Woodstock's First Municipal Building
When the Town of Woodstock was created on January 1, 1851, Council was immediately petitioned by residents to build a Market House. Years later, the Town purchased the Rising Sun tavern property from Daniel Phelan for a town square. The clerk was instructed to ask several local builders to submit plans for the building of a Market and Town Hall; seventy feet by forty feet, two stories high with a basement eight feet high. A cash award was offered for the best design and the building was built in the centre of the new town square.
David White, Francis Schofield and Antoine Grobl submitted plans.
The design by Grobl was accepted. A debenture of 2,200 pounds was issued for construction. The tender was awarded to David White, W. P. Dixon, and William McKay. Francis Schofield was appointed project inspector
The Town Hall was Woodstock's first municipal building. Since 1853, the evolution of this building has reflected changing responsibilities and powers of the municipality. Over the years it has served as the Town's first market, first public assembly hall, first fire hall, first police lock-up, first permanent meeting place of Council, first municipal offices and first mayor's office.
The Focal Point of Woodstock
When it was completed in 1853, the Woodstock Town Hall was the Town's most prestigious building. The two-storey structure, topped by a cupola and surrounded by a public square, stood as symbol of prosperity and civic pride.
The town council of the day chose to build in the Italianate architectural style. This style, based upon the country villas of northern Italy, was very popular in Britain during the early 1800s. Woodstock's strongly British heritage made it a natural choice for the town's most important building.
The Italianate architectural style features details illustrated by Woodstock's Town Hall. These include; a rectangular building shape; walls with strong vertical proportions; tall rounded windows and doors, ornate stone trim; and a cupola set atop the roof.
Woodstock's Colonial Town Hall
When Woodstock approved plans for a Town hall and Market House in 1853, the resulting structure was a two-storey brick building. It held an assembly hall on the second floor and a market house on the first. This tall multi-functional building is typical of mid-19th century Ontario town hall architecture.
The classically inspired design, topped by a cupola, shows British architectural trends adapted to meet the needs and economy of a Canadian frontier settlement.
The cost-conscious councilors of the 1850s ensured that the new Town Hall generated revenue. Market vendors rented stalls on the first floor to sell local produce under the watchful eye of the market clerk. The second floor hall was rented out for dances, concerts, meetings and public entertainment. This room was also the meeting place of the town council. A small office off the main room was provided for the mayor.
Where the Town Meets
In the 19th century town hall meant a meeting place. The Woodstock Town hall was the location for most community events between 1853 and 1890. As Woodstock's population and municipal responsibilities grew, the Town Hall's public function changed. The Market was moved out. In 1871, offices for the Mayor and Clerk and a formal Council Chambers were constructed on the vacated first floor.
Today, separation of civic and public spaces can still be seen in the building. Designated as a National Historic Site in 1955, the Woodstock Town Hall has many original features intact. These include the Council Chamber set up as it was in 1879, the Offices for the Mayor and Clerk and the original vaults.
The buildings' most outstanding example of public space is the second-storey Grand Hall. This large rectangular room was used for social events and public entertainment till the late 1940s. It hosted campaigning Prime Ministers, vaudeville, formal balls, philharmonic concerts, melodramas, magic lantern shows, school and music recitals and performing celebrities such as Oscar Wilde. New forms of 20th Century entertainment silent and talking motion pictures were given their Woodstock debut in the Grand Hall.
Other features original to the building include the magnificent Coat of Arms over the front entrance doors. These doors are still pitted with nail holes from decades of use as notice boards for proclamations and public notices. The entrance foyer also retains evidence of 19th century functions. Axe marks, made from chopping stove wood, still score the oak floor.
Saving the Old Town Hall
By 1900, the fifty-year-old Town hall could not keep up with the demands of expanding municipal services. In 1901, Woodstock marked its new city status by constructing two municipal buildings designed to relieve the cramped quarters at the Town hall – a new Market and Police building in 1895 and the Perry Street Fire Hall in 1899.
Woodstock's city council began to consider a new building on the site of the Town Hall. In 1912, this idea was shelved after a bylaw to demolish the old building was defeated in a public vote.
In 1965, City council again explored options to solve the cramped Town Hall problem. City Councilor Bernadette Smith spearheaded a citizen's group to save the building from demolition for a park. Once again, the citizens of Woodstock voted to save the Town Hall. The City of Woodstock purchased the 1901 former Post Office building from the federal government in 1968 for its new City Hall. The Old Town Hall became the home of the Oxford County Museum and the Woodstock and District Chamber of Commerce.
In 1966, Massey-Ferguson Industries presented Acting Mayor Bernadette Smith with 2,200 British pounds. This sum represented the amount borrowed in 1853 to construct the Old Town Hall. This generous gift allowed Bernadette to begin a program of long neglected repairs to the Town Hall, making the building attractive again for the citizens who voted for its preservation.
Guardians of the Past
"Museums play a vital role in the development of a community. Museums preserve and display instructively the records of the people who played a role in the development of our various districts. Each city in Ontario should provide these institutions. The opening of this museum is a step in the advancement of Oxford County."
So stated Wilfred Jury, University of Western Ontario Museum Specialist at the opening of the New Oxford County Museum in 1948. He was in good company-joining him on stage were Provincial Treasurer, the Hon. Lesley M. Frost, Dr. G. E. Hall, President of the University of Western Ontario, and Historian Fred Landon. Woodstock Mayor D. A. Thompson and Oxford County Warden T. Gordon Ross welcomed visitor's to the Museum.
The Woodstock Museum was initiated by the Oxford Historical society in 1897. Today it continues to collect, publish, exhibit and teach in the Old Town Hall.
In 1980, interior restoration work on the Old Town hall began. The Mayor's Office, Council Chamber, Original Entrance Foyer and Grand Hall were restored to their 1880s appearance. Renovations focused on improving public accessibility and modern facilities. On the exterior of the building, restoration of the wood shingle roof, the chimneys and the cupola returned the roofline to the 1860s look.
In 2000, the final restoration stage was completed. Masonry work on the walls, foundation and parapet has restored the 1853 architectural details that distinguish the building as a National Historic Site. Twenty years of meticulous conservation have ensured that Woodstock's most important heritage building remains a vital community museum in the 21st century.
The Woodstock Museum NHS, is a member of The National Historic Sites Alliance for Ontario (NHSAO). This is an organization of owners and managers of National Historic Sites (NHS) who work to conserve and present the rich heritage of NHS in Ontario. Membership to open to any National Historic Site in the Province.
In 1955, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada recommended that the Woodstock Town Hall be designated as a "structure of national historic importance" because...
" ... it is a fine example of a colonial adaptation of a British town hall and because of its long association with the political and social life of Oxford County"
The building exterior and interior are protected by a 1998 Heritage Easement through the Ontario Heritage Foundation and Museum Square, including the Old Town Hall, holds a municipal heritage designation.