SAINT JOHN – When I walked through the doors of old Fire Hall #3 on Union Street in Uptown Saint John, Holly and Ken Singh were there to greet me. “Welcome to Union Station,” said Holly.
Well-known restaurateurs and community volunteers, Holly and Ken recently purchased the building at 154 Union Street, which opened as a fire station in 1891 and closed in 1976.
Many businesses have operated on the ground level since then, most recently a hair studio. The old fire pole is still there in the lobby that connected the ground floor with what were the original sleeping quarters for the firefighters on the second floor.
Holly volunteers to operate a daily lunch program at St. John the Baptist/King Edward School in the city’s south end, and local firefighters volunteer there once a month.
“I told them, ‘we’re going to buy the fire station! We’ll have a place for you to meet,” she said, laughing. “The retired firefighters can meet at the old Union Station. I think that’s a cool name for this building.”
Its history as a fire station was a selling feature, says Holly, particularly because it meant they were buying a structurally sound building even though it had fallen into disrepair in the decades since the station closed.”
“You can see the British steel [support beams],” she said as we made our way down into the basement. “It’s a solid, solid building. The fire trucks had to drive in here and out the back, so they had to have the solid foundation.”
Developers like Keith Brideau and John Irving have been renovating historic buildings south of Union for years now, but the movement to revitalize the core is starting to happen in the Union Street area now too.
Saint John Non-Profit Housing tore down the jelly bean buildings last spring and a new mixed-income housing development will be constructed in its place. Beth and Allen Blois are transforming another Union Street building into a loft-style home.
Most recently, Percy Wilbur purchased the building at the corner of Charlotte Street and Union Street and has begun renovations with plans to have a commercial tenant on the bottom two floors and high-end apartments on the top floor.
The Singhs were inspired by Wilbur and the other developers with restoring or constructing new buildings on the street.
“It’s a great building. It’s right uptown,” said Holly. “I always feel bad when I drive into the city that this street is always so yucky-looking. I thought, ‘why not? We’re risk-takers.’
“We love Saint John and we want Saint John to do well, and for people to spend money and invest in the city.”
Ken compares Union Street to Canterbury Street, where they’ve owned and operated the popular Thandi Restaurant for the last decade. There were a few restaurants and bars on Canterbury back then, but it’s since become a hub with many more eating and drinking establishments and high-end apartments too.
“Look at it now,” said Ken.
“Canterbury Street is booming,” said Holly. “And I see Union Street as the next one to be restored. Things are happening on this street.”
Holly and Ken aren’t sure what they’re going to do with the building yet. They do know they’re not going to put a restaurant there, a natural assumption for people who know they own Thandi and the House of Chan locations in Brunswick Square and Quispamsis.
“People ask, ‘what restaurant are you going to open?’ We’re not doing a restaurant,” said Holly, though they briefly considered moving the Brunswick Square House of Chan to the ground floor of the building before deciding the space was too large.
Right now they’re thinking about developing a retail space for the ground floor and two or three condos on the upper two floors. It has large windows and nice architectural features on the facade that people would find attractive, said Holly, and room for three or four parking places in the back.
They have no timeline for what they will do and when they will finish. They’ll take their time and do right by building, said Holly.
“We’ll take it down to its bones and figure out what we’re going to do,” said Holly. “If we start in March, certainly by the fall we’d have some work done and figure out what we’re going to do. We want to get some experts in and make sure we don’t tear anything out that we shouldn’t.”
The Singhs have been central figures in the revitalization of the uptown core, but they live in Nauwigewauk just outside Hampton. Holly said they may take one of the condos themselves.
“Eventually we want to move uptown too,” she said. “Our businesses are here. We always have two cars in town and we’re always driving home late at night.”