Sunday, 23 June 2013

The City Hall clock

Guelph, like most Canadian cities, has featured a number of prominent city clocks. As Marc Boileau observes in his book "Towers of time" (2006), clocks were often regarded as public works, that is, as a service that the builder rendered to the citizenry. A centrally controlled clock could, in effect, broadcast the official time to everyone in the vicinity. This function was especially important before the development of standard time and time zones, when each city determined local time for itself.

In Guelph, the first civic clock was a sundial situated on the stump of a maple tree that John Galt and his party cut down to officially found the settlement. Of course, such an arrangement was neither durable nor equal to the dignity of the town as it grew from a clearing in the woods to a regional centre.

During 1856, a handsome city hall was built in the Market Square, at what is now 59 Carden St. Designed by the prolific architect William Thomas, the structure included a short dome with a clock. There are no postcards of this structure (postcards were introduced much later), but it is nicely visible in the 1867 photograph below.

(Courtesy of Leanne Piper)

The time is not legible, but two of the clock faces are visible just below the top of the dome. The placement of the clock at the utmost possible height suggests its official function, namely to broadcast the correct time throughout the area. At the same time, the placement also helps the building to play its role as the regulator of the community. The clock faces not only show the time, they also survey their surroundings almost as if they were real faces.

In 1869, this original tower was replaced by an even taller and more prominent one. Stewart (1976, vol. 1, p. 83) states that the old dome had begun to leak and needed attention. This issue seems to have given the people in charge a reason to increase the importance of their building even further. David Allen comments (1939/2012, p. 86):

We of today can only guess the reason for this alteration, but, for one thing, taller buildings began to arise in that section [of town], and the increased height would allow more freedom for sounds of the bell to float above them, and, then again, faces of the clock could be seen from a greater distance, as the new buildings surrounding obscured the view.
Buildings sometimes compete for prominence in height (height makes right?), and Guelph's City Hall seems to have been no exception.

The City Hall with its new belfry is nicely displayed in this postcard from ca. 1900:

(Courtesy The City of Guelph)

The card is labelled "City Hall and Winter Fair Building, Guelph, Ont." and was published by Valentine & Sons. From what I can see by comparing this card with the photo above, it does not appear that the clock faces attained much more height as a result of incorporation into the new tower. However, the belfry is significantly higher, suggesting that Allen was right when he emphasized the sonic function of the new structure.

In any event, the entire tower was removed on August 8, 1961. Its absence is unlamented, as its assertive verticality seemed at odds with the horizontality of the rest of the structure, as noted in the Historic Places website:

Thomas placed a central, squat round clock tower on the roof that was replaced twice during subsequent years. Unfortunately these taller versions altered Thomas' thoughtful proportions and projected from the roof line at a rather obtrusive height. The tower was removed altogether in 1961.
Besides aesthetics, it may also be that no one could see any reason to maintain the tower when its clock and bell were no longer useful nor symbolic of the building's station in the civic order.

The post-tower appearance of City Hall is shown in this postcard from ca. 1970:

(Courtesy The City of Guelph)

All that remains is a scrawny, white flagpole.

Here is the Google Street View photo of the City Hall. It is a bit nasty since the site was under construction at the time.

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A better idea of the history of the City Hall, and its current condition, can be found at this very nice slideshow.

More on Guelph's civic clocks to come!

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