Of course, you’ve walked by and admired its magisterial beauty. And you’ve said to yourself more than once: “I need to see the inside of that grand old building.” No wonder! Stratford’s City Hall dominates the center of Stratford, Ontario, looming high over the streetscape– just a hop and skip from the bustling Avon Theatre.
But darn! You’re already late for the matinee down the street. And heavens know, the parking gnomes lurking around every Stratford meter won’t give you even a minute to take a historical detour. “Next time,” you promise yourself.
Relax… Take a tour with Nancy, Louis and the Goldens as they discover the venerable “Queen of the Square’s” storied past. A century before Tom Patterson, The Stratford Festival’s far-thinking founder was pitching his vision of a grand summer Shakespearean Festival, Victorian architect William King ’s project was the talk of the bustling southwestern Ontario town.
Over the next century and a half, the building would see its share of highs and lows—not to mention an embarrassing oversight enshrined in perpetuity.
ONIONS AND CREAM AND BEEF STEW FIRST
Curiously, around about 1850, when land surveyor Donald McDonald bought a triangular parcel of land in the center of the fledgling town of Stratford, his purpose was to build a central Market Place. Accessibility to food was, then as now, a basic human need.
And so in 1856 the original Stratford Market Place rose. It doubled as the City Treasurer’s Office, which shared second floor space with a Seed Emporium and two butcher shops.
“Destroyed by Fire” was the fate of many 19th century Ontario buildings. The Stratford Marketplace and Towne Hall was no exception. A night watchman doing his rounds on the night of November 23, 1897 called in a fire alarm—humanely releasing the two prisoners from the town lock-up—before he fled the building.
Legend says that some of the building might have been saved had the Fire Brigade crew learned to use the new hook and ladder fire truck. It seems that the new-fangled ladders had never been raised before. Alas! While the Fire Department fiddled, the building was consumed. So intense were the flames that the clock tower’s brass melted.
BIGGER AND GRANDER
Within a month, plans were a-foot to build a new Towne Hall. One grander, by far, than the old. Curiously, for this primarily Scottish and British-settled area of the province, its architect, George King chose to pattern his monument on the Dutch style.
Dealing with the curious triangular piece of land the Towne Hall sat on was King’s ultimate challenge. He solved it by using its geometry as an asset. The building would take the shape of a dodecagon with twelve sides. In the centre would rise a stately circular clock tower.
King’s choice of architectural style was the eclectic “throw everything in but the kitchen sink” Queen Anne. Popular in Ontario in the late 1890’s, Queen Anne liked to copy “this and that” from a variety of architectural styles, as well as from various European countries of origin. Indeed Dutch and Flemish visitors to Stratford’s Town Hall might think they have never left home.
And so in the quirky Queen Anne style, the Towne Hall became a phantasmagoria of gables, cupolas, finials, brackets, paneled chimneys, molded cornices and arches. In keeping with the “variety is the spice of life” motif, King used a variety of building materials–red brick, brown sandstone, marble columns and rough fieldstone foundation.
Nor was the exterior the Towne Hall’s only showplace. Fine oak doors, carved moldings and wood paneling, a substantial winding staircase and marble columns completed the Hall’s finery.
THE GRAND OPENING
Politics (and politicians) being what they are, the Grand Opening of the Stratford Towne Hall on January 1, 1900 was not without controversy.
A local stonecutter had been commissioned to create a tablet which would list all the city officials, architects and contractors, who, in 1898 were responsible for the decision to build the new civic building. That did not sit well with the 1899 Town Council who wanted their names inscribed for perpetuity too.
And so more chipping and chiseling ensued. In the end, the 1898 side of the stone tablet faced a back wall while the 1899 side faced the main foyer! Such are political egos!
A pricklier discovery was made during the Grand Opening. The stone tablet which credited Associate Architect J. W. Siddall read “J.W. Siddall Ass Architect!” While there was certainly room for the stonecutter to have corrected his embarrassing mistake, legend speaks that architect King, who had had disagreements with his second in command, allowed the error to remain.
Mysteriously the tablet disappeared from its resting place and remained hidden until 1974. At that time it was unearthed and returned to its rightful place on the wall. It remains for the sharp-eyed visitor to chuckle over today.
NEW IS BETTER; OLD IS GONE
Stratford’s “Queen of the Square” was threatened with demolition in the upstart 1960’s. A modern City Hall tower and hotel were planned to represent the modern face of Stratford. A group of concerned Stratford citizens grabbed the reins. Through their tireless efforts, the fine old dame was saved. Focus now turned to renovating and restoring the building. And what a marvellous job they did.
The Stratford City Hall was designated as a National Historic Site in 1983. It is open for viewing during weekly business hours.
Don’t forget to pay tribute on Ass Architect Siddall on your visit.
For more information on Stratford’s City Hall go to http://www.city.stratford.on.ca