St. Johns architecture is distinguishable by its wooden houses, which differ from the stone and brick buildings in other North American and European cities. When the first English settlers arrived in the 17th century settlement was officially discouraged, they built their "temporary" houses out of wood rather than more permanent stone. This tradition of wooden housing still stands today, and in parts of older downtown St. John's the houses tumble down to the harbour row on row like a parade of colourful matchboxes.

Like many coastal regions St. Johns and Newfoundland are known for their lighthouses, most of which are historical and blend into the seaside landscape. Many of these lighthouses were constructed in the 19th century, and a good number of them are still operational today. However many of the old manned lighthouses were demolished after automation arrived in the 1960s and 1970s.

ne of the most famous lighthouses, the Fort Amherst Lighthouse, can be easily seen (and its foghorn heard) from Signal Hill. It stands at the entrance to St. John's harbour and was built 1813, but was replaced in 1951 by a new lighthouse.

A 20 minute drive from the city is the Cape Spear lighthouse, on the most easterly point of land in North America. The design of this lighthouse is a classic keeper's house with the light protruding from the center. The Cape Spear Lighthouse is the center of a National Historic Park that opened in 1983.

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