Museum musings – Prince Albert’s town hall

Prince Albert Town

Prince Albert Historical Society

An article in the Fall 2021 issue of Prairie History: The Journal of the West stirred some discussion within the local Historical Society.  The article, detailing restoration carried out on Calgary’s original city hall, indicated that “It is the only surviving city hall from its time in western Canada”.

What definition the author used for “western Canada”, and what “from its time” was meant to suggest may make invalid our assertion that Prince Albert’s original city hall is older.  But I cannot feel that the article was somewhat misleading, especially as Prairie History is published in Manitoba, suggesting to me that “the West” is inclusive of the three Prairie provinces, as well as the province of British Columbia.

It is fairly common knowledge that what is now known as the Prince Albert Arts Centre was originally constructed in the early 1890s as our town hall and opera house.  Prior to the completion of the facility, the town council had been meeting in the long since demolished Royal Hotel (the same building in which Lucy Maud Montgomery attended school in 1890 and 1891). Incorporated as a town in 1885, and finding there was a need for a town hall owned by the Corporation, the town council hired the Hamilton architectural firm F. J. Rastrick and Son to design a building which they could call their own.  The architect, adhering to the trend of the day in which buildings housing local councils were designed as multi-use buildings, designed Prince Albert’s town hall in a manner to enhance the status of the local government and the community’s pride as an important territorial centre.

Although there were definitely some operas performed in the new building, to suggest that the town hall was also an opera house may be a bit of a stretch.  It really fulfilled a role similar to the current day E.A. Rawlinson Centre for the Arts, which hosts a variety of artistic performances, and where meetings and gatherings are held.

To strengthen my position regarding the age of Prince Albert’s town hall, I delved into the remarkable holdings of the Bill Smiley Archives.  Here I found two very interesting pieces of information.  The first was a nine-page contract, dated January 16th, 1892, between the Town of Prince Albert and the contractors chosen to build the town hall.  The 8 ½ x 14-inch pages, in neat copper-plate writing, outline the expectations which the town fathers had regarding the construction of the building.  The signatures appended to the contract were, on behalf of the town, H.J. (Hugh) Montgomery (father of the aforementioned Lucy Maud Montgomery) as the chairman of the Board of Works, and A. (Andrew) Goodfellow and W.B. (Willard) Goodfellow, contractors.

The contract covered all aspects of the building’s construction, from the excavation and foundations, to the trim on the architrave.  Examples of the town’s expectations include the requirement for the timber to be of “sawed dry pine” and the bricks of “first quality in uniform cherry red”.  The mortar was to be composed of “wet-screened clear grit sand, well slaked lime with sufficient quantity of cow’s hair thoroughly mixed within”.  Perhaps it is no wonder that the building has now stood for almost 130 years!

The second document which I uncovered in my research was contained in the Saskatchewan Times, dated June 2nd, 1893.  “Work on the Town Hall is progressing satisfactorily.  Plasterers are engaged putting up the second coat while the carpenters are keeping their share of the work up well.  Contractor Goodfellow expects to have everything completed for Dominion Day.”

The total cost of construction for this picturesque building, which gained status as a City Hall in 1908 when Prince Albert achieved city status, was $13,178. 

Upon completion, the Town Hall was an impressive site.  The lot on which it sat was raised from the street, a common practice at the time to enhance the building’s perceived size, and was situated within a yard planted in trees and shrubs. The building’s grand scale and formal detailing offset the restrained design of the exterior with its two-storey rectangular massing including the side bell-tower. The wood-frame construction had brick facing, and the building’s three-bay front façade used classically inspired motifs including a bracketed portico surmounted by a wrought-iron railing, pedimented front entry flanked by evenly spaced segmentally headed windows, the side bell tower, and the opera-house façade which included high round-headed windows with a porte-cochere, as well as a bracketed cornice, and pediment which provided evidence of its interior layout and finishes.

Inside was a soaring space two stories high, with three windows (about twenty feet high) in each of the north and south walls.  The east and west walls had arched openings, one being the proscenium and stage, while the opposite one had the balcony.  Quite truly, it was later noted, the building clearly displayed itself as an outpost of the British empire and the culture of its most prominent settlers.

Inside the building, on the main floor, the two front offices served as office space for the mayor and city commissioner, as well as their staff.  In the basement, the town constable had his office, as well as a couple of holding cells.  The constable was required not only to enforce the law, but also to stoke the furnace and provide any maintenance that the building may require. 

The opera house/theatre, beyond the front offices, was two stories high, with balconies on each side of the upper level.  During daylight hours, the light which filled both levels as a result of the windows on both the north and south sides was enhanced by a skylight.  It is unknown what the evening lighting was like, although around the end of the 19th century or early into the 20th century the town attained a fairly reliable source of electricity, and the Town Hall was provided with electric light.  Wood stoves were replaced by a steam heating plant at about the same time.  When the police office was moved to its new headquarters across Avenue B, to the south and east of the then City Hall, a steam pipe was run from that building under the road to the City Hall, and it received its heat from a furnace in that building.

The bell tower, part of the Italianate style predominate in the building, was primarily used in its early years for curfew purposes, to call fire fighters, but also to advise the citizens of special events and council meetings.  Bell towers on public buildings derived from the Italian campaniles which began to assert the ascendancy of secular governments over ecclesiastical authority.

As the city expanded, it became obvious that additional space would be required for the additional staff required to service the city.  Around 1920, a floor was added between the open space in the theatre area and the main floor.  This destroyed much of the internal architectural detail of the building, but provided a larger council chamber and more office space.  Although the problem may have been resolved for the time being, this was a temporary solution, not a permanent one.

In addition to welcoming three Canadian prime ministers to Prince Albert at this building, it has been the location of the community’s welcome for four Governors-General (the Duke of Connaught, the Earl Tweedsmuir, Lord Alexander of Tunis, and Lord Byng of Vimy.  It was also to be the site of a banquet for the Governor-General, Lord Minto, in September 1900, but he was unable to attend.  Other events which have been hosted in the building include a Citizens Band Concert in July 1896, a reception in 1906 for the members of the first Legislative Assembly of Saskatchewan, a Masonic concert in 1907, as well as numerous conventions.  World famous guest artists, including the peripatetic soprano Madame Albani, performed in the theatre in its early years.

The Town Hall, later the City Hall, has also housed the Board of Trade and the Lorne Agricultural Society, as well as the city’s public library from 1919 until 1937.  Suitably, the library was situated in what is now the John V. Hicks Gallery.

Several influential Prince Albertans have polished their political skills while debating in the Council Chamber of the original City Hall.  These include T.C. Davis, mayor of Prince Albert for four years before becoming a Member of the Legislative Assembly, and later became a Canadian Ambassador.  Dave Steuart served as an alderman and mayor before becoming a Member of the Legislative Assembly where he served in the ministries of Health, Finance and as Deputy Premier.  He was later appointed to the Senate of Canada.  Former mayor John Cuelenaere served in the Legislative Assembly as Minister of Natural Resources, while other members of Council, including J.H. Lamont, J.E. Bradshaw, H.J. Fraser, and L.F. McIntosh were also elected to the provincial legislature.  Charles McDonald was a Member of the Legislative Assembly, was elected to Parliament (a seat he resigned to allow MacKenzie King to run in Prince Albert) and was later appointed to the Senate.  McDonald is the only Canadian to be elected to Parliament and appointed to the Senate without having taken his seat in either House.

On Tuesday, February 20th, 1990, the old Town Hall, designed by F.J. Rastrick and Son, and built by the Goodfellow brothers, was officially designated a National Historic site.  Today, it continues its service to the city’s residents as a community oriented centre.

Fred Payton is president of the Prince Albert Historical Society