Built in the midst of the Great Depression. Designed for a hopeful future of an ever-growing city. St. Catharines City Hall is a symbol of civic pride, modernism, and progress. 🏛
On this episode of History from Here, Sara takes you to St. Catharines City Hall, located at the corner of Church Street and James Street in downtown St. Catharines, Ontario. With special access, Sara even brings you inside Council Chambers!
Watch to learn the fascinating history of this municipal building.
St. Catharines’ first municipal offices were actually housed just down the block at the old Courthouse, which was originally built as a Town Hall in 1849. However, the more the city grew, the more apparent the need was for a larger municipal building – there are accounts of municipal staff using the council chambers as office space by the 1870s!
Around the same time that St. Catharines’ municipal building began to burst at its seams, the City had purchased the Benson family property just north of Market Street. A prominent local family, patriarch James Rea Benson was heavily involved in politics at all levels and their stately home, Clennendan, reflected as such. However, its location was what initially interested the City; they had officially cited the purchase for “market purposes”. Despite these plans, municipal staff quickly took advantage of the newly available space and moved their offices into the homestead by 1878. This was meant to only be a short-term solution while the city constructed a permanent building. The municipality would operate out of this “temporary” office space for another 59 years.
Unsettled financial conditions, the reallocation of civic funds, and the First World War had all contributed to the delay in building a new City Hall. The conversation was only reignited in the late 1920s, at a time of significant economic prosperity. Throughout most of 1929, City Council campaigned to gather public support to finance a new municipal building. The response was overwhelmingly positive, and a bylaw was proposed to authorize the expenditure of $300,000 to construct a new City Hall. However, when it finally came time for citizens to vote – the stock market had crashed only months before, and the world had plummeted into the Great Depression. It was January 1930, and St. Catharines residents were not prepared to take on such enormous spending. The bylaw was defeated.
It would take another five years for local politicians and taxpayers to begin to envision a hopeful, more prosperous future again. With the peak of the economic depression seemingly passed, and construction prices still at a minimum, City Council once again asked the electorate to vote on financing the construction of a new municipal building.
The new proposal would cost $155,000. This time, St. Catharines residents voted in favour. Finally, the municipality would have a public building to reflect the pride of its community.
The construction project began in the Fall of 1936, the cornerstone ceremony taking place that December. According to the St. Catharines Standard, an unusually large crowd attended the ceremony – perhaps eager for a signal of better times ahead.
St. Catharines’ new City Hall was formally opened ten months later on August 9, 1937. An extensive programme was organized to mark this official event, culminating with Mayor John David Wright unlocking the centre front door to declare the Municipal Building open.
Designed by local architect Robert Macbeth, and built of Queenston limestone, St. Catharines City Hall was fashioned in the monumental style typical of 1930s government buildings. Its combination of classical, art deco, and moderne architectural elements is similar to the city halls of Buffalo and Vancouver built around the same time. Most notable is the building’s sleek art deco entrance with modern recessed-brass elements, massive pilasters, and glazed doors, through which visitors are greeted to an impressive interior entryway made entirely of marble. Above the top windows of the exterior entrance are symbols etched in stone representing electricity, justice, and the arms of the city.
Today, St. Catharines City Hall continues to stand as a monument to civic pride and as a public gathering space. Here, we collectively celebrate and honour, grieve and commemorate, and come together to envision a brighter future for our community.