The early 20th century saw significant change in Bonavista’s social and economic structure, and in the landscape. With title or no room along the shoreline for new fishing plantations – a problem from the early 19th century – people began to build houses and outbuildings on land well back from the water, making use of narrow paths which eventually became laneways and roads threading in every direction across marshes and over hills.
Throughout the town, you will still find many of these brightly painted clapboard fishermen’s houses and outbuildings, with their steep gable roofs – the predominant form – but others have low gable, hipped, and saltbox roofs. The fishermen’s stores and twine lofts are numerous because independent planters continued to prosecute Bonavista’s shore fishery over the centuries, and they needed storage space for their gear, salt, and fish.
In this period, smaller-scale merchants or traders and shopkeepers found specialized niches in both the traditional barter system and the burgeoning cash economy which began to emerge in this era. With no space for new businesses along the harbour-front, by 1900 they began to establish on adjacent Church Street. This had always been and institutional area for churches, schools and halls and was increasingly becoming a residential area for a middle class of merchants, traders, captains, clerks, clergy, physicians, teachers and artisans who did not require waterside premises.
Today, Church Street and the Harbour remain the central areas of the town. Although many of the larger houses have disappeared, Church Street retains much of its historic character, with the 20th century commercial buildings squeezed in next to or in front of older houses, and there are several superb examples of brightly-coloured mercantile structures along the Harbour, especially the seven buildings which make up the Ryan Premises National Historic Site, including the shop, office, fish stores, proprietor’s house and staff houses.
As you tour Bonavista, you’ll see some of the most important historic landmarks in Newfoundland, meet some of the most fascinating characters in the island’s history, and gain a true appreciation of who we are as a people, not only in Bonavista, but throughout the eastern portion of Newfoundland.
A few years ago the Bonavista Historic Townscape Foundation – in partnership with the Town of Bonavista and other community groups – launched a major Townscape development project to help revitalize a portion of Church Street and to stimulate new business activity there. This initiative combined with an incentives program for property owners to restore heritage structures has made a tremendous visual impact on the Town, enhancing the pedestrian experience.