Author: Leanne Piper

Publication Date: 2013

Edited: 2023


Historic Guelph Earliest Known Image og Old City Hall V51P52The earliest known image of Old City Hall, circa 1862.

(Source: Coopers, Toronto, 1862).


On September 18, 1856, citizens of Guelph gathered at a vacant site at the corner of Market Square to lay the cornerstone of their new Town Hall and Market House. The mood was celebratory: the band of the Rifle Corps played, a time capsule was inserted into the cavity of the cornerstone, the Rifles fired a feu de joie, the mayor gave a passionate address, and a grand feast followed at Horwood's Hotel (now the Royal Inn and Suites at 106 Carden Street). The imposing edifice and impressive location of the new Town Hall was meant to herald a future vision of prosperity and greatness for the fledgling town, which at the time boasted a population of only 4,500 inhabitants.


The celebration did not last long. Before the project was completed the following year, the construction of the Town Hall and Market House was marred by significant cost overruns, Council bickering and citizen outrage. The Town Hall and Market House opened quietly in 1857 - no fanfare, no parade, no ceremony - in an effort to avoid drawing attention to the public controversy surrounding its completion.


Today, the wisdom of the Council of 1856 has been redeemed many times over. Old City Hall's high-quality craftsmanship and classical architecture proudly overlooks Downtown Guelph and is considered one of the City's signature buildings. It is federally recognized as a National Historic Site, as well as being designated under the Ontario Heritage Act, and is featured in books on Canadian architecture. The imposing beauty of old City Hall, enhanced by a complimentary landscape plan and the masonry wall of the former Provincial Winter Fair building next door, defines the Market Square precinct today.


On a practical level, with the original debenture paid off within ten years, the building has served faithfully for many generations as a public asset since that day. During its lifetime it has served as a Town Hall, Market House, Police and Fire Hall, performance hall, dance hall, prisoner lockups, committee rooms, Clerk's office, Mechanics' Institute library and reading room, Treasurer's office with safe, Mayor's office, and courtroom.



Local support for a proper Town Hall and Market House began in earnest in 1851. The first agitators for a new building were downtown merchants and businessmen who wanted a Market House to attract farmers and customers. The old Market House, an open wooden structure built during the John Galt years (1827-1829), had fallen into a sad state of disrepair.  Early Council meetings were held outdoors under the Market House shelter on the first Monday in January. Later, Town Council met in local hotel establishments such as the British Coffee House/Horwood's Hotel on Carden Street and the Red Lion Inn (now apartments on the northwest corner of Fountain Street and Gordon Street), as well as at the Wellington County Court House after its completion in 1843.


Proponents of the Town Hall and Market House plan called for subscriptions in the amount of one thousand pounds, to initiate the project, although Council moved that £1,500 was more realistic. Town Council was bitterly divided - John Thorp leading the charge in support, and Dr. William Clarke against - and the townspeople were caught in the crossfire. At a public meeting held in 1851 to debate the project, opponent Dr. Clarke, "Was apparently at his spectacular best - shouting, bullying and generally creating a shambles of the proceedings."1 A report of the proceedings in the Guelph Advertiser described Clarke's opposition to the Town Hall/ Market House as:


"Fire, and smoke and thunder, and lightning, and gall, and vinegar, and brimstone, and melted physic bottle, in one terrible, scorching, withering, raging stream, fizzing whizzing, blizzing...".2


The motion to build a new Town Hall failed. In the end, a motion to expense £50 for minor physical improvements to the Market Square passed. This led to the creation of the Guelph Horticultural Society in 1851, which united to promote beautification of the Town.


Five years passed and Guelph was officially declared a "Town" on January 1, 1856. With the election of the first Mayor, John Smith, renewed enthusiasm for a proper Town Hall and Market House began to take shape once again. Smith was a major booster for the building of a Market House. At around the same time, the congregation of St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church was beginning to outgrow its existing wood frame building on the site of the current City Hall. Located near the Grand Trunk Railway station and local downtown merchants, it quickly became the preferred site of a new Town Hall. On May 7, 1856, a motion to authorize the issue of debentures in the amount of £6,000 was introduced. The rule of the day for a by-law to issue such a debenture was a vote of the electors, and a public meeting was called on May 23, 1856 to vote on the by-law. Two weeks of heavy politicking ensued, both for and against. An editorial column in the Guelph Advertiser urged ratepayers to approve the project, noting that the Town had no public building to its name and that Guelph would soon become, "The centre of creation."3


At the onset of the public vote, over 150 citizens assembled. Being a deeply divisive issue, a great deal of shouting, threatening and deals transpired throughout the debate. Opponents of the by-law were reported to be flying about town with a team of four horses to collect ratepayers to vote against the project and warning of, "Dire consequences," should the vote pass.4 At one point, the project appeared doomed by a margin of 23 votes against. Proponents quickly rallied and brought in supporters as voting continued throughout the day. The polls closed a few minutes after 6:00 P.M., with 128 votes in support of the Town Hall/Market Place and 115 against.



Tenders were opened to receive architectural plans for the new building. Eighteen full sets of plans were received for consideration - six from Toronto firms, five from Guelph, two from London and one each from Richmond Hill, Hamilton, Brantford, and Dundas. In the end, a design by William Thomas of Toronto was selected.


Historic Guelph V51P57Historical configuration of Old City Hall and its related building additions. 

(Image courtesy of City of Guelph Planning Department files).


By the time it was completed, the cost of construction had escalated to £11,000, almost double the budgeted amount, and six times the projected 1851 estimate! Many of the architectural changes made during the construction that caused the cost to skyrocket proved to be wise ones in the long term. For example, the original plans called for a wooden cornice (the projecting shelf joining the building and roof structure). A change order for a stone cornice resulted in an additional expense of £550. However, that limestone cornice is a defining feature still present on the building today. A wooden cornice would likely have been replaced several times over since 1857.


Morrison and Emslie (of Guelph) were the stonemasonry contractors. George Netting of Toronto was the carpentry contractor, with Mr. Stephen and Mr. Pringle of Guelph hired for the plaster work. Mitchell, Duther, and Rannie of Toronto were commissioned for the slate work and Mr. Chas. Marsh of Toronto is credited with the painting and glazing work. Matthew Bell of Guelph is credited with the fine stone carving work that adorns the façade.


Historic Guelph Old City Hall V51P56

View of Old City Hall, circa 1879.

(Photo courtesy of Guelph Public Library Archives, C6-0-0-0-0-815).


The financial burden was not without political consequence, as Mayor John Smith was not elected to office in 1857. There is no record of a public opening ceremony or celebration for the new Town Hall and Market House. The only authorized expense on record that was passed by Council related to the opening of the Town Hall was to provide funds for a dinner at the British Coffee House for the builders and stonemasons.



The practicality of the building design cannot be overstated. Numerous doorways, large light-filled interior spaces, open room structures, high ceilings, and central staircase have meant that the structure has seen multiple adaptive reuses over the past 160 years.


Town (City) Hall: 1856-2010 (Council Chambers, Treasurer, Clerk, and Administration)

Market House: 1856-1900

Fire Hall: 1856-1865

Fire Hall (Annex): 1865-1911

Police Station: 1856-1911

Police Station (Annex): 1911-1959

Auditorium and Dance Hall: 1856-2010

Court House: 1856-Present



The clock tower was not part of the original construction but was added after the project was completed. The first tower was a short bell tower, with a bell forged in 1857. In 1869, the tower was raised to incorporate a clock. The bell was used to mark the day, ringing at 7:00 A.M., 12:00 noon, 1:00 P.M., and 6:00 P.M. On Saturdays, the final ring was heard at 5:00 P.M. The bell was also used at funerals, to mark a major community event and in the event of a fire. During a fire, the ring was continuous, and at the end of the fire, a brief pause followed by one stroke of the bell would be heard.


The tower was removed in 1961. The cost to repair it at the time was prohibitive. Today, the clock and bell are safely stored and preserved and will, hopefully someday in the future, find a new home where they can be enjoyed once again by the community.



Constructed in 1865 as a Fire Hall, the Annex makes a fine complimentary building to old City Hall on its southeast flank. The Fire Hall featured a smaller version of the City Hall tower, which was used to hang fire hoses to dry. The fire department quickly outgrew the space as the City grew rapidly and the need for equipment grew concurrently. A new fire hall was constructed in 1911 at the west end of the Provincial Winter Fair building, complete with livery stable for the horse-drawn vehicles. At that time, the Guelph Police moved to the Annex building, and occupied it until a new headquarters was built on Farquhar Street in 1959. The stone annex building was used for city administration offices, most recently the Information Technology department until 2010. As of 2012, it remains vacant.



As predicted, the construction of the Town Hall heralded a new era of prosperity in Guelph. The public investment in a magnificent Town Hall and Market led a wave of adjacent private commercial, industrial, and residential expansion. Much of the grand limestone architecture along Wyndham Street followed within ten years. Shortly after the opening of the Town Hall in 1857, the Toronto Globe noted,


"There is no Town of its size in Upper Canada, which has a more rising air than Guelph. The erection of substantial stone buildings is being carried on in all directions... there is no more healthy locality in the Province."5


The City grew rapidly between 1857 and 1870, as both industry and agriculture prospered, following the construction of the railway through the town. In 1872, Guelph reached the milestone population of 10,000 required under the Municipal Act to be declared a city and officially became the City of Guelph on April 23, 1879.


By the 1870s, the need for additional space and amenity space for the community was evident. In 1878, a large addition on the western elevation provided new offices and market space on the ground floor and, on the upper floor, a massive auditorium and dance hall. The addition was sympathetically and seamlessly designed and constructed, and many passers-by today would likely not realize that the west wing is later construction.



By the mid-1950s, City Hall was bursting at the seams and a wave of post-war architectural transformation was in full swing. A major renovation was initiated in an attempt to modernize, hide unsightly new mechanical systems, transform the use of departmental space, and to mask the ornate features (no longer a popular style). Many of the building's most spectacular features - crown moldings, circular staircase, ceiling medallions, ironwork, high ceilings - were covered, but not removed.



Today, old City Hall serves as the municipally administered Provincial Offences Court. Following the official opening of new City Hall next door in April 2010, the building underwent significant renovations prior to beginning the next chapter of its life. During the renovation project, original features thought lost were uncovered. Surprise after surprise revealed itself as the architects and general contractor (Goldsmith Borgal and Company Architects and Collaborative Structures Limited respectively) peeled back the layers of history to reveal the grace and grandeur of the many eras of Guelph's growth. Hidden behind the false walls and dropped ceilings of the 1950s era renovations were tin ceilings, plaster medallions, cast iron columns, fireplaces, flooring, full window arches, and intricate millwork. The original spiral staircase, which had been enclosed as a mechanical shaft, was opened to reveal intact glass windows. Panelling behind the raised mayor's platform in Council Chambers hid a painted mural, its colours still vibrant although marred by the nails and screws that held the panelling in place. In the basement level, the original police lock-up cell, with its iron barred door still intact, was discovered behind the false walls that were previously used as "Committee Room C".


Clockwise from top right:

Image 1: The original entry doors to the Police Station, located, lower level on the elevation of old City Hall. (Photo credit: Ian Panabaker, July 2009).

Image 2: The grand auditorium was returned to its expansive dimensions during the 2009 restoration work.

Image 3: During excavations in 2009, the exterior entrance to the lower level of Old City Hall (police lock-up) on the eastern elevation was temporarily exposed.

Image 4: Remnants of one of many fireplaces in Old City Hall, uncovered during restoration of 2009 and now hidden once again behind new walls.

Image 5: The outside wall of the original spiral staircase of Old City Hall, visible during its 2009 restoration.

(Images 2-5 courtesy of Leanne Piper).


One can only assume that these treasures of the past were intentionally left in situ so that future generations could experience the joy of their re-discovery. The renovation could more accurately be described as a restoration because many of the original elements were restored (or replicated where necessary), in order to return as many of the original Neo-Classical features to life. A team of heritage conservation craftspeople were retained during the course of the project. Unfortunately, it was necessary in some cases to enclose or block original features (such as the spiral staircase) due to designed use and layout of the Provincial Offences Court. Thankfully, they were left as is, so that a future generation might also have the pleasure of discovering the hidden beauty of this magnificent building.

 Historic Guelph Mural V51P62Detail of mural found in old Council Chambers in 2009, now covered by new false wall.

(Photo Credit: Leanne Piper).



William Thomas was born in Suffolk, England in 1799. He began his career as a builder/surveyor and later opened an architectural practice in Leamington Spa beginning in 1831. He designed a number of churches, grand houses and terrace row housing. He also bid, unsuccessfully, for Nelson's monument in London. He contributed a significant body of work to his native England, however, he is best known as,


"One of the founders of Canadian architecture."6


In 1843, Thomas emigrated to Canada with his wife and eight children after running into financial difficulty in England. He opened up shop on King Street in Toronto. His first successful project was the Commercial Bank at 13 Wellington Street. The façade of this building has been preserved in the atrium of present-day BCE Place. He also served as city engineer for the City of Toronto.


In 1845, he won the contract to design the Waddell Block in Port Hope, known today as the Lantern Inn. In this same year he had three other projects, all in Toronto - St. Lawrence Hall, St. Michael's Cathedral and The Bishop's Palace. Business flourished and soon he was receiving projects from Halifax to communities throughout Upper Canada. He has left behind a varied portfolio of architectural styles but was most prolific in Gothic revival and Classical revival work.


One of his greatest achievements is considered to be the Brock Monument, Queenston, with its fine sculptural decoration and form. When completed in 1859, it was the second largest monument of its kind in the world.


Thomas was the founder and first president of Canada's first professional association of architects, engineers, and surveyors. Two of his sons followed him into the architectural profession: William Tutin Thomas (1829-1892) and Cyrus Thomas (1838-1911). William Thomas died in Toronto in 1860.



  1. Leo A. Johnson, History of Guelph: 1827-1927. (Guelph, Ontario: Guelph Historical Society, 1977) p. 192.
  2. Guelph Advertiser, "Letter to the Editor," March 27, 1851.
  3. Guelph Advertiser, May 29, 1856.
  4. Guelph Advertiser, May 29, 1856.
  5. Article from The Globe, reprinted in the Guelph Advertiser, September 11, 1856.
  6. Neil Einarson, "William Thomas," Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online, 1851-1860 (Volume VIII). Available at [Accessed November 20, 2012].