Foundations of Construction: “Interesting façades from all angles”                             

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“Designed in architectural eclecticism to fit an irregular lot by G.W. King and J.W. Siddall, the dramatic and immense Stratford City Hall opened to acclaim in 1900.” Photographer Ken Lund 2015/Wikimedia Commons.
“Designed in architectural eclecticism to fit an irregular lot by G.W. King and J.W. Siddall, the dramatic and immense Stratford City Hall opened to acclaim in 1900.” Photographer Ken Lund 2015/Wikimedia Commons.

By Susanna McLeod

Special to Ontario Construction News

The blaze began in the murky dark hours of Nov. 24, 1897. The fire was observed by a night shift constable who released prisoners in jail cells then raised the alarm. It was too late. The flames ignited flammables on site, consuming the Stratford Town Hall. Constructed in 1856, the two-storey building was the location of municipal offices and council chambers, plus market stalls, concert hall, police station and jail. It also housed a brewery. Council launched competitions to design a new City Hall.

The plans of experienced architects George W. King of Toronto and John W. Siddall from Stratford were selected by referendum. Construction began on Nov. 2, 1898 with the ceremonial laying of the cornerstone at the same triangular parcel as the previous city hall at 1 Market Square. “The building was intended to exploit its irregular site, presenting interesting façades from all angles,” said Parks Canada’s “Stratford City Hall National Historic Site of Canada.”

Trained in London, England and articled during the years 1879 to 1881, King (1863-1945) then immigrated to Canada. He found work as a draughtsman in Kingston and Toronto, and was a leading member of partnerships until December 1892, when he established his own office in Toronto, noted Robert G. Hill in Biographical Dictionary of Canadian Architects: 1800-1950. Among many accomplishments, he designed the Penetanguishene Collegiate Institute, the Dundas Centre Methodist Church, and the regal Town Hall for Carleton Place.

Also from England, Siddall (1861-1941) arrived in Toronto in about 1890. He found work with Knox, Elliott & Jarvis on their newly-won commission for the Confederation Life Building. “The job, which was to last for 2 ½ years, was offered to Siddall at $20 per week,” said Hill. Jarvis moved on soon after, and Siddall was appointed full partner.

In 1893, the talented architect teamed up briefly with Francis Baker, then mainly worked alone or in conjunction with other professionals on individual contracts. Siddall “was credited with a variety of commercial, industrial, ecclesiastical and residential commissions,” Hill wrote. Featuring “a wide range of eclectic styles,” Siddall’s designs combined “elements of the Romanesque Revival and a commercial Classicism.”

Based on late-Victorian eclecticism, King and Siddall combined styles of Classical Revival, Richardson Romanesque, plus Dutch Baroque to create a prominent, elegant city hall. Contractors John L. Young and Edmund Cawsey were engaged to construct the monumental building with an eye-catching hexagonal clock tower. During construction, the architects responded to design changes on the fly to accommodate available materials; the original selection of buff-coloured brick was altered to red when the local brick manufacturer over-fired the light-coloured bricks.

The municipal building’s main entrance was introduced with a dramatic flight of steps, comprising “a double door under a semi-circular arch with banded voussoirs,” mentioned Ontario Heritage Trust, and “flanked by pilasters supporting decorative strap work.” The apex facades and sides are “similar in design using a variety of round- and square-headed windows with decorated gables that pierce the line of the eaves at regular intervals.” Brackets of tin plus finials created decorative features, along with varied textures and colours of materials.

“Courses of brown sandstone, oak doors, polished marble columns, moulded stone, cornices, terra cotta caps and curved decoration” produced the flair of eclecticism, said Parks Canada. The designs were enhanced by a slate roof and painted wood. The switch to red brick became an advantage, connecting the city hall with the similarly-coloured Worth Block rather than the light-coloured brick of the commercial area.

Stratford City Hall opened in 1900, serving as a hub of politics, and as a cultural and social centre. By this time, King had returned to England to a job as assistant architect and surveyor with Whitbread & Co., “one of the largest brewing companies in England,” noted Hill. He returned to Toronto in 1910.

Over the next several decades, Siddall continued his successful practise, with his name attached to distinguished buildings in Toronto, Orillia, Oshawa, and other locations.

Squabbles emerged when city council commissioned a local stonecutter to produce a tablet for the building’s foyer in recognition of the architects and construction teams. “James Siddall saw that he was listed as an ‘ASS’ architect” with a blank space, wrote Carolynn Bart-Riedstra and Lutzen H. Riedstra in Stratford: Its Heritage and Its Festival (James Lorimer and Company, 1999). The problem wasn’t the three letters as an insult, Siddall was upset because his status as associate or assistant was not clarified. There was no resolution, and “the tablet was not hung in the foyer until 1974.”

On Nov. 6, 1976, Stratford City Hall was designated a National Historic Site of Canada. The plaque confirmed that City Hall was a “notable example of a late 19th century public building, monumental in scope and picturesque in aspect.” Renovations on the extraordinary heritage building are due in 2024.

© 2024 Susanna McLeod. McLeod is a Kingston-based freelance writer who specializes in Canadian History.

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