Sunday, February 18, 2024

Victoria Park Past and Future

Beautiful Victoria Park, downtown London's playground. What a long history it has. What changes it's seen. What events it's witnessed.

Card printed by Raphael Tuck & Sons, nd.

It started, of course, as London's Military Reserve. But when the British regimental occupation officially ended in 1869, the young city was left with a hole in its centre. Instead of  filling it, the City Hall of the day sensibly left it as a playground. Governor General The Earl of Dufferin christened it Victoria Park while visiting in August 1874. 

In 1878, a landscape gardener from the U.S. named Miller* published his proposed layout of the park. Probably soon afterward, formal landscaping began. In 1879, one of the early park's loveliest features was added: a three-tiered, 17-ft. high fountain created by Paul Peel's father, John R. Peel. Its top featured a statue of Cupid.

A 1908 postcard (Valentine & Sons) features the Victoria Park fountain on the left. Note horse and buggy driving through at right. The park was open to vehicles until 1951.

A pity about that fountain. In about 1939, it was replaced by the boring circular piece below:

Victor Aziz, nd. 

In 1964, the entire fountain was demolished. Pity. 

But there's always been lots of other things to look at in the park. Often they were military. In 1860, through the efforts of Major James Shanly, two Russian guns captured in Crimea arrived in London by the Grand Trunk Railway. Years later, they were installed in Victoria Park where they remain. 

Valentine & Sons postcard ca. 1917.

Other military reminders are the Boer War Memorial, added in 1908, and the Cenotaph in 1934. 

Cenotaph. Victor Aziz, London, nd.

The First Hussars' tank, Holy Roller, one of many that landed on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, was added in 1956 on the 100th anniversary of the unit. It was recently refurbished.

Portions of the park were used for sporting events, even before it was a park. An 1867 baseball game took place between members of the Forest City Base Ball Club on the Cricket Square, the southern portion of what's now the park. The afternoon game was played in the presence of a large number of spectators. 

But there was a reason it was called the Cricket Square; it was often used for that game. On September 8-9, 1872, several thousand people, many arriving by train, attended a match between the Gentlemen Eleven Cricketeers of England and 22 selected Ontario players. While the day was proclaimed a holiday so working people could see the match, a 12-ft. fence was built around the field to prevent people seeing it for free.  Meanies. 

The park was used for all kinds of outdoor events besides sports. In 1882, 7,000 people came out to see a demonstration of electric lights hanging from poles. That crowd would be amazed by the Holiday Season light display held every year since 1958. 

And what a convenient place to meet celebrities! More than 5,000 people came out to honour Londoner George "Mooney" Gibson, catcher of the 1909 world champion Pittsburgh baseball team, when he came home that October. 

Not to mention Royalty. The Prince of Wales, later King Edward VIII, was greeted in the park by 20,000 Londoners when he visited in October 1919. His niece, Queen Elizabeth II, was greeted by another large crowd when she visited us on June 28, 1973. 

In recent years the park has hosted various festivals and concerts. Home County was first held in the park in 1974, Rib Fest in 1987, and Sunfest in 1995. Everyone from the Royal Canadian Big Band Festival to April Wine have played the bandstand. 

The Architecture

The park being a central part of the city, it was surrounded by magnificent buildings. One was London Life, now Canada Life, built in the Beaux-Arts style on the south side in 1928. 

The Post Card Greeting Co. Ltd., Toronto, ca. 1932.

Many grand homes surrounded the park on the north and east sides, since wealthy people liked to be in the heart of things. Mooney Gibson had a nice place at 252 Central on the north side. The west side was - and still is - dominated by St. Peter's. 

In later years, homes on the east side were demolished to build our 1971 City Hall and London's failed attempt at a civic square to the north. Centennial Hall, a pathetic mid-century stab at combining a concert hall with an event space, is just to the north of that.  George Mooney's home on the north side was torn down by Farhi Holdings Corp. in about 2004, despite its importance as part of the heritage streetscape on the north side. 

Central Avenue, with hole where the Gibson house was located.

For years now Londoners have debated the future of the park's periphery. Including me. We seem to be split into two armed camps:

First, there are the people who think development anywhere is better than more suburban sprawl onto farmland. It will be wonderful to have people living downtown. The park will be frequented more because there will be lots of people living nearby. And we need housing badly.

Second, there are the people who think the look of the park will be spoiled. Tall buildings will block the sun. Developers, today's meanies, don't care if Londoners live in a concrete jungle. City Hall does whatever the developers want. 

It occurs to me that both sides may be right. We do need housing downtown but the surface parking lots are the best place to build. Even the city knows this now. Victoria Park could have been left alone, its remaining heritage left untouched. 

But for better or worse, the Victoria Park Secondary Plan is now in effect. Another chapter in Victoria Park's history is about to begin. When future generations of Londoners visit their downtown park, will they thank us? Or blame us? 

Building heights allowed under the revised January 2024 version of the Victoria Park Secondary Plan: 

  • Minimum of three storeys, maximum of 35 storeys south of Dufferin Avenue.
  • Minimum of two storeys, maximum of 30 storeys on the city hall property and west side of park near Kent Street.
  • Maximum of 25 storeys on select parcels to the east and west sides of the park.
  • Minimum of two storeys, maximum of 16 storeys on the park’s northwest corner, at Richmond Street and Central Avenue.
  • Maximum of 17 storeys at the northeast corner of Wolfe and Wellington streets.

*Either William or Charles, depending on the source.

Saturday, February 10, 2024

Redevelopment Fit For a Princess


Domus Developments would like to renovate 300 and 306 Princess Avenue, above, into nine-unit apartment buildings. Each old home would be divided into six one-bedroom apartments while proposed rear additions would contain three more two-bedroom units. Since rezoning would be necessary for the rear units to be built, the proposal will go before London City Council's Planning Department in March. 

Being part of the West Woodfield Heritage Conservation District, these houses are designated under part of the Ontario Heritage Act. A heritage alteration permit will be necessary before a building permit is issued. From this article, it sounds like city staff are supportive and the project will likely go ahead.

300, on the left, is a stately Queen Anne with Romanesque stone arches over the doors and windows and a wonderful central tower that's reminiscent of Italianate. In other words, its style is eclectic. It was built ca. 1893 for James R. Shuttleworth, a prominent fruit wholesale merchant. Shuttleworth was president of the Children's Aid Society of London in the 1890s. 

 Bottle from J. Tune & Son          
306 is less spectacular but has decorative wood trim and a lovely wrap-around porch. It was built in 1906 for Charles Henry Tune of J. Tune & Sons Soda Water Works, a London company established about 1882 on Clarence St. north of York. A couple of years later the company moved to the south side of York between Richmond and Talbot. It employed about eight hands and shipped soda water as far west as Windsor and as far east as the Ingersoll and Woodstock area. The J. in the company title was Charles' father, James. Eventually the Tunes became London Soda Water Works. At left is a bottle from my personal collection, dating to the J. Tune & Son days. 

As someone who used to live nearby, I've long been concerned about the deteriorating state of these architectural and historic gems. According to the linked article, Domus President Michael Mescia loves these buildings and wants to preserve them as they are. I'm glad to hear that.

I'm a little concerned, though, when I look at the artist renderings. Scroll down through the article and have a look. I know they're only drawings but I think I'm seeing replacement single-pane windows which wouldn't have existed at the time the homes were built. And 300 looks like a new grey excrescence will supplant the current  second-storey woodwork. What will the end result look like?

I admit I have a bee in my bonnet about windows. So many otherwise wonderful heritage renovations have replacement windows that look entirely inappropriate. I know it's difficult to add modern innovations while maintaining historic charm. And those moving into the future apartments will demand "mod cons." But there are so many older buildings in London with startlingly unsuitable windows. I find myself groaning inwardly as I stroll the city streets. 

So I'm happy to learn about this project but not without reservations. I hope the end result will look like something the Shuttleworths and Tunes would approve of. Or at least recognize. 

Monday, December 11, 2023

Day Trips: St. Marys

When I feel like escaping the city and seeing an attractive small town - which I often do - I generally look no farther than St. Marys, a gem slightly over 40 km northeast of London. There are many reasons why: I can be there in about 40 minutes; I can enjoy small town atmosphere; and - best of all - I can admire architecture in a place that looks like the Ontario of yesteryear. 

First, the name. Why St. Marys? Many sources have suggested that, when Thomas Mercer Jones, commissioner of the Canada Company, visited the town in 1845 with his wife, Mrs. Jones was asked to come up with a name. The story goes that she chose to name the community Mary after herself. A more likely explanation is that local land surveyor John McDonald named the town after his wife, also a Mary, but humbler and lesser known.* So the name comes from an act of chivalry, not ego. 

But the official nickname is "Stonetown." The stone in question is limestone, which exists in abundance in the area and from which much of the early town was built. St. Marys Cement capitalized on this resource and became one of the major producers of cement in Ontario.

From the road into town, St. Marys Cement looks like some kind of weird, futuristic city. 

Not surprisingly, mining all that limestone left big holes in the ground. "The Quarries," as they're known, are two former limestone quarries on the south edge of town. The area became a popular swimming spot for the locals after it filled with water in the 1930s. In 1945, the town bought the quarries and much surrounding land, and the area is now Canada's largest outdoor freshwater pool.** This awesome hole looks very inviting on a hot day.

One end of Canada's largest outdoor pool. 


But the most interesting aspect of the limestone deposits from an architecture enthusiast's point of view is the number of limestone buildings throughout town. The most impressive is likely the Opera House on Water Street, designed by architect Silas Weekes in 1879-1880. Built by the Oddfellows who met on the third floor, the building had an 800-seat theatre on its second floor and stores at street level. For decades the theatre hosted travelling theatre troupes, musicians and campaigning politicians until the Oddfellows sold it in 1904. 

The building is mock-Medieval at its best, complete with bartizans, lancet and quatrefoil windows, and crenelations along the top. When first built, there was a large central gable at top matching the two below, but it didn't survive the building's 20th-century stint as a flour mill. No matter. The building has survived almost intact and, thanks to the Lions Club, was rescued and turned into stores and condos in the 1980s.

Oddfellows Opera House, 12 Water Street.

The Opera House is so ornate it might be mistaken for a town hall. But no, that's over on Queen Street East. It's a real beauty too, with stepped gables, towers, turrets, sandstone-trimmed round arches and sandstone and limestone chequerboard trim. Note the twisted belfry, apparently inspired by Santa Croce, Florence. Architect George Gouinlock completed this treasure in 1891 and went on to design the Canadian National Exhibition buildings in Toronto. Note that this is still St. Marys Town Hall. 

175 Queens St. E., a very romantic Town Hall.

The first truly magnificent home in town was built by George Tracy in 1854. His builder was the Scottish-born stone mason Robert Barbour who came to work on the Tracy mansion but stayed for the rest of his life. Many of the other buildings in town - both grand and humble - were his work. This has been the St. Marys Museum & Archives since 1959 and my family has discovered much about our own St. Marys roots here over the years, thanks to helpful staff. 

177 Church Street South, St. Marys Museum and Archives, hidden behind summer foliage.

Many of the town's limestone buildings are commercial. The gabled house at the end in the picture below was built for a miller and businessman named William Veal Hutton in 1858. He also owned the four-store commercial building that adjoins his house. These buildings are changed since they've been built to some extent; the building on the corner, for example, didn't always have a mansard roof.

83-91 Queen Street East and 6 Water Street North.

There are many limestone cottages in town built for folks humbler than the Tracy family. Below is one of the last homes built by Robert Barbour, ca. 1865-66. The little windows in the gable are an unusual touch. 

216 Thomas Street.

Another simple building, except for the elliptical fanlight over the door.

52 Ontario Street South ca. 1858

An adorable but primitive home built about 1850 for Gilbert McIntosh, owner of a nearby woollen mill. A rear addition dates to the 1860s. Surrounding wall is a nice touch.

St. Maria Street, west of Water Street South.

Looking for someplace to stay while in town? Well, there's Westover Inn if you feel like splurging. Built in the 1860s for the Hutton family, Westover Park, as it was then called, was surrounded by extensive gardens. The gardeners were William and Joseph Hutton, brothers of the aforementioned William Veal Hutton who retired here at an early age.

300 Thomas Street, side view.

Of more interest than the solid but stodgy-looking manor is the nearby carriage house, designed in 1911. It's an elaborate combination of stone, planks, shingles and stained glass grander than most people's homes at that time. And possibly now.

Not your average carriage house.

Early in the new 20th century, philanthropist Andrew Carnegie pledged $10,000 to build St. Marys a library, one of a growing list he'd built in Ontario. You'd think the town would jump at the chance to get a rich guy's money but not everyone was thrilled. Carnegie had a reputation for running sweatshops and squashing strikes so that socially-conscious townsfolk preferred to find funds elsewhere. But when put to a vote in a municipal election, Carnegie's offer squeaked through, so most residents must have wanted a library enough to hold their noses. While designed in the favoured Carnegie classical plan, the library was completed in the usual local limestone. Of course.

15 Church Street North, complete with pediment and columns in classical style, ca. 1904-5.

The library, by the way, has a lovely Rotary Reading Garden attached, featuring this game table. The Rotary Club of St. Marys built the garden in 2000 to commemorate their own 80th anniversary as well as the 100th anniversary of St. Marys Public Library. 

Rotary Reading Garden monument is a pile of books. Of course. 

Town of Churches

OK, so you're not churchy. That's fine, but St. Marys has some of the loveliest church buildings anywhere so indulge me while I show them off.

Below is St. James Anglican Church, consecrated in 1859, although the tower wasn't added until 1886. More Gothic Revival here, with crenelations and turrets. First rector was Archibald Lampman, father of the famous Canadian poet.***  

65 Church Street South.

St. Marys United, formerly Methodist, Church built in 1879.

85 Church Street South.

St. Marys Presbyterian Church built 1879-80 in the Gothic Revival style. Note tin-topped steeple. 

147 Widder Street East. (No, not all the churches are on Church Street.)

Holy Name of Mary Catholic Church was constructed using the local limestone in 1892-93 on a magnificent hilltop site. Lovely tall trees on the property make it tricky to photograph until the leaves start falling in autumn. 

Corner of Peel and Widder streets. 

A small Baptist congregation built First Baptist Church on Church Street in 1902. Tinier than the other church buildings in town, it's nevertheless attractive. While the front is on a level with Church Street, the basement is above ground and can be seen from the Jones Street hill. 
34 Church Street South.

A 1900s postcard shows Knox Church, which once stood on Church Street opposite St. James Anglican. The building was abandoned in the 1950s when the Presbyterian congregations merged. The building was demolished in 1969 and the site is now apartments. 

(Author's collection)

Fabulous Homes

St. Marys has some of the loveliest and best-preserved homes in Southwestern Ontario. Take this Italianate-Second Empire style residence built by local businessman George Carter for his daughter Charlotte and her husband Henry Lincoln Price as a wedding gift. The latest owners are committed to preserving the home and gardens so it remains one of the town's showpieces for years to come.

236 Jones Street East.

I love the little place below too. Built ca. 1880, this home's gabled front faces Wellington Street while its veranda faces the garden. Some woodworker had a great time here, adding bargeboard, turned posts, brackets, and all kinds of lesser ornamentation. The white and green paint job is dramatic and, as is often the case in St. Marys, the home has a lovely garden setting. For an older picture and a bit of history, see here.

146 Wellington Street North.

This plain, simple cottage built ca. 1870 possesses an admirable view of the Thames just across Robinson Street. Designated by the town of St. Marys in 1987 (see plaque next to door), it's also on Canada's Register of Historic Places. Around the corner is its rubblestone carriage house, now renovated into a separate residence. 

108 Robinson Street.

Not every house is spectacular or worthy of designation but many less imposing residences do have nice touches here and there. Note the colourfully-painted trim on the ca. 1900 frame home below.

253 Water Street South.

A yellow brick house on Wellington Street has a sunburst of spindles over the door and nice stone trim on the nearby window.

164 Wellington Street South.

An unassuming house with an ornate gable. When bargeboard was no longer the rage, later builders  continued to add a little bit without going nuts. In this ca. 1900s home there are circles, diamonds and triangles. How many triangles can you find? 

106 Water Street North.

Red brick building with stone window arch. Former home now an office. 

48 Wellington Street South.

While this window looks like it might be on a church, it's actually on a home.

84 Church Street South.

Town of Hills

When I say hills I know that anyone from a mountainous part of the world won't be impressed. But in flat Southwestern Ontario, St. Marys comes across as truly hilly. Builders were up to the challenge, though.

This limestone 1850s store is built on a hill rising from the street, with the shopfront at the lower level level and the shopkeeper's residence on the second floor above. 

234 Queen Street East.

This home is built on a hill sloping downwards from the street.

100 Water Street North.

Of course some homes were built entirely on top of a hill, creating an ostentatious look.  

183 Widder Street East.

Other Cool Stuff

Historical Signage

Rather than regarding history as something better forgotten, St. Marys embraces its past and highlights it. Photos and signs like the ones below on Queen Street East help visitors and townsfolk imagine days gone by. 

Speaking of Queen Street, it has actual thriving businesses, something not all small towns can boast of these days. It may help that St. Marys hasn't much in the way of suburban shopping plazas to draw away customers. It also helps that there aren't many larger communities nearby to lure people away (Stratford is about a 20 minute drive). But it might also be that Queen Street East appears well looked after, safe and inviting. That patio is a nice place to stop for a cold drink on a hot summer day. 

More limestone commercial buildings. If you haven't been to Eclectic Treasure, by the way, you should. It's one of the best antique/collectible/used/junk stores in Southwestern Ontario, crammed with stuff from one end to the other. 

Arthur Meighen

Canada's ninth Prime Minister isn't one of our better known, probably because he was only in office from July 1920 to December 1921 and again for a few months in 1926. But he was born in the nearby hamlet of Anderson (where there's a plaque dedicated to him and not much else) and is buried in St. Marys Cemetery. This statue of him in Lind Park looks too emaciated to be flattering but at least it's there.

Water, Water Everywhere

St. Marys was built at the confluence of the North Branch of the Thames River and Trout Creek. The Thames cascaded over several limestone ledges here, providing power for pioneer mills. Today one can still see the mill race northeast of Queen Street East as it runs from Trout Creek south to the Thames. The river itself can best be enjoyed from "The Flats" or Milt Dunnell Park. I like the way the town has provided access to its waterways for scenic and recreational purposes, instead of forgetting about them when water power became obsolete. 

Speaking of scenic, note the view from the nearby Grand Trunk trestle, now a pedestrian walkway. While it's chilly up there on a fall day, you can't beat the view of this bend in the Thames.

The bridge itself:

In 1857 the Grand Trunk Railway was extended Toronto to Sarnia. As it passed through St. Marys it was necessary to build high trestles over the Thames and Trout Creek. The first train over the river was in November 1859.

But the CNR abandoned this line in 1989. Rather than seeing the trestle removed, a group of St. Marys townsfolk created a committee to raise funds for a walking trail along the former railway bed, including the section over the river. The Grand Trunk Trail opened in 1998.

(Author's collection)

Reverse side of postcard: 

"St. Marys, Ont. May 2, 1910, Dear Bell. This is the bridge Tom fell from. He fell from the left end. I gathered a lot of violets and wished you were here too. Georgie." Good heavens! Was poor Tom killed? Was Georgie gathering violets for his grave? And what was Tom doing up there to begin with? Perhaps future research will tell. 

Then There's This

A cute little building on Water Street South. Apparently once a veterinary surgery and a euchre club.**** Metal roof with ice stoppers is an obvious update. 

143 Water Street South.

Visiting My Family

In St. Marys Cemetery, that is. You see, my great-great-grandfather, John Moore (1817-95) settled in St. Marys in 1852. Here he operated an iron foundry and agricultural implement business with his sons, including my great-grandfather Robert. My grandmother, Helen, was born in St. Marys in 1886. 

John's obituary in the St. Marys Journal on May 16, 1895 states that he served as a town councilor when the stone bridges were built about 30 years earlier. He lived on James Street North. He's buried with his wife Jane, a daughter named Eliza, and other family members.

Visiting the Moore family.

You Don't Have To Drive

Unlike most small towns, you can still reach St. Marys by train. Not only does VIA Rail still stop here, but an early railroad station is still in use. This Grand Trunk Station, the third one built in St. Marys, was completed in 1907. Designated by Heritage St. Marys in 1987, the station also serves as a gallery

* Katherine Ashenburg, Going To Town. Toronto: Macfarlane, Walter and Ross, 1996, p. 185.

** According to the sign.