Canada celebrated its 100th birthday 50 years ago, in 1967. To commemorate the event, the Federal government offered funding for civic projects across the country. The result was a legacy of centennial arenas, museums, and even a UFO landing pad built across the country to commemorate Canada’s birthday.
In August 1964 the City of Halifax’s Centennial Committee met to review suggestions for a suitable Centennial project. Local committees were formed across the country to suggest projects, get funding approval and then complete the construction.
The Halifax Committee reviewed the options, and suggested to Council that an aquarium was the most suitable project. They also requested the county be asked to join in. Halifax County had already considered their projects, and in October Halifax county advised they preferred building 3 branch libraries as their centennial project and would not take part.
The city then began a series of discussions about where the aquarium should be located. A waterfront location was preferred, and the Navy’s Central Victualing Depot, or CVD as it was known, was requested from the Navy, however the site was unavailable due to uncertainty caused by the unification of the Armed Forces. In November 1964, City Field or a lot at the corner of Bell Rd and Ahern Street were suggested as possible locations. The city also hired architect Aza Avramovitch & Associates to do design work, for a fee of $35,000.
Aza Avramovitch was born in Belgrade in 1921; he spent 1941-43 in a concentration camp in Italy, and escaped to Switzerland. He obtained his degree in architecture in Geneva in 1951 and came to Canada in 1953, working in Montreal until 1959. He set up his own practice in Halifax in 1960, and was the architect responsible for the Northwood Centre (Halifax), Church of Christ ( Fairview), the Nova Scotia Home for Coloured Children (Dartmouth), Dartmouth Academy, Shubenacadie Post Office, and several apartment buildings. He died in 1999.
With the city having kicked off the project, it was turned over to a board to look after. On September 21,1965, the Centennial Aquarium board of directors had its first meeting. A Building Committee was appointed, and by the end of May 1966 they had preliminary drawings and a model from the architect.
As planned, the aquarium was to be a circular 3-story structure, of about 30,000 sq ft total, constructed of precast concrete. The programming would feature an emphasis on local fish, and the centrepiece was to be a 2-story, 42′ in diameter Beluga whale tank. The aquarium was viewed as the first piece of a civic square, with a science museum, and possibly a new city hall and performance theatre being constructed in the complex. (Bell Road was to have been ended at Summer, and Ahern continue to Sackville Street with this plan.)
In June, a $184,000 grant was accepted from Ottawa. From the onset, it was believed the project could be built for $600,000; however, some aldermen were concerned about the project going up in price. In September, a tender to build the aquarium was received from Stevens and Fiske construction. The tender came in at a cost estimated at $984,000.
This caused council to go into a heated debate. Discussions were held about the cause of cost overruns, the loss of fees paid to the architects already, and possibly even loss of Federal Centennial money should the project be abandoned. Alderman Trainor also stated:
“Council should not back down at such a a late date unless Halifax wants to be looked at by the rest of Canada as Halifax 1945 and not Halifax 1966, as a progressive city.”
Council concluded the new costs on the aquarium would be $70,000/year in debt payments and could effect the tax rate. Money could be better spent on Summer Games facilities, for a bid on the 1969 Canada Summer games, and two schools. It was suggested that perhaps the $185,000 grant could be directed at a pool. Citizens would get more benefit from it.
The aquarium was seen as a monument to Centennial, civic pride. Alderman AM Butler stated:
“Council should be bold enough, having made a decision in the first instance to build an aquarium, to pursue it, and spend the $300,000, and get on with the job.”
In the end, only Aldermen Ivany, Butler and Trainor voted for the increase in budget, the other 11 against. A committee was sent out to find additional funding to cover the $281,000 overage. They failed, reporting back in November 1966 that the Federal treasury board was unable to produce additional funds despite sympathy from the Minister, and the province was also unlikely to provide additional Centennial funding. The committee suggested building a smaller aquarium, within the original $600,000 budget, then asking the Feds for non-Centennial enlargement funds. The committee also suggested partnering with Dalhousie University, or with the provincial museum.
At the November 1966 council meeting, Alderman Moir gave two notices of a motion for the December meeting. The first, was for a motion to rescind the motion for a Centennial aquarium; the second motion was for a Centennial pool in the Cogswell Street area.
On December 1, 1966, the motion to rescind was passed, the aquarium was dead, and the grant money was to be used elsewhere.