By: Pauline Kerr, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Source: The Walkerton Herald Times

Keeping Victoria Jubilee Hall spruced up and relevant is a labour of love for the many Architectural Conservancy of Ontario volunteers who devote untold hours and expertise to the place. That work is being honoured with a national award – the National Trust for Canada’s 2020 Ecclesiastical Insurance Cornerstone Award – resilient places category.

Unfortunately, there’ll be no official ceremony marking the accomplishment, thanks to COVID-19. But Robert Pajot, regeneration project leader at the National Trust, said the goal of the award – to shine a national spotlight on Victoria Jubilee Hall – will be accomplished. There’ll be a framed certificate that’s usually presented the last week of the annual conference. This year an announcement will be made with a short video. “We’re asking each group to do their own short video,” said Pajot. “They’ll be shared nationally over the next month or so and made into a single video.

He explained the idea is to take the best examples of historic buildings and use them to inspire people across the country. “Those local groups need that inspiration,” he said. Each year a jury is selected, he said, consisting of “people who understand historic buildings.” It’s not a matter of freezing such buildings in time, but adapting them, using them in a way that is “respectful of their history.” Victoria Jubilee Hall was deemed an excellent example.

Victoria Jubilee Hall is certainly worthy of a lot of respect. The elegant building made of marl brick and local fieldstone was constructed in 1897 at a cost of $10,000 to replace Walkerton’s original wooden town hall. The cornerstone was laid on Aug. 15 of that year in commemoration of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.

Henry Simpson and Dr. Edward Cobean, two of the original volunteers, explained that the $10,000 cost of putting a clock in the tower was deemed too expensive at the time, and the tower windows sat empty for 109 years. Ironically, when the clock was finally put in, the cost was $10,000. Times and technology change, in this case favouring the hall.

The building has had many uses over the years. The main floor at one point housed a farmers’ market. It was later converted to a fire hall. Anyone who uses the hall’s small elevator rides up and down in the old hose tower. The elevator fit right in. The rest of the building has housed municipal offices, the opera hall, council chambers, the public utilities commission and a police office. Some of those uses are celebrated in various parts of the building. A small upper room contains the original Brant Township council table, complete with the hole in the centre through which ran the cord for the electric light.

Beautiful stained glass windows at the front mark the fact the hall became the community response centre and Ontario Government headquarters for 18 months, following the water tragedy. The Jubilee Garden, with its lovely gazebo, celebrates Queen Elizabeth’s Golden Jubilee (2002). In 2006, the clock chimed for the first time in the bell tower – 110 years after the construction of Victoria Jubilee Hall.

Today, the hall is relevant in a way that could not have been imagined in 1897, but it hasn’t been easy.

In 1979, the council of the day designated the hall a building of architectural and historic significance under the Ontario Heritage Act. Even then, though, the building was under threat.

The Friends of the Town Hall formed in 1995 and members were told it would take $2 million to renovate it and bring it up to standard. The roof would have to be replaced, for example. Simpson said the only people who could afford to bid on the project were large heritage restoration companies, not local contractors. Eventually, the roof was not replaced but strengthened from the inside, at a much more reasonable cost, by a local company.


By 1996, the municipal council and town clerk’s office had moved from the hall to rented quarters. Simpson explained that out of fear the cupola and bell would fall down, they were removed and left sitting on the parking lot for two years, until it was put back. And what a celebration that was!

Even as the building was marking its 100th birthday, the municipal council was attempting to remove the heritage designation and announced demolition plans in April, 1997.

Horrified local residents working with the South Bruce-Grey Branch of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario fought to save the building and purchased it, in trust for the community. The branch was actually formed to purchase the building. Simpson explained they were working under constraints and didn’t have time to become a registered charity on their own. “It was the only way to save the building,” he said.


Crowds gathered for the laying of the cornerstone of Victoria Jubilee Hall on Aug. 15, 1897.

victoriajubileehallcornerstoneHere, the late Mary Robinson Ramsay, who spent the last 20 years of her life striving to ensure the hall would be preserved for future generations, is shown in the balcony of the opera house.

The focal point of Victoria Jubilee Hall is the spectacular opera house that has seen recent performances by some internationally renowned artists including Liona Boyd, the Ennis Sisters and many more. The fabulous 300-seat opera house has helped make Victoria Jubilee Hall the area’s cultural centre.
They’re still working to ensure the Victoria Jubilee Hall remains more than a local landmark, but a vibrant building that celebrates Walkerton’s history, and serves and inspires its residents far into the future.

Cobean said, “There’s always something – we just finished doing the front.”

Simpson said that over the past 23 years, the group has done “bits and pieces” – a fire door here, new stairs there, new windows.

Cobean remarked on how generous various community groups have been. Ironworkers volunteered their time to install emergency fire stairs, for example.

There have been grants – three Trillium grants, and a federal Millennium grant for the elevator and bell tower. (“We rang in the century and made it accessible,” said Simpson). Trillium also contributed to the elevator.

Just about every service club and organization – Lions, Kinsmen, Rotary, Knights of Columbus, Royal Canadian Legion and more – has left its mark somewhere in the building. Individuals have contributed, too. The clock was made possible by a private donation.

The next big project will be the sound and lighting system in the opera house, to accommodate modern equipment.

Donations made to the hall go towards the ongoing upgrades and restoration work.





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