The importance of Halifax as a base for Britain’s Royal Navy increased steadily after the city was founded in 1749. The Halifax Naval Yard was created in 1759 to enable Britain’s campaign to oust France from her North American colonies, as RN ships blockading Fortress Louisburg, and later in operations in the Gulf and River St. Lawrence required a nearby repair and support depot. Two decades later, the American Revolutionary War (1775 to 1783) removed from British control all port facilities along the Eastern seaboard of the United States, leaving Halifax as the principal British Naval base in North America. This role would see renewed importance again during the War of 1812 between Britain and the United States, with Halifax serving as the base from which the Royal Navy oversaw the blockade of American ports. It was towards the end of that conflict that construction of Admiralty House was begun. Completed in 1819, it would serve as the summer residence of the Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Navy’s North American Station (later the North America and West Indies Station) for the next century, with the Squadron spending the winters at its base in Bermuda.
The house was built on high ground West of Halifax Harbour, overlooking the Naval Yard and the main fleet anchorage. An imposing neo-classical structure, it was constructed of ironstone quarried from nearby Purcell’s Cove and barged to the dockyard, where it was taken by horse and cart to the building site. The solid, rectangular two-and-a-half story building has a medium hipped roof with three gabled dormers at both the front and back. The symmetrical arrangement of the windows and end chimneys and the resulting central focus on the main portico entrance (also topped with a gable roof) reflects the Palladian style found in other British grand houses of the period. Over the years it has displayed a balustraded rooftop widow’s walk, shutters and an open rear verandah. Much of the original interior decor survives today, including plasterwork with a nautical motif and Adamesque garlands, original woodwork including staircases and interior windows shutters, and classicized motifs including arches, columns and fanlights. It was designated a National Historic Site in 1978 and a Classified Federal Heritage Building in 1984.
Admiralty House served its primary residential function from 1819 to 1904, during which time 42 successive British Admirals lived there. These would include veteran of the 1797 Battle of Cape St Vincent and naval commander for the War of 1812 burning of the White House in Washington, Vice Admiral Sir George Cockburn, 10th Baronet, GCB, FRS (1832–36); the 1797 Battle of Camperdown veterans Vice Admiral Sir Peter Halkett, 6th Baronet (1836–37) and Vice Admiral Sir Charles Paget, GCH (1837–39); Vice Admiral Sir Francis Austen, GCB (1844–48), brother of novelist Jane Austen; the famous Napoleonic era frigate captain Vice Admiral Sir Thomas Cochrane, 10th Earl of Dundonald, GCB, ODM, OSC (1848–51) who also led both the Chilean and Brazilian Navies; Crimean War veteran Vice Admiral Sir George Greville Wellesley, GCB (1873–75); Arctic explorers and participants in the Franklin searches Vice Admiral Sir Edward Augustus Inglefield, KCB, FRS, FRGS (1878–79) and Vice Admiral Sir Francis Leopold McClintock, KCB, FRS (1879–82); Crimean veteran and Victoria Cross recipient Vice Admiral Sir John Edmund Commerell, VC, GCB (1882–85); Vice Admiral Richard James Meade, 4th Earl of Clanwilliam, GCB, KCMG (1885–86); father of the Dreadnought battleship and future British First Sea Lord, Vice Admiral Sir John (Jackie) Arbuthnot Fisher, 1st Baron Fisher, GCB, OM, GCVO (1897–99); future Governor of Western Australia Vice Admiral Sir Frederick George Denham Bedford, GCB, GCVO (1899–1902); and Quebec City native Vice Admiral Sir Archibald Lucius Douglas, GCB, GCVO (1902–1904).
After Britain withdrew from Nova Scotia in 1904 and handed over responsibility for Halifax’s naval facilities to Canada, Admiralty House continued to serve in a succession of roles. It was a Naval Hospital during the First World War (1914 to 1918) before being damaged in the Halifax Explosion in December 1917. It then housed Massachusetts-Halifax Relief Commission Public Health Unit No.1 from 1920 to 1924, established to contribute to the well-being of families who had suffered from the Explosion.
From 1925 to 1954 the house served as the Wardroom Officers’ Mess for the Royal Canadian Navy base HMCS Stadacona; after the construction of the current Wardroom on Lorne Terrace in 1953 it was used as offices for the base. Pre-sail convoy Commodores’ conferences were held in Admiralty House during the Battle of the Atlantic in World War II. From 1961 it housed the library for the Royal Canadian Navy, as well as being used for classrooms for the nearby RCN Fleet School.
Admiralty House was transformed into the Maritime Command Museum (the designation for the RCN during the period of unification) in the early 1970s. It was officially opened as such on 26 March 1974 by Vice Admiral Douglas Seaman Boyle, CMM, CD, then Commander of Maritime Command. The museum was renamed the Naval Museum of Halifax in 2013 with the restoration of the designation Royal Canadian Navy. An extensive collection of exhibits includes weapons, uniforms, models, art, documents, and other artifacts relating to the history of Canada’s naval forces in both war and peace, as well as a library of over 50,000 books. Exhibits focus mainly on the history of the Canadian Navy since its inception in 1910 through to current operations.
Adjacent to Admiralty House is Admiralty Gardens, a formal garden created in 1814. It contains plaques commemorating various naval personnel, as well as a Wall of Valour dedicated in 1974 to recognize RCN personnel decorated for bravery.
The Naval Museum is open to the public Monday to Friday, 10:30 am to 3:30 pm. Access is via the main Gottingen Street gate to CFB Halifax (Stadacona), which requires simply showing government-approved identification such as a driver’s license or passport. There is no admission charge.