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Remember This? Take a historic tour of the town offices

In the early years, the town halls were located in a series of locations in downtown Newmarket, moving to meet space requirements as the town continued to grow. 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].

With a municipal election pending Oct. 22, let’s take a trip back in time to look at the various locations that served as our Town Offices. As the town grew, so did the need for bigger and better facilities to house our council and various town departments.

This is part one of a two-part series that will provide you with short descriptions of all our Town Offices from the period of our incorporation forward to present day. Today, we will look at the period from incorporation to the last of our downtown facilities on Main Street in 1988. Next, we will look at the period from the move to the Tannery on Davis Drive to the present-day facility on Mulock Drive — a period that was filled with some controversy and angst locally.   

Do let me know how many of these properties you remember.

First Town Clerk’s Office

The first building used for municipal business was at the northwest corner of Main and Lot streets (renamed Millard Avenue in April 1921). It was originally built to serve as a Registry Office in 1863 when a law was enacted to make it mandatory to record all vital statistics and titles of land registration. The structure was approximately 38 x 20 ft. unexcavated, with solid brick walls 18-inches thick. Five steps approached a central entrance from Main. The interior contained an 8 x 10 ft. vault in the northwest corner. Due to the wall thickness, the working space was quite small. By 1884, the accommodation was unable to hold the volume of accumulated records and a larger office was erected on the adjoining lot at 134 Main, where the current Elman Campbell Museum is located. Most people believe the Museum was the first registry office, but it was in fact the second.

When the old building was eventually vacated in 1884, it was owned by the County of York and rented out to David Lloyd, who used it for his private business of loans, real estate, insurance agencies, commissioner of affidavits and issuer of marriage licences.  All this was concurrent with his appointment as town clerk/treasurer. By 1881, the village had reached “town” status. The population increased from 2,006 in 1881 to 2,379 in 1900.

In 1904, the Town Council negotiated with the County Council to acquire the old registry office for exclusive use of town business, tax records, utility payments etc. A purchase price of $800 was agreed but there was not much money in the treasury, so Col. T.H. Lloyd (who lived at 160 Main) advanced $1,000 at 6 per cent per annum to the Town for the purchase of a Clerk’s Office, which continued as such until 1942.

The Second Town Clerk’s Office

In January 1942, Dr. Lowell Dales was re-elected mayor and at the inaugural meeting of the new council, he set an objective to improve the state of the Town Clerk’s office. The auditor, George Vale, recommended a new bookkeeping system and enlarged working space. At that time, there was only the deputy clerk, Miss Irene Parks. The Town Clerk, N.L. Mathews, located in his own law office on central Main Street. In late May 1942, plans were prepared for a new one-story building on the old site with an estimated cost of $9,500. The proposal was shelved due to the high cost and also because the Council was considering an alternative. There were rumors that the Imperial Bank in the Widdifield building on the corner of Main and Botsford streets was going to close, and the Council members agreed this would be a suitable location for the Town Clerk’s office.

On August 27, 1942, the Imperial Bank amalgamated with the Bank of Montreal and the building it occupied was up for sale. The Town immediately sought approval from the Municipal Board to spend $9,000 and buy the building. This was approved Oct. 1, 1942 and the Town Clerk’s office hastily moved into the former bank in time to organize the tax billing of Oct. 15, 1942. The old office continued to exist, sometimes vacant and for a time used by the veterans as a “dug-out”. Finally, it was demolished when a new firehall was built on the site in 1952 (currently still there).

On Dec. 14, 1944, Norman L. Mathews resigned as Town Clerk and Wesley Brooks was appointed Clerk/Treasurer to start Jan. 1, 1945. The municipal office stayed at Main and Botsford until it became overcrowded and Council was forced to seek more space. The newly formed County Health Unit and O.P.P were occupying a building in the same general area. The Town Clerk moved to the Town Hall after renovation in 1951 and the office was leased to the O.P.P. The Health Unit moved to 171 Main, which  the Town had purchased in 1951. The Widdifield building was sold June 1, 1962 to British Mortgage & Trust Co.

Third Town Clerk’s Office – 171 Main Street

In July 1950, the Town Council with Mayor Joseph Vale purchased the property at 171 Main from the Dr. Webb estate for $18,000, ostensibly to be used as a library. However, this was put aside to give priority to the York County Health Unit that was formed in 1947, when the Province chose Newmarket for its location. Their office was initially in the Widdifield building at the corner of Main and Botsford. It occupied the premises from 1950 until 1958 when it moved to the County Administration building on Bayview Avenue. During its stay, a serious fire occurred in 1956 to the rear portion of the building, closing it until it was repaired at a cost of $28,893 and reopened Sept. 19, 1957.

The Town Clerk’s office under Wesley Brooks moved from Town Hall to 171 Main in February 1959. By this time, the population had increased, demanding more administration and space requirements for the Town Clerk staff, assessor, building inspector, industrial commissioner and engineer. During the 1960s, the problem of accommodation became more critical, especially with the pending impact of the introduction of Regional Government in 1971. This caused great anxiety within Council to handle a population increase of more than 7,000 and five times the area. Priorities were set for a new administration building.

In February 1971, Council made a gesture to acquire the Office Specialty offices at the corner of Prospect and Water Streets, but was outbid by the York County Police Board, which made a deal for $227,500. The next move was to consider the purchase of the redundant Office Specialty factory site between Timothy and Water streets. The company had gone into decline and surrendered the whole area following the fire that destroyed the factory April 15, 1971.

In July 1972, Council was prepared to make an offer. Architect’s plans and surveys were made, soil tests taken, with an estimate cost of $436,500. It was intended to be a winter works grant but the Ontario Municipal Board ruled that a referendum was required to obtain approval. The referendum was not held but the Town purchased the property anyway and recovered its investment later from the Ontario Housing Corporation. The area remained idle for five years. In 1975, negotiations by O.H.C. resulted in the decision to erect a senior citizens building on the site. The project was defined in 1977 for a 100-unit nine-storey ‘highrise’.  Construction started in 1979 and the complex was officially opened in June 1980.

The search for a new location for the Town Offices ended with the resolve to remain at 171 Main and enlarge the structure. In July 1973, plans were prepared by Fraser, Milne Architects with an estimate of $150,000 to extend eastward with a vault and storage area in the basement and offices on the main and second floors. A store immediately to the south was purchased from Victor Giovanelli in 1974 and demolished to provide a landscaped area and passage to the community parking lot.

A further extension was approved and started in 1979 with an estimate of $285,000. This evolved into a complex with varying floor levels, four storeys at the east end, adapting to the topography of the land. Main Street is on the edge of an escarpment and the relatively steep gradient required the skill of the architects to conform. Accommodation was provided for recreation, engineering and building inspector departments on the lower levels; Town Clerk, treasurer, administration co-ordinator and council chambers on the main floor; and the Mayor’s office, committee room and offices were on the top floor. Occupancy was delayed by a strike of construction workers. The official opening finally took place in April 1981. The municipal office family bedded in until community growth forced another move in 1988.

Next week we will continue the narrative with the move to the Tannery and the surrounding controversy.

I welcome your feedback and remembrances on this or any of our topics.

The facts and figures in this piece have been taken from local papers and council reports over the years.  I am in debt to George Luesby, who compiled many of the documents used in this article and to my mentors who have provided much of the early background to Newmarket’s town facilities.