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Old Town Hall has more lives than a cat

In this week's Remember This?, History Hound Richard MacLeod traces the history of the Old Town Hall, which has its beginnings in 1881 when Newmarket's first Town Council decided a building was needed as a marketplace for agricultural produce from local farms

In a January 1979 edition of the Newmarket Era, this quote concerning the future of the Old Town Hall was included in an article about its history: “… let me share with you some of my memories of this 96-year-old building which is slated for demolition in the not too distant future”. Fortunately, this dire prediction was to be averted and the grand old lady still graces our downtown to this day.

In this week’s article, which is a teaser for my presentation this Thursday evening, I will illustrate how the Old Town Hall in Newmarket has played an important role in the history of our community. In many ways, the story of this building coincides with the story of the town itself since the proclamation of its incorporation Aug. 7, 1880.

When our first Town Council convened Jan. 1, 1881 with William Cane as mayor, one of its initial objectives was the construction of a building to serve as a marketplace for agricultural produce from local farms. Mayor Cane and council promoted a two-story structure, which would include an auditorium with a stage for public gatherings.

A plebiscite was held May 19, 1882 that carried with a majority of only 65 votes and a tender of $6,150 was eventually accepted for its construction on Botsford Street, just west of Main Street. There was most certainly controversy over the expenditure, as relayed in the local papers, but the mayor stated, ‘We must grow and invest in order to prosper.”   

On Dominion Day, July 1, 1883, Councillor John Millard, chairman of the building committee, presented an 18-inch-long key to Mayor Cane to signify the official opening of the building.

Should you walk past the building today, you will note the outside appearance of the original building has changed very little since its beginnings. The auditorium has hosted any number of events, federal, provincial and municipal political gatherings, entertainment by dramatic clubs and teen concerts, travelling shows, civic meetings of all types, and it has also served as a courtroom and council chamber.

The main floor continued to fulfil its prime purpose as a farmers market up until the 1940s. Annual poultry shows were held in the autumn using both the main and upper floors with exhibits of the many breeds of chickens, ducks, turkeys and pigeons. The weigh scales in the market square behind were removed during the mid 1930s.

When the Metropolitan Electric Railway was moved from Main Street in 1905, the tracks flanked the west side of the hall and a door opening from the market permitted farm produce to be directly loaded into a freight car for shipment to Toronto. Traces of those doors are still visible today.

The railway was discontinued in 1930 but the market was still used up until the 1940s. After the market did cease, the long sturdy display tables remained until 1951 when the Town Clerks office moved into the auditorium. The original state was preserved with hardwood bench seating, a high open ceiling and top-roll stage curtain until it was converted for use as the County Court in 1953. Drama presentations and minstrel shows were popular, with casts of 20 to 30.  

Immediately following the Second World War, national and international events affected our local environment, including rapid population growth and rehabilitation of the military services. The local administration was faced with many new problems, among them the future utilization of the town hall, with various schemes to make use of it or demolish it being put forward. By fate or perhaps circumstance, the venerable old structure survived into the millennium.

The area between Park and Botsford Street is interwoven with several proposed ventures that arose over time: attempts to centralize municipal headquarters and futile studies to revitalize the downtown core.

In the beginning, a natural watercourse traversed the site. A swamp with bulrushes and sedges was located where the library now stands, and a stream trickled diagonally across the present parking lot to Botsford, finding its way to Main, to finally drain into the river. Interestingly, this fact arose during the discussions concerning the Clock Tower and parking garage just a year ago.

As I mentioned, in 1905, the Metropolitan railway was routed past the west side of the Town Hall and over the swamp and stream that were drained and levelled for a roadbed. A station house was erected facing Botsford with a long freight-car shed behind and extending to Park. The railway crossed Park to Millard and on to Raglan Street.

The Metro railway ceased operation in 1930 and William Geer purchased the whole area, including the two-storey livery stable on Botsford opposite the Town Hall. Eventually, after a series of events, all the buildings were demolished and a parking lot now occupies the space.

By 1950, the town-owned building at Main and Botsford had become overcrowded with the Town Clerk’s staff, the Newmarket Police department, O.P.P. detachment and new Health Unit. It was inadequate to cope with increasing responsibilities.

The Town Council’s concern was addressed by Councillor Thos. Birrell, chairman of the property committee, along with Reeve Arthur Evans, Councillor Bert Morrison and advice by Denne Bosworth town engineer. They recommended the renovation and alteration to the Town Hall as a solution to meet town requirements and to provide a central municipal facility. The other alternative was to erect a new building as first proposed in 1947-48 following the war for a memorial auditorium now estimated at $200,000. This was considered too expensive.

A preliminary estimate of $35,000 to modify the Town Hall was given incentive to proceed and in May 1950, architects John B. Parkins Associates prepared design details to accommodate the needs with a vault and new heating system. The final cost was $65,000. The Town Clerk’s staff moved into the Town Hall in mid-1952. Their vacated offices were leased to the O.P.P. and the Health Unit moved to 171 Main St., which the town had recently purchased.

The main floor was occupied by the Town Clerk and the auditorium was altered to suit the York County Magistrates Court. It officially opened in March 1953. The unfinished basement was used as a “dug-out” by the Veterans Association.

Other changes included a new roof and removal of the tower that was in a state of deterioration in 1954. Later, the O.P.P relocated to the Town Hall and a small one-storey addition was put on the central south side for a dispatch office and jail cells were built in the basement.

Council met Monday evenings in the same area as the County Court. The magistrate complained and finally Council negotiated to use the County building on Bayview Avenue at a rent of $17 per meeting. The Town Clerk office stayed in the Town Hall until February 1959.

In 1969, a new Town Hall was again promoted by Mayor Tom Surgeoner, prompted by the hope that Newmarket had a good chance of being selected as the seat of York County Regional Government that was forecast to be introduced in 1971. The schemes involved demolition of the old Town Hall and use of the area for a civic park. Also part of the plan was to acquire the buildings of Newmarket Motors on the north side of Botsford opposite the Town Hall, demolish them, and erect a new municipal building. This was all scrapped when their ambitious “urban renewal” project of 1969 was cancelled.

The fate of the Old Town Hall was jeopardized in 1970 by urban renewal schemes but it managed to survive when the Magistrates County Court made use of it. The population growth and introduction of Regional Government created problems of congested quarters.

After much controversy, Newmarket was chosen as the most suitable and central location. The old York Manor/Industrial Home on Yonge Street was sold by the Region to the Province in May 1973 and it was demolished, and a new Provincial Court was in the works in 1977.  

The prospects of a new courthouse raised the question of what to do with the town hall when it ceased to be used. It was vacated in May 1980. At the same time, the Registry Office on 134 Main St. was closed and moved to the Provincial Court building at Yonge and Eagle streets.

The future of the Town Hall was critical. It was almost 100 years old and endured many catastrophes due to impulses and whims of several administrations. The year 1980 was the most precarious time of its existence. Early in the year, it was decided by Mayor Ray Twinney with Council’s agreement to “condemn the old structure and board it up” until they got around to demolishing it. This aroused great public sentiment with a petition circulated by citizens to save it.

On July 21, 1980, bylaw 1980-74 was passed to establish a Local Architectural Conservation Advisory Committee (LACAC) under Section 28 of the Ontario Heritage Act of 1974. The committee members were Wayne Morgan, chairman, Council representatives Robert Scott and Henry Vandenburgh, citizens Robert Armstrong, Sandra Fuller and George Luesby

On September 8, 1980, the first meeting of LACAC was held and concern was expressed about the future of the Town Hall and winter maintenance to prevent further deterioration during its closure. A letter dated Oct. 14, 1980 was addressed to Council from LACAC to have the building designated under the terms of the Heritage Act to obtain a grant to restore it.

Mayor Twinney, although having dogmatic opinions, nevertheless listened to the voice of the people and permitted LACAC to engage an architect, Mr. Spencer Higgins from Toronto, to conduct a feasibility study. On April 22, 1981, a detailed report was submitted to Council with a proposal for potential use of the hall and a summary breakdown of high-cost items. The total estimate was $1.1 million.

On May 13, 1981, a public meeting was held in the Community Centre with packed attendance. A positive response by the citizens resolved to preserve the town hall for public activities. Council had no option but to agree to undertake a renovation project. Councillor Clare Salisbury, chairman of the Property Committee, was delegated to supervise the program.

Several high-cost items were deleted, such as an elevator, raised auditorium, new tower etc. and by using town facilities and manpower, the estimates were reduced to approximately $500,000, aided by a provincial grant of $374,000. Council declined to designate the building under the Heritage Act and did not apply for a grant preferring to keep it under municipal control and jurisdiction.

Restoration extended through 1982 to entirely change the interior from top to bottom with new floors, ceilings and wall surfaces, washrooms and a kitchen installed on the main floor, In the auditorium a new draw curtain was fitted to the stage. In the process, the ancient heavy wood mouldings were sacrificed at baseboards, window and door trims. The electrical and heating systems were brought to inspection standards. All the work was accomplished by the town “swat team” Joseph Vandenburgh, John Houlahan and John Toskey. The exterior remained essentially the same except for new entries at the side wings.

Official reopening and dedication with open house ceremonies were held Dec. 23, 1982. A special council meeting with Mayor and councillors in period dress was enacted July 1, 1983 in the renovated town hall as part of 100-year celebration of the town incorporation

In 1983, LACAC chairman Wayne Morgan proposed to Council the replacement of the Town Hall tower that had been removed in 1954. This was approved on October 3, 1983 and timed to celebrate Ontario’s Bi-Centennial in 1984. Research, design details and working drawings were prepared by George Luesby with the town ‘swat team’ doing the actual construction.

The main upper element was built at the Works Department compound at Timothy and transported to Botsford on a flatbed truck. A high-lift crane raised it to place it on the built-in base.

The original tower did not have a bell, so at this time, the school bell salvaged by Elman Campbell from the demolished Alexander Muir School was installed as a memorial. Fred Smith donated $1,000 and partial financing by a grant of $10,000 from the Ministry of Citizenship and Culture under the Ontario Bicentennial Program. The new tower was completed June 27, 1984 and on Sunday, July 1, it was dedicated by Mayor Twinney and Councillor Salisbury. Fred Smith was the first person to ring the bell.

The final instalment of this saga took place beginning in 2012 when it was decided that the building, if it was to remain in use, had to be brought up to code including access upgrades. After much debate, a quote was tabled and the decision to move ahead was given. The process was fraught with difficulties, cost overruns, constant discoveries of problems in structure and thus the completion of the building was forever being put back.

A new, modern edition was added to the south side of the building, encompassing the old 1883 structure and, in October 2016, the Old Town Hall finally debuted.    

This building has had more lives than an ordinary cat. If you should be interested in hearing more about this heritage gem, I invite you to attend my presentation at the Old Town Hall Feb. 21 at 7 pm. We will talk about the Market Square a bit, as well.  

Sources: The Minutes of Newmarket Council – Newmarket Era; The Newmarket Era Archives; Terry Carter Articles – Newmarket Era; Stories of Newmarket by Robert Terrance Carter; History of the Town of Newmarket by Ethel Trewhella; Various Oral History Interviews brings you this weekly feature about our town's history in partnership with Richard MacLeod, the History Hound, a local historian for more than 40 years. He conducts heritage lectures and walking tours of local interest, as well as leads local oral history interviews. You can contact the History Hound at [email protected].

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About the Author: Richard MacLeod

Newmarket resident Richard MacLeod — the History Hound — has been a local historian for more than 40 years
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