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A childhood in the rotunda

Harold Penny shares memories of growing up in a Halifax landmark

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Harold Penny lived in the Duke of Kent’s rotunda on the Bedford Highway from 1953 to 1959. He was a kid then, so the round house was filled with his family: parents and five other siblings (one more sibling followed after the family moved out in 1959). That’s when the province took over the rotunda. It’s currently a registered municipal heritage property.

“It was a fascinating place,” Penny says. “We never thought anything different of it. Our friends they lived across the street. They had their homes. For us, it was just home.”

There were two bedrooms upstairs. Penny says there was an inner dome and they could walk between both domes via a secret door.

There was no heat, no insulation, and no indoor plumbing. The family got water from a spring in the rocks near the tracks. They lugged buckets of water up the hill to the house. They had an outhouse, perched precariously on a cliff near the back of the rotunda. Penny says his friends pushed it over one Halloween. The windows froze in the winter.

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“We all managed, but when you think back, it wasn’t deluxe accommodations,” he says.

Penny and his friends played baseball on the beach. They skated and played hockey on the heart-shaped pond, which is now near the parking lot at Hemlock Ravine Park across the street. Penny often found old coins on the grounds and in the waters of the Bedford Basin.

After seeing “Life in a landmark” in Halifax Magazine (March 2017), he reached out to share his memories. That story, which focused on the last caretaker of the rotunda, resonated with readers. One emailed to find out about the gold ball that sits on the top of the rotunda’s dome, and if it’s an original part of the structure. Another reader sent a photo of an image of the rotunda made from moss and birch bark (see photo above). The artist is unknown.

Many readers wondered, and worried, about what the future is for the building.

Penny is curious about those plans, too. He’s been looking for ways to restore the rotunda. He sent emails to MLA Kelly Regan, MP Geoff Regan, Russell Walker, Councillor for District 10, Halifax-Bedford Basin West. “I wanted to get everybody involved,” Penny says. “There’s no sense talking to one guy because everyone has a stake in this thing.”

He even wrote to the current Duke of Kent, Prince Edward, cousin of Queen Elizabeth II.

But the province has no plans to restore the rotunda. Brian Taylor, a spokesperson with Transport and Infrastructure Renewal, the department that takes care of the rotunda, says the only plan is to continue general maintenance. Currently, the province spends about $10,000 a year on maintenance for the site, which includes snow removal, electricity, and landscaping.

Restoration of the building and grounds of the rotunda is possible. Plans for the area go back to 1995 and 1996 when Council approved a plan for a marine park that would’ve cost about $7 million. The park included parking lots, pedways, look offs, and walking and bike trails.

Work on the rotunda was included in the Bedford Basin West planning strategy developed in 2008. That plan included development of the gardens, playground, and a wharf near the rotunda. HRM says these plans, along with ones planned for Birch Cove, will move when the Integrated Mobility Plan is complete. The Integrated Mobility Plan will create a larger regional vision for Halifax: active transport, roadway networks; and transit. Public consultations on that plan continued in April.

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After Penny’s father passed away, he found a stash of articles his father saved.

All were about the rotunda and plans to restore the property. Penny has paintings and photos of the rotunda in his apartment.

For him, the rotunda is both a family home and a landmark.

Penny says it’s possible to make more of the rotunda and its grounds than what is being done now. He’d love to see it restored and maintained for public use. He says the grounds can be restored to the original English-style gardens the Duke of Kent planted there himself. Surround the space with an iron fence, he says, so it looks like a destination, much like the Public Gardens. Make the building a museum that shares the story of the rotunda’s past.

“It’s a no-brainer,” he says. “If they are going to do it, they have to do it properly.”

 

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