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Thorning Revisited

by Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015




A lost landmark of Fergus: the Groves Block

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.

Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

 

A couple of weeks ago I had the good fortune to be able to purchase a postcard of the old Groves Block in Fergus.

Although I do not normally collect Fergus postcards, this one appealed to several of my major interests: banking history, late 19th century architecture and Dr. Abraham Groves.

Part of the Groves Block still stands, on the east side of St. David Street, south of St. Andrew. The rest of the building was demolished to make way for the current Royal Bank building.

Abraham Groves purchased the land on the southeast corner of St. Andrew and St. David streets in August 1873. There were probably buildings on the land at this time.

The doctor took out mortgages totalling $1,800 on it, but these transactions also involved other property, and his financial affairs were so involved that it is difficult to unravel them in the surviving records.

Assessment records could provide an answer, but unfortunately these have not survived for this period. Perhaps one of the Fergus historians can provide more information on this property in the 1870s.

Groves’ celebrated medical career has overshadowed his activities as a businessman. This building was one of many investments he made over the years in real estate and industry.

Groves contracted for the construction of an impressive building on the corner of St. David and St. Andrew streets in early 1880. As built, the structure was 22 feet (along St. Andrew) by 80 feet (along St. David), two storeys high, plus an attic and full basement.

The carpentry was done by Alex and John Moffat, well known Fergus contractors and proprietors of a planing mill. George Jackson, a Fergus mason, executed the masonry and stone work, probably assisted by other local masons such as Alex Gow.

The portion of the building on the corner was to house the Imperial Bank, which had opened a branch in Fergus in 1878. The branch had quickly built up a profitable business, and its management sought larger and better premises.

The Imperial Bank leased the office, and the upstairs apartment for the manager, from Groves. The rear portion of the building provided office space for Neil Munro’s law office. Groves’ office and surgery were originally located beside the bank office on the St. Andrew Street side.

I am not certain who designed the building, but it shares a number of characteristics with several other St. Andrew Street structures: the Marshall Block diagonally across the corner, the Commercial Hotel Block, and the Russell Block. The basic style is Second Empire, which always features a mansard roof, and usually two colours of facing stone or brick.

There are details, though, which depart significantly from Second Empire conventions, particularly on the upper portion of the building. The dormer windows were Gothic Revival in design, with elaborately detailed decorative trim, and small iron spires on top of each.

The corner door was angled at 45 degrees to the intersection, and was topped with a tower that resembled a church spire.

A second spire was on the rear portion of the building.

Because of the eclectic blend of styles, it is difficult to put a label on the building, though Art Murdoch, of the Elora local architectural conservation advisory committee (LACAC), had some fun trying to do so when I showed him this picture. It is perhaps safest to put the building in the general category of High Victorian. I suspect that its particular combination of details made it unique.

The building combined locally-quarried limestone with brown cut sandstone from the Forks of the Credit. The latter was a new building material for Fergus, made possible by the completion of the Credit Valley Railway a few months before the Groves Block went up. The mansard roof used slate, in an attractive two-colour pattern.

The ground floor of the Imperial Bank office contained the usual banking room, vault and manager’s office. As built, the manager’s quarters upstairs contained two bedrooms, a parlour and a bathroom, with a dining room on the ground floor and the kitchen in the basement.

The doorway to the apartment opened onto St. David Street. The attic floor seems to have been left unfinished. The Groves Block featured central hot air heating, something of a novelty at the time, and a ventilation system.

Work on the building was well under way by June of 1880, but it may have dragged on into 1881.

Thomas Watson, proprietor of a tannery along the river at the rear of the building, sued Groves in the spring of 1881 because construction material and debris littered the street.

After three objections, the magistrate dismissed the case against the doctor. Abraham Groves had the last laugh. When Watson declared bankruptcy shortly afterward, Groves bought his property from the creditors. He converted the tannery to a flour mill, and later to an electrical generating plant.

Sometime during the 1880s, Groves constructed an addition to the building to the east along St. Andrew Street, and his own office moved to accommodate the changes. The wing duplicated the architectural style of the original portion, and provided premises for two small stores and a doorway to an upstairs apartment, which for a time was the location of the Mechanics Institute library and reading room. A number of businesses occupied these stores over the years; the last one was a Simpsons-Sears order office.

The Imperial Bank moved diagonally across the street to the Marshall Block in about 1905.

The vacated quarters, though, continued to be a bank. The Toronto-based Traders Bank opened an office there soon after the Imperial Bank moved. The Traders Bank amalgamated with the Royal Bank in 1912, and the Royal became the tenant, and eventually the owner, of the building.

In the late 1960s the premises department of the Royal Bank concluded banking could no longer be conducted in the building, and that renovation was out of the question.

Most of the Groves Block was demolished in November of 1971 to make way for the current Royal Bank building.

*This column was originally published in the Elora Sentinel on April 26, 1994.

 

Vol 51 Issue 25

 
 

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