoundland outside St. John’s at the time; Louis O’Neill Conroy was a physician and surgeon; Charles Henry Conroy was an electrical engineer who studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and retired as chief engineer with the province’s Department of Public Works in 1970. He was also president of the Benevolent Irish Society from 1956 to 1972.

Bed and breakfast

The Purtills said it was always their goal when John retired that they’d run a bed and breakfast at a historical property downtown.

“So, for us, this was a real perfect fit,” said Cindy.

The couple lives at the home, but it also has six other bedrooms and bathrooms to be used as the bed and breakfast.

After completing many renovations, they thought about applying for a heritage designation.

“We know that we’re just caretakers. When we’re not here, what could happen to this building in the future?” said Cindy.

“Our main purpose for applying is to ensure that this building is here for generations to move forward. And that its initial footprint doesn’t change — that the building that’s standing will stay for generations after John and I are not here anymore.”

The couple said some of their favourite features of the home are the mansard roof, 12-foot ceilings, original doors, floors, mouldings and four original fireplaces, intricate plaster work and the original staircase.

“It’s beautiful to know that the original staircase that we have has been touched by many hands through the generations that have lived in this property,” said Cindy.

“The first family had eight children, so the thought that these kids were running up and down these stairs, and that the (Presentation) Sisters were big proponents in providing sheltering for kids and youth that were in need, and giving this house its love that it’s always shared is a big bonus to us.”


Coun. Maggie Burton -TELEGRAM FILE PHOTO
Coun. Maggie Burton -TELEGRAM FILE PHOTO

‘We want to share it’

The couple plan to set aside a small space in the building to tell the history of the home.

Meanwhile, they’re also continuing in the spirit of its original name — Raheen, a people’s place.

They’ll host a local Sparks unit who will hold their regular meetings in the large dining room and kitchen space.

“We want to share it,” said John.



Another way they hope to let the public into their home and inn is by offering high tea during the inn’s off-season, from October through June, with one sitting per day from Thursday to Saturday. They’ll serve scones, cucumber sandwiches, sweets and tea.

That plan is going through the necessary approvals with the city.

The Purtills think it might be sometime in the new year before it’s approved, but if it’s done before Christmas they hope to serve traditional high tea during the Christmas season.

During Monday’s city council meeting, Coun. Maggie Burton delighted in reading about the couple’s plans for the home.

“Maybe it will be a people’s place again,” said Burton.


Juanita Mercer is the municipal reporter for The Telegram

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