Guelph considered building a new city hall in 1907

Local history buffs and heritage professionals agree that Guelph’s old city hall is one of the Royal City’s finest edifices.
But that sort of recognition is fairly recent, dating only from the 1950s. Historical desig nation of the structure did not come until 1978. Its appearance, apart from the clock tower removed in 1961, is little changed from 150 years ago.
When it was constructed in 1856-57, the building was a major project for Guelph, which had a population barely tickling the 3,000 mark. The design, by architect William Thomas, employs what architectural historians call the Renaissance Revival style, and employed local lime stone.
Work started in the spring of 1856, and a ceremony celebrated the laying of the cornerstone in September. City officials moved in a year later. It was what today we like to call a multi-purpose building: it housed not only the municipal offices and council chamber, but also market space and an auditorium. The location of the building was troublesome from the start. Construction coincided with the laying of the mainline tracks of the Grand Truck Railway, which bisected what had originally been Guelph’s immense market grounds, and tracks ran past the rear of the building.
City fathers of the day thought the proximity indicated the city’s faith in the railway and progress generally. To their dismay, the noise of passing trains frequently disrupted meetings. That situation grew worse over the years. Later in the century, the city hall be – came hemmed in from the west by facilities of the Guelph Winter Fair, a major agricultural event that, at its peak, eclipsed the Royal Winter Fair.
That Fair enjoyed spectacular success after 1900, attracting visitors and exhibitors from all over the province. The railways put on special trains to bring in farmers. Further expansion of the fair would be necessary. In 1907, the province gave a grant of $25,000 for more buildings.
Though the city hall was only 50 years old, many on council considered it unattractive and obsolete. During the spring of 1907, several aldermen believed it would be wise to dedicate the entire block on the south side of Carden Street to the Winter Fair. The fire department and municipal offices would be re located, and the old fire hall and city hall buildings would be sold to the province for use by the Winter Fair or demolished for fair facilities.
Meanwhile, a group of citizens acquired the Crowe Foundry site, at the corner of Paisley and Norfolk Streets, when that firm moved to larger facilities. The group wanted the old site for municipal purposes rather than another industry.
That area, on the edge of downtown, had been an industrial beehive, but construction of the new library across the street from the foundry, indicated that the neighbourhood was in flux.
The old foundry site was large. Initially, the city used it as a storage area for the works department, with a couple of crude build ings. They seriously intended to move the fire department into a new building there. The final move would be the city hall, which would occupy the corner of the property, visually augmenting the library across the street. It had plenty of room for expansion.
Space at Carden Street was not the only factor in fluencing the thinking of the aldermen.
Many considered city hall to be old, obsolete, and badly in need of repair. Space was cramped for some of the clerks. The city had more than quadrupled in population since it was built, and it had departments, such as water, gas, and hydro, that were not dreamed of in 1856.
Many believed the cost of renovations would go a long way to finance a new building at the bigger Norfolk Street site. Then there was the constant parade of trains, interrupting court sessions and spewing smoke and steam into the open windows. Aldermen and civic leaders, and the city’s market committee, held a series of meetings and discussions on the fate of the city hall and
Winter Fair during March of 1907. In the end, though, they realized that the cost of building a new city hall would be prohibitive, given Guelph’s other obligations in those years, which included heavy expenditures for the waterworks.
Council’s market committee brought its report to council on April 2, 1907. The key re commendation was that plans for a new building be abandoned, and that the existing building be renovated, at a cost of roughly $2,500.
Arguments were long and heated, but when the vote was taken, long after midnight, council supported the recommendation, with only three opposed. At the start of the session, a majority of the council had been sympathetic to the concept of a new city hall.
The committee’s recommendations, presented by its head, alderman G.J. Thorp, would provide new office space for the electrical, waterworks, and fire depart ments.
All operated from locations other than city hall, a situation that made it time consuming for residents to pay their utility bills. Along with a revamped office for the treasurer (with a counter for the payment of taxes and other accounts), the plans called for a full office for the mayor. New washrooms would replace the building’s primitive facilities. Most of the offices used by the public would be on the ground floor.
The renovations would mean the expulsion of what was left of the old market func – tions for the building. The city rented space to three butchers on the ground floor, and other vendors used the building on market days. Some alderman viewed that practice as rustic and old-fashioned, completely out of character for a growing industrial centre. Other aldermen wanted the butchers to stay in the building. A couple of them thought all the market activity, including the butchers, should be relocated south of the GTR tracks, to the rear of the new Armoury. The butchers paid a total of $34 a month in rent, one man argued. Though that was a trivial sum in the context of the debate, he believed that removing them would be a serious loss to the city’s treasury.
Loudest of the proponents of a new city hall was alderman J.M. Struthers. He doubted the renovations contemplated could be done for $2,500, and believed that a new city hall could be built for $20,000. But he did not favour the Crowe Foundry site, preferring instead a location at Trafalgar Park, at the junction of Wyndham Street and Eramosa Road.
Once again, the financial situation intervened. Guelph had borrowed heavily for the waterworks and other projects, and was at the limit of its borrowing capacity. There was simply no money for a new city hall.
With such a range of opinions, it is a wonder that a decision was reached that night.
The renovations of 1907 went ahead, as did the large extension to the Winter Fair facilities, which opened in 1909.
More changes came later in the 20th century.
The Guelph Winter Fair was suspended during World War II, and never resumed. Part of the original Winter Fair building was converted into Memorial Gardens in 1948, and was the home of Guelph’s successful hockey teams in the 1950s. There were more renovations to the city hall in the early 1960s, including removal of the clock tower, and a rebuilding of the area in front of the building as a 1967 centennial project.
The 1909 addition to the Winter Fair building was demolished in 1968. As planned in 1907, the city relocated the fire department, but that took more than 60 years. The new premises for the smoke eaters was not on Norfolk Street, but in a refurbished building on Wyndham Street that was formerly a Dominion Store.
Increasingly, the city viewed its old city hall as a gem in the downtown area, and the key structure in any redevelopment plans in that area. The current rebuilding of the city hall square echoes the work done a century ago: providing additional space for municipal purposes for a population that has increased more that eight-fold since 1907. Few are aware that had the city been a little more flush with funds back then, the building might be only a distant memory.

Stephen Thorning