Author: Susan Ratcliffe

Publication Date: 2011

Edited: 2022



A city founded by a novelist, playwright, and journalist was destined to be a cultural city. When John Galt arrived at the appointed place on that rainy night in 1827, he described his, "Theatrical assault on a maple tree." The scene in the dark forest on the edge of the rushing river, the whiskey toast after the crash of the falling tree had all the elements of drama.


Four months later, he organized Guelph's first festival - a public dinner in the market house. These artistic beginnings set the stage for Guelph's ongoing cultural story. Since then, myriads of Guelph citizens have sung in choirs, played in bands, taken music lessons; acted in theatrical productions in schools, Little Theatres, and professional companies; organized visiting musicians; and bought millions of tickets, books, and pieces of art.


In the past 50 years, Guelph has expanded its boundaries as a cultural centre while keeping its traditions and its heritage. In 1961, the world was a different place. The first Walmart opened in Arkansas. You would have spent 28 cents on a gallon of gas, 15 cents on a cup of coffee, and watched The Guns of Navarone and 101 Dalmatians at the movies for 75 cents. You could buy a house for 12,500 dollars and a new car for 2,850 dollars. And you would do all that on your average income of 5,315 dollars.


In 1961, Guelph was a small town of less than 40,000 people confined within the boundaries of Victoria, Speedvale, Silvercreek, and Forbes Avenue. Most people lived in solid single-family residences. Men went to work in factories like Taylor Forbes, or at the Ontario Reformatory. Children went to school under the impressive limestone towers of Alexandra and Central schools and the Guelph Collegiate. Post-secondary students studied agriculture or domestic arts at the Ontario Agricultural College and the Macdonald Institute.


For entertainment, Guelphites went to the Palace Theatre for a movie, to a concert in one of the churches, to the first outdoor art show at the Parkview Motel grounds, to a play at the Guelph Little Theatre on Paisley Street, or to a dance at Eleanor's Restaurant on Woodlawn. In June, they could have shopped at the special three-day sale held on Wyndham Street, the first time the street had ever been closed.


On Saturdays, everyone went shopping and eating on Wyndham Street and walked in St. George's Square where the Customs House and the old bank buildings created a solid limestone circle of impressive grandeur.


On March 14, 1961, the Guelph Historical Society was formally constituted under the leadership of President Hugh Douglass. Although this event did not in itself change the city, the events of that year marked a change in attitude and the start of a new way of life in the small town of Guelph.


In the early sixties, demands for modernism and progress suddenly created whirlwinds of change that swept through the city. A 1963 headline in the Guelph Mercury Progress Edition summed up the feelings of the time: "Some people may be critical of this change, but we must move with the times.... We must accept these changes if we are to keep up our place in this modern world."


Downtown Guelph in early 1960 was a series of postcard views that defined the city - St. George's Square was ringed by classic limestone buildings: the Post Office or Customs House, the Montreal, Commerce and Royal banks, the bank manager's residence, the Tovell building, and just along Quebec Street, the Carnegie Library. The Blacksmith watched over the Square, Central and Alexandra schools completed the skyline next to Church of Our Lady, and the City Hall was crumbling and inadequate for the growing city.


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Image Left: Former Guelph branch of the Bank of Montreal, November 10, 1960. It stood at St. George's Square and was over 80 years old.

(Photo courtesy of Guelph Public Library, F45-04006).

Image Right: Central School on Dublin Street, April 12, 1965.

(Photo courtesy of Guelph Public Library, F38-05007).


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Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, June 1966.

(Photo courtesy of Guelph Public Library, F38-070039).


By 1970, it was all gone. Progress had swept away the grandeur of Downtown Guelph. From its crumbled rubble arose gleaming new modernist structures of characterless, unadorned concrete, and cheap efficiency. Instead of repairing and renovating the grand old buildings with their ornate rooflines, carved lintels, and glowing ashlar walls, construction companies like Joe Wolfond's and some city politicians recommended demolition and replacement. As one observer lamented,


"We will probably be judged not only by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed."


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Image Left: Post Office being demolished in St. George's Square. Only the central tower is still standing.

(Photo courtesy of Guelph Public Library, F38-070055).

Image Right: Central School in the process of being demolished, October 1, 1968.

(Photo courtesy of Guelph Public Library, F45-0400175)


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Evan Macdonald, Guelph Public Library Tower, 1964.

(Photo courtesy of Flora Spencer, Collection of Flora Spencer).


After the Carnegie Library tower fell in 1965, captured by Evan Macdonald's evocative painting, the heritage preservation movement took a more permanent shape and voice. Led by Gordon Couling, the first president of the Guelph branch of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario, the citizens of Guelph were educated about the value of local architectural heritage. His paintings, writings and 1974 inventory of more than 4,000 pre-1927 properties helped to raise awareness of what was threatened and what had been lost. Together with the Historical Society, he helped to organize resistance to the demolition of the city's older buildings.


In Ontario, resistance to the wholesale demolition of heritage resources resulted in the proclamation in 1975 of the Ontario Heritage Act. It had many flaws, but it was a step towards saving irreplaceable buildings and landscapes.


The move to the modern that destroyed Guelph's heritage Downtown swirled outwards taking the city beyond its historical borders, expanding both its geographical area and its cultural boundaries. Until 1960, most of Guelph's citizens lived in single-family homes and worked in factories and offices near Downtown. Children walked to local elementary schools; and after graduation, they moved on to secondary education at the Guelph Collegiate. If interested in agriculture, veterinary or domestic science, they attended the Ontario Agricultural College and Macdonald Institute on Stone Road.


The 1951 annexation of more than 2,000 acres of Guelph Township in the northwest quadrant was followed in the 1960s by annexation of 10,000 acres south and west of the original city. Guelph's rapid population growth meant high demand for new jobs, new housing and new schools. The new industrial basin in the north-west drew industries away from their long-time downtown homes. Large subdivisions and shopping malls drew residents away from the traditional shopping areas Downtown. The need for new housing led to the first apartment building in the city being constructed in 1961. Big new schools like John F. Ross and Centennial CVI with its educational and recreational campus were built on the outer edges of the city.


The currents of change also swept along Stone Road bringing the College on the Hill into the modern age of the public university. Almost 100 years after its opening in 1874, the Ontario Agricultural College amalgamated in 1962 with the Ontario Veterinary College and the Macdonald Institute. Two years later, the University of Guelph became a reality, bringing a larger number of students and professors into the city.


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Guelph's Centennial CVI officially opened on August 31, 1967.

(Photo courtesy of Guelph Public Library, F45-080097).


The winds of cultural change blew most strongly after the founding of Wellington College in 1965, a part of the University established for the interdisciplinary study of the arts, social and physical sciences. The names that dominated Guelph's cultural life for many years appeared with the founding of this new college. Murdo McKinnon became its first Dean, Gordon Couling and Kenneth Chamberlain established the Fine Arts Department, Ralph and Edith Kidd were in charge of the Division of Music and Concert Managers.


Together their leadership in the 1960s and 1970s changed Guelph's cultural landscape. Multiple and varied events blossomed and attracted not only university denizens, but people from all over the city. Guelph became known as a place that nurtured knowledge of and appreciation for the visual arts and music. The University art collection started in 1926 with the purchase of a painting by Tom Thomson, developed into an impressive array of Canadian art. The collection was expanded by the musical events presented by the Kidds as fundraisers to purchase more art.


 The collection was eventually housed in the Macdonald Stewart Art Centre, which was established in 1978 through a private member's bill introduced in the provincial legislature. The first known local fine art exhibition had been held in the Guelph Drill Hall in 1867. Through the ensuing years, art had been displayed in Ryan's auditorium, in churches, in the basement gallery of the Carnegie Library and the new library building, in banks, in hardware stores, and in schools. Guelph led the province and perhaps Canada with the first outdoor art show on the grounds of the Parkview Motel in 1960, a show which later became known as Painting on the Green, still going more than 50 years later.

 Historic Guelph Ariel View of University of Guelph V50P37Aerial view of the University of Guelph, 1964.

(Photo courtesy of Guelph Public Library, F38-010015).


Then in 1968, the Nicholas Goldschmidt whirlwind swept into Guelph. He expanded and developed the University choir, free noon-hour concerts, which brought many distinguished artists to campus, supported the activities of the Edward Johnson Music Foundation, presented the Sunday faculty recital series, and fostered five performing groups on campus: the University of Guelph choir, Chamber Singers, Academia Musica Antiqua, the Civic Orchestra, and Symphonic Band. Each group not only presented concerts on campus, they also serenaded audiences in the city and toured Ontario.


This flurry of musical activity enhanced the long-established musical tradition in Guelph. Over the years since its founding, Guelph had been the centre of much musical activity with groups like the Choral Union (1880s), the College Choral Club (1914), and the Philharmonic Society (1905). The Salvation Army Band and the Guelph Pipe Band had been performing since the 1800s. Children were involved in the Boys' Band for more than 100 years and grew up to form dance and marching bands like the Royalaires and the Twilites.


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Guelphites enjoy an afternoon of song and dance at the Guelph Spring Festival, May 6, 1968.

(Photo courtesy of Guelph Public Library, F45-0110019).


A major force for Guelph's musical culture over the years was the Presto Club, along with its modern incarnation, the Guelph Music Club (1975). Started in 1898 by a group of seven female pianists determined to practice their art, it had fostered and promoted good music in the city. Its first concerts took place in members, homes, then in the Opera House and the Auditorium of the old City Hall. In the city's smaller, older self, it promoted and valued many performers, none more famous and influential in Guelph's cultural growth than the renowned Edward Johnson.


Johnson's musical interests were piqued when he crossed the road from his father's store on Carden Street and climbed the fire escape of the old City Hall to listen to concerts in the Auditorium. In his youth, he arranged the vocal programme for the Speed Canoe Club's young people who lashed their canoes together and floated down the Eramosa River singing songs in the moonlight. Throughout his ensuing career as an internationally-known opera singer and manager of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, Johnson had supported music education in schools, especially in Guelph. His initial donation in 1929 grew into the Edward Johnson Music Foundation, which funded the provision of music courses and instruments in Guelph schools, along with the tradition of competition and performance in music festivals.


The strong support of Edward Johnson's reputation, along with the long tradition of the Presto Club created a foundation for excellence in the city. Inspired by the vision and determination of Murdo McKinnon and Niki Goldschmidt of the University of Guelph, the Guelph Spring Festival was born in 1967. The details of its story have been told fully in many reports and the book Guelph and its Spring Festival. For almost 40 years, the Festival presented countless classical music concerts, commissioned operas, led Master classes and competitions, and involved the community as volunteers to assist with its development and support. It became a major part of Guelph's growing reputation as the 'City of Music.'


For its first 25 years, Guelph Spring Festival directors Nicholas Goldschmidt, Murdo McKinnon, Simon Streatfield, and a huge collection of community volunteers filled the month of May with gala events, parades, public celebrations, and musical events of all kinds. In its later years, audiences declined and costs grew. The Guelph Spring Festival was gradually eclipsed by the many new festivals that grew under its inspiration. Finally, in 2006, the Spring Festival closed down, bringing a significant chapter of Guelph's cultural history to an end.


Guelph's musical life was also made up of several other major groups, which had developed in these key years. From 1952, the Guelph Light Opera had entertained audiences with musical dramas until it folded in 1972. Its keenly-felt absence was filled in 1978 with the Royal City Musical Productions, known initially as the RCMP until it was asked to cease using the name and become the RCMPD. Founded by Kay McKie, Pat Mcleod, Ross Mclean, and Dave Rodgers, its mandate was to present high quality Broadway style musicals with amateurs, and it has done so every year since then.


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St. George's Square. From left to right: Bank of Montreal; Tovell Harness Shop, after 1904 Royal Bank of Canada; Post Office; and Bank of Commerce.

(Photo courtesy of Guelph Public Library, F38-070065).


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Guelph's tradition of choral music was further enhanced in 1980 when Eleanor Ewing formed the Guelph Chamber Music Society, later known as Musica Viva. Later the Guelph Chamber Choir was formed and is still performing under the leadership of Gerald Neufeld. In recent years, other groups have focused on youth choral development: the Centennial Meistersingers, under the direction of Nicholas Kaethler and Kelly Janzen were nationally and internationally recognized for their excellence; Suzuki String School has been educating children in Guelph since, and since 1977, the Guelph Youth Orchestra has encouraged young people in the love and performance of music.


Over the years, many of these groups had developed from a long musical or artistic tradition, others were inspired by the leadership of one strong individual. In 1975 however, City Council took a strong role in encouraging the growth of the arts when it incorporated the Guelph Arts Council. It has proved to be instrumental in the continued strong and active development of Guelph's cultural and heritage life. A "major stimulant to continuing education in the arts," it also became a hub for networking, resources, planning, and advocacy of the arts in the city. Its monthly newsletter, workshops, library, and its long-time knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and outspoken director Sally Wismer fostered the growth of many new artistic groups and ensured the central place of the arts in the city.


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Poster from Guelph Spring Festival, International Year of the Child, 1979.

(Photo courtesy of Guelph Museums, 1981X_254_1).


One of the Guelph Arts Council's major activities was the coordination of citizen efforts to build a Performing Arts centre. Since the demolition of the Opera House, citizens had felt the need for a central civic performance facility. Various committees worked on the issue since 1957, until finally the Guelph Arts Council convened the Citizens' Committee for the Performing Arts. Ten years of advocacy and battles culminated in the 1997 opening of the River Run Centre, a shining jewel of a building on the banks of the Speed River near the founding site of the city.

 Historic Guelph V50P43

Opening ceremony program, October 1997.

(Photo courtesy of Guelph Museums, 1997_29_1).



The River Run complemented other notable performance sites. In a perfect blending of heritage and music, the city purchased the former Heritage Seed Company along the Speed River and turned it over to a group of volunteers from the Suzuki String School. After more than 30,000 hours of labour by more than 100 volunteers, the Guelph Youth Music Centre opened in 2001. It is the only performance and education centre exclusively for youth in Canada.


One of the city's longest-running cultural groups has been the Guelph Little Theatre. Amateur productions at the OAC and the YMCA had been popular for many years and many of their performances had been recognized in drama competitions. In 1935, the first performance of the Guelph Little Theatre took place in the Auditorium of the old City Hall. Over the years, actors presented their plays in GCVI, War Memorial Hall, and the Capitol Theatre; until the group found a happy home in the converted Salvation Army Chapel on Paisley Street. ln 1993, a devastating fire destroyed its space, but not its spirit. Today it still presents several plays a year in a converted factory - another successful adaptive reuse of an existing building - a welding factory in the Ward.


Through the early years of the city, many amateur artists had produced and shown their work in churches, art stores, and in the basement of the Carnegie Library. Artists like Rolf Scarlett, Effie Smith, and Evan Macdonald went to study abroad, then came home to establish studios in the City. Gordon Couling became a key player in the further growth of Guelph's art movement. In 1948, he became the first President of the Guelph Creative Arts Association (GCAA), the first such group in Ontario. The group has been a major influence on the arts scene through art shows, instruction, and financial help. After 1964, the GCAA offered many courses to both beginners and experienced, artists, even offering classes at the Correctional Centre. The group also included crafts groups like fine arts, weaving, ceramics, leather craft, and creative writing. Under Gordon Couling's leadership, the group established a building fund to create a permanent art gallery in the city, culminating in the 1980 opening of the Macdonald Stewart Art Centre.


Historic Guelph Salvation Army Chapel V50P45

The Salvation Army Chapel on Paisley before 1965. The Arts in 2011 converted it to the Guelph Little Theatre.

(Photo courtesy of Guelph Museums, 1985_31_5).


The Creative Arts Association fostered many arts initiatives over the years: the Made for You crafts shows (1997), the Spark of Brilliance that used art to help those with mental illnesses, Ed Video (1975), guilds focused on embroidery and weaving, Painting on the Green (1960), Art on the Street, the Guelph Studio Tour (1985), and in 1992 The Artisans store in the Eaton Centre. In its early years, the Association served as a model for community programmes in Ontario.


Although the Guelph Spring Festival had ended its long contribution to Guelph's cultural development, new festivals have flourished to fill specific needs. In 1984, a small group of musicians tried to put on a festival at the Hillside Farm; today the Hillside Festival at Guelph Lake attracts an audience from near and far to listen to a wide variety of contemporary music. In 1994, the Guelph Jazz Festival, founded by Ajay Heble, featured contemporary jazz with an educational component. In 2011, these two festivals along with the Guelph Contemporary Dance Festival, the Festival of Moving Media, and the Eden Mills Writers' Festival are a model of cooperation under the title Guelph's Fab Five. The Fab Five is a collaboration of many cultural forms for a growing city and a changing demographic. This innovative network demonstrates new cooperation in the cultural world, while honouring Guelph's traditions as a leader in many artistic fields. Given new life by the founding of the University of Guelph in 1965, and the Arts in 2011 are growing strongly and attracting new audiences.


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A scene from the 'odd couple,' which was put on by the Guelph Little Theatre, October 10, 1968.

(Photo courtesy of Guelph Public Library, F45-090037)


Like culture, much of the city's heritage has also had to adapt to modern times in order to endure. When St. George's Square fell to demands for modernism, it seemed that the 1960s would see the end of the city's beloved limestone heritage. The shock of such widespread destruction seemed to awaken a new attitude that recognized the precious but fragile treasures of the past. In 1961, the Guelph Historical Society's founding was the beginning of a new awareness. Its contributions over the past 50 years are lasting: Historic Guelph, a journal which allows citizens to tell Guelph's stories; two substantial history books; and the founding of the Civic Museum in the 1960s, soon to open in its new home in the restored Loretto Convent in 2012. As with Guelph's culture, several key people and groups were influential in helping to preserve the heritage fabric of the City. In 1975, threatened by the rumoured construction of a 2-storey building near Downtown, city planner Norm Harrison enacted a height by-law that protected the views of Church of Our Lady. Despite an Ontario Municipal Board challenge, the by-law has stood to the present day to protect the Downtown 'tune-up.' Over his years in the planning department. Norm Harrison also worked with developers and land-owners like Tom and John Lammer and Douglas Bridge to save and reuse buildings like the Wellington Hotel, the Court House, the Raymond Sewing Machine building, and the Guelph Carpet Mills. This tradition stays strong today with the adaptive reuse of the Stewart Lumbar Mill, Len's Mill, and the Car Barns on Waterloo Avenue.

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William G. Davis, Judith Nasby, and David Macdonald Stewart at the opening of the Macdonald Stewart Art Centre on November 7, 1980.

(Photo courtesy of Macdonald Stewart Art Centre).


Guelph also owes a big debt for heritage preservation to Professor Gil Stelter, an urban historian whose research and knowledge of Guelph's history has been important in keeping awareness alive. Along with Gordon Couling's lectures and heritage inventory, the Guelph Arts Council's historical walking tours, Guelph's heritage has stayed in the public eye. After the devastating loss of the Mitchell farmhouse, a demolition by the Armel Corporation, the Guelph Civic League and the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario emerged as new champions of heritage preservation.


Three years after John Galt cut down the maple tree to mark the founding of the fledgling city, an anonymous artist sketched its trunk in the middle of the new city's 'Downtown' Market Square - 185 years ago, a union of art and history in one sketch. Today, Guelph still values both its heritage and its culture as witnessed by the past 50 years of fabulous activity in our city. 


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Architects' rendering of the new museum.

(Photo courtesy of Guelph Museums).




Anderson, Rosemary and Matheson, Dawn, eds. Guelph: Perspectives on a Century of Change. (Guelph, Ontario: Guelph Historical Society, 2000).

Brimmel, Helen, ed. 50 Years of Fine. Arts and Crafts: A Scrapbook History of the Guelph Creative Arts Association, 1948 - 1998. (Guelph, Ontario, 1998).

Colbert, Judith A. The Achievement and Challenge: 25 years, 1964-1989, University of Guelph. (Guelph, Ontario: University of Guelph, 1989).

Dent, Gloria and Conolly, Leonard. Guelph and its Spring Festival. (Guelph, Ontario: Edward Johnson Music Foundation. 1992).

Various issues of the Guelph Mercury.