Author: Cameron Shelley

Publication Date: 2017

Edited: 2023



GHS V55 A1The image above is an illustration of the Priory from David Allan's 1936 book, "About Guelph: Its Early Days and Later." The original is part of the Guelph Public Library Archives.

(Image courtesy of Guelph Public Library Archives).



On May 4th, 1926, workmen demolished the decaying remains of the Priory, Guelph's first substantial building and former home of its founder, John Galt.1 Logs that were deemed salvageable were taken to Robert Stewart's Lumber Company on Cardigan Street with the notion that they might be used the following year in the construction of a scale model for the Royal City's centennial celebrations.2 However, nothing was done and Guelph's one- hundredth birthday was commemorated without its most historical structure.


On the face of it, this turn of events seems surprising. With the city's centennial in the offing, and many Guelphites hoping to preserve the Priory for just this event, how could it have been demolished, never to be seen again?


Of course, the full answer to this question is complicated. However, there are at least three factors that proved significant. First was a lack of preparation for the Priory's preservation. Second was a general antipathy towards the building due to its increasingly ruinous condition and dated appearance. Third was a lack of traction for the idea of repurposing the Priory as a civic museum.


The result was that the Priory suffered a sort of 'demolition by neglect,' meaning that the building slid into decrepitude while debate about what to do with it dragged on. Even the advent of the Royal City's centennial and the nostalgia involved in this event was not enough to save Guelph's first house.


Historic Guelph V55Sketch of Guelph looking across the Speed River toward the Priory in 1831.

(Image courtesy of Guelph Museums (1981.304.4)).


The purpose of this article is to review the history of the Priory, with particular attention to its demolition in spite of its historical significance and the impending celebration of its and the Royal City's 100th anniversary. This history illustrates some of the obstacles in the path of preservation of historical buildings. As we move towards the anniversary of the Royal City's second century, lessons of the Priory at the end of its first century remain relevant today.



The Priory was the first structure - or, at least, the first permanent structure -erected in Guelph. John Galt, the settlement's founder, wanted a building equal to the dignity of the Canada Company, of which he was chief local representative, and that would signal the beginning of a project of civilizing what the settlers saw as a wilderness.3


The site was selected near the place where Galt and his companions ceremonially chopped down a maple tree on April 23rd, 1827. The building provided quarters for company executives like Galt, chambers for civic functions, and also the settlement's first post office. It was named after Charles Prior (sometimes "Pryor"), who supervised its construction.


Local rock elms were used for building materials, while lime for mortar was hauled in from a distance. In spite of this rude material, the Priory had what Galt described as, "Some pretensions to elegance:"4


"It has a rustic portico formed with trunks of trees, in which the constituent parts of the Ionic order are really somewhat intelligibly displayed. In the interior, we have a handsome suite of public rooms, a library, etc."


William Lyon MacKenzie, who visited it in 1831, described it without irony:5


"Mr. Galt's Priory is an elegant design. The house might serve an earl, the rustic work is in character, the grounds handsome, the spot well chosen, just above the River Speed, constant stream, over which there is an excellent bridge, and below that a grist mill, which I found Mr. Elgie, an Englishman, putting in order.

Round the Priory there are gardens, ice house, well house, offices, root house, etc. Mr. Elgie is the only inhabitant, but from the porch to the inmost parlor it is fitted for a prince."


As MacKenzie notes, the elegance of the Priory consisted not only in its classical architectural elements but in amenities included in its grounds, which covered about four acres.


After Galt was recalled to England in 1829, the Priory became a private residence, passing through the hands of several owners. David Allan, who resided there from 1847 until 1878, took particular pains to develop the property.6 He had a castellated, stone bathing house built beside the Speed River, and a stone wall around the property. He had a large greenhouse built on the grounds and hired a professional gardener, Alex "Sandy" Glass to tend to them:


"There was a greenhouse in the center, in which many rare plants were propagated as well as some choice varieties of grapes, imported from Spain. In the garden there were varieties of gooseberries of large size, apples and plums of choice varieties, yielding luscious fruit prizewinners at horticultural shows."


Glass developed some choice varieties himself, including the, "Glass seedling plum," which later became a staple and much sought for fruit in the St. Catherines district after Glass moved there. Long lines of iris, narcissus and tulips flanked the driveway to The Priory from the gate. The gate was a heavy one, supported on either side by huge posts driven into the ground eight feet and anchored there by heavy iron rod running through the posts.


The final private owner was David Spence, who took over both the Priory and nearby mill from Allan.



Since the Priory was removed long ago, and since the streetscape has profoundly changed in the meantime, it is helpful to locate it on a modern map of Guelph.

Historic Guelph

Location of the Priory near John Galt Park, Woolwich Street.

(Image by Cameron Shelley).


This map is constructed by overlapping an early survey of the vicinity by Captain Strange (an earlier occupant of the Priory) with a satellite image of the same area taken from Google Maps.7 The overlay was calibrated by orienting north in the same direction in both images and by collocating two points on each image. Those points are the eastward side of Thorp Street (now a back entrance to the River Run Centre) where it meets Woolwich Street and the point where the south shore of the Speed River meets the Market Street bridge (now the location of the Canadian National Railway bridge).


The location of the Priory is picked out by a black box with a small box showing the location of the front portico. The bulk of the foundation lay under what is now the north side of Woolwich Street. The front entrance faced onto the current location of the 'Timeline/Waterline' metal canoe public art in John Galt Park.



It seems that the Priory was known as a picturesque and swish residence of respectable businessmen. And so, it might have remained except for the coming of the Guelph Junction Railway. For many years, Guelph was a stop along a central route of the Grand Trunk railway. Of course, this facility did a great deal to connect the county seat with the rest of the province. However, the lack of competition meant that freight rates were higher than they might have been otherwise.


Attempts to persuade the Canadian Pacific Railway (C. P. R) to build a line to town having failed, the city decided to build a line of its own, which was called the Guelph Junction Railway (G. J. R.). In 1887 to 1888, the GJR was built, connecting Guelph to the CPR line near Campbellville. Rather than run the line itself, the town council leased it to the CPR.


Historic Guelph V55P13An overlay illustration of postcard and a current photograph showing the approximate location in a portion of John Galt Park. Postcard from the author's collection.

(Image by Cameron Shelley).


Commercially, the arrangement had the desired effect of lowering freight rates for Guelph goods and generating dividends for the town. However, the GJR needed a terminus in Guelph. Attempts to recruit the Grand Trunk station on Carden Street for a sort of Union Station did not work out.


The nearby Priory provided a ready and workable alternative. Although it was not designed as a train station, it was in a convenient downtown location. Also, it was by a river, where railways often found it convenient to lay tracks. The Priory was duly purchased from David Spence and reconstruction duly began in the summer of 1888:8


"Mr. L. C. Wideman, who has secured the contract for fitting up the Priory as a passenger station for the Guelph Junction railway, commenced work this forenoon. The work will be pushed forward also the 230-loot platform, 12 feet wide. Mr. W. R. Callaway, general passenger agent of the Canadian Pacific, was up today looking over things a gang was sent over the road last night by the contractors to have the defects mentioned yesterday put in shape. Contractors, G.J.R. Directors, and C.P.R. agents are all working to get things in shape with the fair prospect of having the railway running by the first of the month."


Although conversion of the Priory to a railway station was a substantial change, it does not seem to have occurred to anyone to lay any conditions on the lease concerning its preservation. Although Guelphites knew and appreciated its historical associations, they do not appear to have thought of it as a legacy that they might want to pass on to future generations. They were happy simply to have competition in railways conveniently established in town.


Historic Guelph V55P14The Priory as the Guelph Canadian Pacific Railway station, ca. 1990. Note the locomotive on the right side.

(From the author's collection).


Also, Guelphites probably did not think of the city or the railways as entities that might be called on to preserve significant moments from the past.

Even so, the Mercury did voice some concern for the preservation of the attractive grounds that had been painstakingly developed around the building:9


"It is a beautiful spot and will make a very comfortable resting place for travelers, and if thrown open for the benefit of the public would give them a nice park also. A fence behind the station along the track, with footpath through and seats round would put it under the protection of every citizen, and all would feel a just pride in preserving the small but valuable park."


Here, preservation was recommended not for historical reasons but for the pleasure of railway customers and Guelph's citizens in general.


Not surprisingly, the CPR removed all these amenities. They did this not out of disrespect but because they wanted the room to build sheds for storage purposes. The lease apparently included no requirements for the CPR to facilitate the Priory's preservation or later restoration.


The Mercury article cited above implies that citizens might feel less proud of the Priory if it were shorn of its picturesque grounds. Perhaps the author was correct: its conversion to a railway station led Guelphites to adopt a more utilitarian attitude towards the old structure. Soon, it was perceived as a positive impediment to progress.



By the turn of the century, the GJR board started to pressure the CPR to extend the railway enhancing the city's business with the rest of southwest Ontario.10 In 1904, the CPR obliged with the construction of the Guelph to Goderich Railway. In keeping with the new dignity of the railway, the CPR proposed that the Priory be razed and replaced with a modern, brick and stone structure.


Although the $40,000 price tag for a new station proved prohibitive, the proposal brought the matter of the fate of the Priory to the fore. Many Guelphites evidently had come to view the building as simply an antiquated relic, out of keeping with the modern city and not worth spending any money to retain. Others thought it was a significant connection with the Royal City's past.


The Mercury, normally a voice for progress, urged that the old building be preserved:11


"And, by the way now that C.P.R. extension is in the air and a new station is talked of, what is to become of the old Priory? If the citizens of Guelph have any respect at all for, and pride in, the city's history they will see that this historical building is preserved intact. Would it not be a good idea to place it on rollers and remove it to the Exhibition grounds [that is, Exhibition Park], to be used as a museum, containing interesting relics of Guelph, and including such old pictures as are now available."


As news of the possible demise of the Priory spread, expressions of concern were made from distant points. Mayor George Sleeman received a letter from Gilbert Campbell, a Scottish admirer of fohn Galt, asking if it were true.12 The Toronto Globe also expressed chagrin at the plan, suggesting that Priory be maintained because of its historical associations.13


While technically feasible, rehabilitating and relocating the Priory would cost a considerable sum. Who, with deep enough pockets, would be willing to make that outlay? The CPR had the money but was under no obligation and its directors would not likely contemplate such an unproductive expenditure. The City Council had the money but would have to have the approval of most Guelphites, something that was far from assured. The CPR took no immediate action, so the matter rested for a while.


However, in 1908, at the urging of the Guelph city council, the CPR agreed to build a new station.14 In 1910, construction of the new station began at a site in Trafalgar Square next to the Eramosa bridge. In 1911, the CPR decided to demolish the Priory to make way for further storage facilities. A letter from Donald Guthrie, a local lawyer representing the board of the GJR, confirmed the CPR's intention to demolish within a week!15 Guthrie also noted that, in his view, the Priory was the property of the GJR, meaning that the CPR could not demolish or sell the structure without the GJR's consent. He noted that Mr. Oborne of the CPR did not agree. Guthrie advised that the GJR could sue the CPR over the matter but urged instead that having ex-Mayor Sleeman, who was a prominent and long-standing CPR customer, speak with Mr. Oborne might produce better results.


This Sleeman did. He felt strongly that the Priory should be kept on as a connection with Guelph's history and was the prime mover of its rescue effort. Several schemes were proposed. Moving the Priory to Riverside Park would cost $500, which neither the City nor the CPR would pay. The City Board of Works refused to issue a permit to move the Priory to Priory Park (where the Blacksmith Fountain now stands).


The situation was the subject of much discussion on the street, much of it negative. The following account is typical:16


"Mr. C. J. Eisle was of the opinion that if its disposition were referred to the people they would 99 out of every hundred vote for its destruction. Six or seven men passed him when the fire bell rang the other day and for fun, he told him the fire was at the old CPR station. In each case, they expressed the hope that it was. This was Mr. Eisle's method of taking a plebiscite. These opinions are in accordance with that of a prominent manufacturer, who said if the disposal of the building were left to him, he would put a stick of dynamite under it and blow it up."


However, other prominent Guelph businessmen were supportive:


"Mr. D. Tolton, of Messrs. Tolton Bros., recalls an adage of his school days that, 'Children and fools should never see work half finished.' He thinks if Mr. Sleeman is allowed to carry out his idea of the building will become useful as a meeting place for some organization interested in local history and be something of original and unique interest to be handed down to future generations."


One wag suggested that the Priory should be halved in size, fitted with toilets, and moved to St. George's Square to serve as a comfort station for streetcar passengers!


The City's Finance Committee recommended a grant of $500 to cover the cost of moving the Priory. However, this proposal was flatly rejected, three votes to six, by the City Council in a session that featured, "Fireworks:"17


"Ald. Penfold was not a bit backward in stating his objections to any grant, in fact he was very much opposed to it. 'The idea,' said the alderman, 'Be spending that amount of money for the removal of a few rotten logs! Why the idea is preposterous, and not to be thought of at all.'"


Alderman Calvert remarked that placing the shabby building in Priory Park would make that site look like, "A man with a black eye." Some remarks also suggest that many people viewed the scheme as the pet project of a cadre of wealthy and out-of-touch patricians:


"Alderman Howard was decidedly opposed to the removal of the building to Riverside Park. 'It is ridiculous!' said the alderman. 'l have interviewed a great number of the ratepayers, and not a single man has said that he was in favor of the project. The majority of them had said to tear it down. Furthermore, the council has no right to be dictated to by a few people who have a lot of money.'"


Historic Guelph V55P17The Priory with windows boarded up and wings removed.

(Image from Canadian Magazine Vol. 43, No. 1, p. 46, 1914).


Since neither the CPR nor the City would help to rescue the Priory, Sleeman took on the project himself. He had purchased the Priory sometime during this controversy and convinced Mr. Oborne to allow him to relocate it to a corner of the CPR's property for which they had no immediate plans.


The Priory was duly moved behind the Priory Hotel, next to Macdonell Street (where the River House condominiums stand today). The CPR agreed to this measure on the understanding that the Priory would be entirely removed from the property within 30 days of the railway's notification to Mr. Sleeman at any future time.18


The Mercury heaved a sigh of relief with the headline "Fate of the old Priory at last determined."19 In truth, the old building had merely been granted a temporary reprieve. Furthermore, its destruction was begun by Sleeman himself. He had the two wings of the Priory removed and taken to his property on Waterloo Avenue. There, they were erected as an independent building.20 It was only the main section of the building that was moved to the rear of its former property.


It is unclear why Sleeman had the Priory partially disassembled in this way. He may well have intended to follow through with the scheme of placing the Priory in Priory Park, which had room only for the main section.21 In any event, this solution seemed to satisfy no one, and the problem got only worse.



In its new situation, the Priory was no longer kept warm and dry. As a result, it began to deteriorate significantly. To add to its burdens, the structure caught on fire three times by the end of 1922, most likely as a result of arson.22


There were a number of efforts to rehabilitate the Priory. In 1922, the Parks and Building Committee of the City Council explored the idea of buying the building from Sleeman and moving it to Riverside Park. Sleeman was quite willing, as long as the city re-paid him for money he had already spent out of his own pocket on the building, as per a previous agreement with the city, an amount of $800.23


As before, neither the City Council nor the CPR was willing to put up enough money for the project.


The City did offer money to repair the structure if the CPR would agree that it could remain in place permanently. However, the CPR refused.24 Although it had no other plans for that part of the property, it was unwilling to give up control of it in case those plans changed in the future.


The impasse that was created by the compromise of 1911 remained unresolvable.


The Priory caught fire again. Ominously, fire chief Knighton, among others, expressed the view that the structure was, "A menace," that might start a general conflagration.25


By 1924, the City appears to have given up on restoring the building. It obtained an opinion from Wellington Thompson of Huntsville, who was an expert on log cabins, about erecting a memorial for the building out of logs salvaged from it.26 Mr. Thompson thought that a model of 18 x 22 feet could be constructed from its remains, perhaps in a city park. This suggestion was also not followed up.


By 1926, the Priory was obviously in a state of near collapse. Building inspector George Scroggie was instructed by the Public Works Committee to make an official report on its condition. His report concluded as follows:27


"I have examined the building as requested and found to be in a very bad repair. The roof has fallen in, adding to the danger of complete collapse, as the pressure on some parts of the log walls is now outward. As there has been considerable talk about the restoring of this structure, I have hesitated up to this time to condemn it, but the time has come when something must be done, and I would urge that it be torn down as soon as possible."


As noted above, the demolition of the Priory occurred on May 4th, 1926. It was done with the express intention of erecting a model of the building from salvaged materials as a part of the Royal City's centennial the following year. The Public Works Committee recommended that the council of 1926 should recommend to the council of 1927 that a 24 x 20 foot model be erected in Riverside Park, at an estimated cost of $2,200.28 Failing that, it was recommended that a life-size statue of John Galt might be erected instead.


However, the 1927 City Council did not take up the suggestion. The Mercury lamented its disappearance:29


"Finally, about a year ago, when the historical structure reached a stage of decay when repair was impossible, it was razed and the best of the timbers carefully set aside and stored. Rosy plans of rebuilding them as a smaller building in one of the city parks were formulated and at the time considerable enthusiasm reigned. Nothing was done. Gradually, everyday events pushed the Priory question into a background from which it has not yet emerged. It is almost forgotten, sentiment is waning. At a Council meeting not so long ago, one alderman suggested that the logs be sold to avoid storage costs. However, a little sentiment remained, and the suggestion left the City Fathers cold. They turned it down."


GHS The Ruins of the Priory V55P19The ruins of the Priory, 1925.

(Image courtesy of Guelph Museums (1985.82.27)).


Although the Mercury remained sentimental about the building, it seems that many Guelphites were quite happy to be rid of an old eyesore.


Even so, the Priory was given a symbolic farewell. A scale model of it was pulled through Guelph on a float in a centennial year parade. Some of the stored logs were also teamed by oxen through the city in the same event.30


Thus, Guelph ended up in the odd position of having razed its most historic building right on the eve of its centennial and, on the whole, not being unhappy about it.



Before reflecting on the reasons for the demolition of the Priory, it is instructive to consider the fate of a later attempt to reconstruct it from the wings that Sleeman moved to his property in 1911. Although the main structure was gone, changes in attitudes about local history brought about renewed interest in it. In the 1950s, an effort was made to reconstruct the Priory and incorporate it into a new kind of museum, a pioneer village. In the end, though, this effort also foundered.


Historic Guelph The Priory Model V55P20A model of the Priory on a float in Guelph's centennial parade, August 1st, 1927, entering Wilson Street from Gordon Street.

(Photo by Gary Round. Image courtesy of Guelph Civic Museums (2009.52.24)).


George Sleeman died in 1926. His family's fortunes declined in the 1930s, particularly after they were caught bootlegging alcohol.31 ln 1957, the family estate was sold to Al Watson, who turned the residence into a hotel known as 'The Manor.' The place where the Priory's wings sat was to be paved for a parking lot, so Watson was looking to get rid of the extraneous logs. By a curious coincidence, there was a party in Waterloo County very interested in acquiring them.


The Ontario Pioneer Community Foundation (OPCF) was planning the construction of a pioneer village, that is, a place where old buildings and artifacts could be collected as a setting for a re-enactment of pioneer life in southern Ontario.32


This approach to historical museums resulted from a significant shift in the years after World War II, in contrast with the attitude common before World War I. In earlier days, a historical museum was looked upon as a community attic, that is, as a place were antiques from bygone days were stored and occasionally trotted out for public inspection. Indeed, George Sleeman's plan upon moving the Priory to Priory Park was simply to furnish the rooms with antique furniture that could be inspected by visitors.33


This attitude is reflected in proposals in the 1910s to turn the Priory into such a museum. Indeed, besides housing old relics, the Priory itself would be yet another aged curio that people might visit and gander at from time to time. On the whole, Guelphites seemed not to find this proposal very compelling.


The concept of a pioneer village was different. Of course, it would imply the collection and display of notable relics. However, it would focus on the simulation of pioneer life, including people paid to re-enact the activities of their forebears. The concept had caught on in the United States, as in the Farmers' Museum in Cooperstown, New York. Canadians also took an interest in the idea.


One reason for this interest may be that life for Canadians in the 1950s was significantly different than that of Canadians in the sixteenth century. Cars, telephones, and television had become a given of modern life, all of which were missing from pioneer life. Developments in crop science and mechanical equipment had fundamentally changed farming. So, pioneer life now seemed strange and curious by comparison.


Pioneer life may also have seemed more grounded or authentic. Increasing emphasis on mechanization and education seemed to many to detract from the importance of physical labour. Indeed, pioneer life seemed to provide a response to calls for social upheaval, as represented by new political ideologies. Consider an argument for an Ontario pioneer museum made by John Root, MPP for North Wellington, in a speech to the Ontario legislature in 1953:34


"He stated that the province had built memorials to great historic figures, but suggested this memorial be erected to the memory of the common people, the people who were willing to cooperate with their fellow men, the people who with courage, initiative and faith in God went into a wilderness, built their homes, developed their farms, and started Ontario on the way to becoming the great province it is today.

'I suggested that a memorial of this kind would preserve for future generations the history of how our forefathers lived and how this province has progressed. There are people living in our midst who would tell the rising generation that our free competitive system has failed people. A pioneer village depicting the early Canadian life would give us a yardstick with which to measure the progress we have made under a free competitive system,' Mr. Root stated."


In short, a pioneer village would be a reply to communist arguments that capitalism was a failed economic system based on the exploitation of the common people. In Root's view, the capitalist system of Canada was built by common people themselves, namely the province's pioneers. A village museum where pioneer life was re-enacted would remind Ontarians of this fact and serve as an ideological antidote to leftist critiques of the Canadian government. As an MPP for Wellington Count, Root advocated that the museum be located in Guelph, near the Ontario Agricultural College. In the end, however, the pioneer village was located in Doon, southwest of Kitchener, where it stands today. The OPCF opened the Ontario Pioneer Community Museum there on June 19th, 1957.


In their rush to win the museum for Doon and get the ball rolling, the OPCF had virtually nothing to display at the official opening. In fact, they lacked a clear vision of what sort of buildings and artifacts the museum should collect. As a result, they were interested in almost any historical structure in the region that was not nailed down.


So, when it was known that Al Watson had a sizeable remnant of the Priory on offer, the OPCF quickly reeled it in. After conferring with Guelph City Council, which had no objections, trucks from the museum arrived and hauled the 100 or so logs of the Priory away.35 In fact, because the transfer was so quick, and the Guelph City Council had not bothered to announce their decision, concerned Guelphites initially saw the event as a kind of raid.36


However, they changed their tune when it became clear that the OPCF intended to reconstruct the Priory incorporating the recovered logs, as the centrepiece of the Doon pioneer village. "Better Doon than dust!' quipped William Cowan, who had worked on the committee to preserve the Priory in the 1920s.


It must have seemed as though a miracle had occurred. Advocates for the restoration of the Priory had finally found backers interested in the project and with pockets deep enough to afford the work, namely the province of Ontario!


Even so, the economics of the situation did not work out. The estimated cost of a full-scale reproduction of the Priory almost from scratch was $40,000. The OPCF had an annual budget of $25,000 for the whole village. After a while, the logs of the Priory were stacked in a secluded corner of the Doon site and allowed to rot away along with any dreams of its restoration.



The Priory was of unquestionable, historical significance. Yet, even as it's and Guelph's-centennial year approached, it was allowed to fall into ruin while every effort to preserve it fell short. It is instructive to reflect on some reasons for this outcome, which may be highlighted by comparing the sad fate of the Priory to more successful preservation efforts, such as the John McCrae House and Zavitz Hall.


One factor that clearly contributed to the Priory's fate was the lack of preparation for its preservation. As a private residence, the building and its grounds were well looked after. Its owners had the means and were disposed to keep it in good condition. Moreover, it was admired for the beauty of its grounds, which stood in a prominent location in the town. All that changed when the structure was converted into a railway station. In no small part, this turn of events was simply ill luck. The Priory happened to be situated along the Speed River and in a central location, both factors that made it desirable for the railway's use. Guelph's city fathers evidently gave no thought to its preservation. In that era, buildings were pulled down (or burned down) and replaced with regularity. It was simply a sign of progress.


 Historic Guelph The Wings for the Priory V55P23The wings of the Priory on the Sleeman property. Undated photo, Guelph Daily Mercury, December 5th, 1957.


As noted above, the Mercury voiced the view that perhaps the Priory's grounds should be preserved as a kind of city park. However, the idea apparently gained no traction. Although Guelphites enjoyed the grounds, they were evidently not sentimental about them. Neither was the CPR.


This turn of events contrasts with what happened in connection with the John McCrae House.37 By the time the birthplace of John McCrae came on the market in 1965, there were a number of community organizations that were primed to take on the project of turning it into a museum. The John McCrae Memorial Branch of the Legion, for example, had already constructed the Memorial Garden on donated land next door.38 This garden was intended since its inception to be integrated with the McCrae house once it had been purchased and restored. A group of concerned citizens formed the Col. John McCrae Birthplace Society in order to raise adequate funds. Money was donated from all quarters, and even the City Council expressed a desire to preserve the house, eventually incorporating it into the City's Civic Museum.


There had been no such preparations regarding the Priory. Although John Galt was honoured as the founder of the City, there seems not to have been any concerted effort to build up his profile among its citizens. Waiting until the preservation issue became a crisis meant that appeals to the memory of John Galt largely fell on deaf ears.


Furthermore, allowing the CPR to remove the Priory's beautiful gardens and replace them with utility sheds seems to have soured people's attitudes to the building itself. Of course, the CPR likely would have insisted on removing the gardens. In that case, the GJR might have laid conditions on the CPR about preserving the building. Also, they could have kept aside a portion of the proceeds of the railway's profits to preserve and relocate the Priory when the time came. However, the idea that the city might take responsibility for such a task was then just not established practice. As a result, not enough money was available to undertake restoration or relocation when they became critical issues.


A second factor was that the Priory became increasingly seen as merely an old relic, out of place in a modern city. During its years as a railway station, the Priory seemed to fit less and less into the public conception of their town. When the CPR began to talk about demolishing it, many citizens voiced the opinion that it was not much more than an old pile of logs. By contrast, their view of the Royal City was one of brick and stone. It was also businesslike and forward-looking. An old log building in the midst of the modern town seemed to many citizens like, "[A] black eye." This attitude was reinforced after the Priory was left to rot after being replaced as the town's CPR station.


Contrast this situation with that of Zavitz Hall on the University of Guelph campus.39 In 1987, the University's Board of Governors voted to demolish the building, built in 1913 and named after eminent agronomy professor Charles Zavitz. The demolition was part of a standing program to raze old buildings around Branion Plaza and replace them with concrete structures in the Brutalist idiom. However, this style had fallen out of favour and many students and faculty - though not all - preferred the quaint look of Zavitz Hall to its more ponderous, concrete neighbours and wanted it to stay.


Furthermore, no firm provision had been made to relocate the Fine Art Department that remained in the building. In the end, the Department was able to advocate successfully for a sympathetic renovation of the building instead of its demolition. The Board of Governors reversed its earlier decision in 1989, and the restored Zavitz Hall opened in 1991. This contrast between the Priory and Zavitz Hall suggests that, when it comes to preservation of historical buildings, appearances matter. An unfashionable, derelict structure is much harder to save than one that is broadly found to be aesthetically pleasing and, moreover, remains connected with a significant constituency with a stake in its future.


A third factor was the rejection of the notion of turning the Priory into a museum. On the face of it, this scheme would give the Priory a new purpose and excuse its dated appearance. Unfortunately, this suggestion was ahead of its time. The Priory did seem to be popular with visitors. Postcards of, "The first house in Guelph," were among the most popular souvenirs that out-of-towners purchased during visits to the Royal City in that period. Out-of-town newspapers praised the idea of preserving the building. It may well be that the Priory could have been successful as a Guelph-branded tourist attraction, as the John McCrae House is today.


However, most Guelphites at the time were not enthused. As noted above, the contemporary concept of a museum was, "[A] community attic," where relics from yesteryear were put on view under glass. The common response among Guelphites was something like, "When you've seen one old scythe, photograph, or spinning wheel, you've seen them all." Furthermore, the modern notion of community branding was unknown. In fact, calling for the Priory to become a museum may simply have reinforced the popular image that the building was just a quaint and irrelevant leftover from another era.

 Historic Guelph Scale model in Riverside Park V55P25A scale model of the Priory installed in Riverside Park, 1965.

(Photo taken from CIS-ATravers/Wikimedia commons, July 1st, 2011).


Of course, this attitude changed over time, as evidenced in later interest in the Priory for a provincial pioneer museum in the 1950s. However, this change in perspective came too late to save the Royal City's first house.



As Leo Johnson put it, the Priory came to, "[A] sad ending."40 It is sad, of course, because of its unique connection to the founding and early history of the Royal City. It is also sad because it might have been averted. Its demolition was the result not of fate but some unfortunate historical circumstances. Even with Guelph's centennial close at hand, last-ditch efforts to save the structure in some form fell short.


Factors that contributed to the demolition of the Priory included a lack of preparation for its preservation, general antipathy due to its decrepit condition and want of contemporary purpose, and the lack of traction for the scheme of turning it into a museum. Together, these factors helped to thwart preservation efforts, even in the face of nostalgia raised by the Royal City's impending centennial celebration.


The Priory was not entirely forgotten. A small scale-model was displayed on the corner of Quebec, Yarmouth, and Norfolk Streets around 1960.41 A scale model of the Priory finally was installed in Riverside Park in 1965, where it remains to this day. Also, Guelph's 150th birthday celebrations in 1977 included a ceremony to honour the Priory.42 It will be interesting to see how the Priory is remembered in celebrations of Guelph's upcoming 200th anniversary in 2027.




  1. "Historic Priory Building is Torn Down in Guelph," Toronto Globe, May 5,  1926.
  2. "Restoration of Old Priory has Again Been Forgotten," Guelph Mercury, June 14, 1927.
  3. Gilbank, R. (1971), "The Priory," Guelph Historical Society 11(5).
  4. Lizars, R & K (1896), "In the Days of the Canada Company," p. 33.
  5. MacKenzie, W. L. (1833), "Sketches of Canada and the United States," p. 248.
  6. McIlwraith, Verne, "Priory was Centre Early City History," Guelph Mercury, February 5, 1955.
  7. Strange, William, "Map of the Priory Block and Adjoining Lots," ca. 1855, Courtesy of the University of Guelph Archives, XRI MS A379094.
  8. "Railway Prospects," Guelph Mercury, August 16, 1888.
  9. "The Priory Trees," Guelph Mercury, July 4, 1888.
  10. Johnson, Leo (1977), History of Guelph 1827-1927. Guelph: Guelph Historical Society, p. 318ff.
  11. "Local History," Guelph Mercury, June 4, 1904.
  12. "John Galt's House, a Glasgow Man Interested in Its History," Guelph Mercury, October 16, 1905.
  13. "A Guelph Landmark," Guelph Mercury, October 19, 1905.
  14. Johnson, Leo. op cit.
  15. Guthrie, Donald, "Correspondence RE: The Priory and Its Removal to the Sleeman Property," July 8, 1911, University of Guelph Archives XRI MS A334028.
  16. "Many Views as to Old Priory," Guelph Mercury, July 26, 1911.
  17. "Council Blocks Removal of the Old Priory Building," Guelph Mercury, August 9, 1911.
  18. Oborne, James, "Correspondence RE: The Priory and Its Removal to the Sleeman Property," September 2, 1911, University of Guelph Archives XRI MS A334028.
  19. "Fate of the Old Priory at Last Determined," Guelph Mercury, September 29, 1911.
  20. "Old Wings of the Priory," Guelph Mercury, August 28, 1911.
  21. "It is Now Up to Council," Guelph Mercury, July 14, 1911.
  22. "Priory Building on Fire Again," Guelph Mercury, September 27, 1922.
  23. "Mr. Sleeman Denies Holding Up Priory Building Commission," Guelph Mercury, October 20, 1922.
  24. Rutter, F. M., "RE: Priory Building, Guelph," July 31, 1923, University of Guelph Archives XRI MS 4334028.
  25. "Priory Building was on Fire," Guelph Mercury, September 28, 1923.
  26. "Guelph May Rebuild Historic Old Priory," Toronto Globe, May 29, 1924.
  27. "Would Raze Old Priory Building," Guelph Mercury, March 2, 1926.
  28. "Council Favors Re-erection of Old Priory at Riverside Park," Guelph Mercury, December 21, 1926.
  29. "Historic Priory Building is Torn Down in Guelph," op cit.
  30. Round, Gary, "Centennial Parade, Team of Oxen: Robert Stewart Ltd.," August 1, 1927, Guelph Civic Museums 2009.52.18.
  31. "The Manor is a Monument to Guelph's History and Much More," Guelph Mercury, January 15, 2011.
  32. See Tivy, Mary (2011), "Identifying the Local Past, The Waterloo Historical Society, Part 2," Waterloo Historical Society 99, p. 111-164.
  33. "Plans for the Priory," Guelph Mercury, July 28, 1911.
  34. "Memorial to Pioneers Aim of John Root," Guelph Mercury, February 25, 1953.
  35. "Historic Building is Moved to Doon Site," Kitchener Waterloo Record, February 22, 1958.
  36. Mcllwraith, Verne, "Historic Priory Wrecked, Stolen," Guelph Mercury, December 5, 1957.
  37. Dietrich, Bev (2006), "John McCrae and McCrae House: Keeping the Faith for Those Who Died," Historic Guelph 45, p. 55-68.
  38. Shelley, Cameron (2016), "Memorializing John McCrae: The Lt.-Col. John McCrae Memorial Garden," Historic Guelph 54, p. 9-19.
  39. Shelley, Cameron (May 27, 2016), "Zavitz Hall," Retrieved from 
  40. Johnson, Leo, op cit., p. 317.
  41. Coulman, Donald, "Model of Priory Downtown," ca. 1960. Guelph Civic Museums 2009.32.676.


ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: Thanks to Kathleen Wall of the Guelph Civic Museums and Darcy Hiltz of the Guelph Public Library for help in locating images of the Priory for this article.