Wednesday, 29 June 2016

The Priory—a sad ending

In his essential History of Guelph, Leo Johnson remarks that the Priory—the first house in Guelph—came to a sad ending (1977, p. 317). I have outlined the history of the Priory in an earlier post but it is worth revisiting this particular event in some detail: On the eve of the 100th anniversary of the city and the building, how was it that this historic structure was hauled away in pieces, never to be seen again?

The sad ending begins many years earlier, in 1887, when the Priory was sold to the Guelph Junction Railway (GJR). The GJR was a corporation formed in 1887 by local merchants and the city to create a transportation link to Guelph to compete with the Grand Trunk Railway, thus lowering shipping rates and costs for Guelphites and their businesses. The railway built a track from near Campbellville through the city itself. Instead of running the railway themselves, the corporation leased it to the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR).

There had been some discussion of using the existing Grand Trunk Station downtown as a depot, thus creating a Union Station. However, the GJR instead acquired the Priory, which had been a private residence owned by David Spence. The 99-year lease to the CPR gave them the right to modify the property as necessary for the purpose of operating a station. No thought was given to what would become of the Priory in the event that the CPR no longer wanted it. Although some citizens were concerned about the erosion of links to Guelph's past and its founder, John Galt, there was no sense that preservation of certain structures for posterity was a significant project or something that might be enshrined in the city's contractual relationships, much less public policy. That proved to be fateful for the Priory.

The Priory's previous owners had created quite a park around the structure. The grounds featured a variety of flower and vegetable gardens, with paths in between. In the gardens could be found gooseberries, apples and plums, including the "Glass seedling plum" developed by David Allan's gardener, Alex Glass (Mercury, 5 Feb. 1955). Iris, narcissus and tulips were grown beside the main path, and the greenhouse featured several rare plants, including Spanish grapes.

The Mercury records the suggestion that the grounds be maintained in order to beautify the station and gratify visitors to Guelph (4 July 1888):

The Priory Trees.—The attention of the directors of the Guelph junction might be called to the need of caring for the valuable trees on the Priory lot. Owing to the grove being completely open from the track, but secluded by the clothes fence, from the street, young vandals have taken advantage of this license and have stripped three white birch trees of their bark. No grove perhaps in the city for its size contains more valuable specimens of choice trees there being 15 varieties of evergreens alone. 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.
In the end, most of the gardens, paths, and other features were removed to accommodate the tracks, platform, and access to Priory Street. Although the CPR was not wantonly destructive, neither was it much interested in the maintenance of gardens or the provision a civic park. As a result, the Priory did not receive "the protection of every citizen."

During the "golden" age of postcards in the early 20th century, the Priory was one of the most popular postcard views of Guelph. One particular image, taken from the east where Macdonell Street meets the Speed, is likely the most common Guelph postcard ever made. Here is the version of this image as produced by the Pugh Manufacturing Co. of Toronto.


This view shows the building as it appeared around 1900. With its contrasting colors, it nicely picks up the details in the building, including the Virginia creeper growing over much of its exterior.

Although the caption on this card says only, "C.P.R. Station, Guelph", captions of many cards from other companies often note that it was also the first house in Guelph and once the home of John Galt. Messages on these cards often mention the Priory, as in the following example from a card printed by the A.L. Merrill Co. of Toronto, sent in 1908:

I know you like historic buildings. This is the first house that was built in Guelph. It is about one hundred years old now. The C.P.R. use it as a station on account of it being the first house. they are not allowed to pull it down. J. M.
(Courtesy of John Parkyn.) It is interesting that Joe Merlihan (J.M.) remarked on the possible demolition of the Priory, since that had already become an issue of much discussion.

Before proceeding with that matter, I want to put up an unusual postcard that shows the Priory from across the Speed. This postcard was printed in the format of a bookmark and thus provides a panoramic view of the building and its surroundings at another point in its career as a CPR station.


This card was published by Rumsey and Co. of Toronto, around 1910. The photo reveals the screen of trees behind the building that still separated it somewhat from the downtown behind it. Note also the locomotive on the tracks to the right.

It would also help to have a bird's eye view of the Priory and its surroundings. No postcard or other such image survives, that I know of. However, one can be concocted by taking a satellite view of the vicinity from Google Maps and overlaying an early survey of the Priory and neighboring lots done by Captain Strange (and copied in 1957 by Mr. Shoemaker, a surveyor; University of Guelph Archives XR1 MS A379094). The outline of the Priory is emphasized by a black box with its porch facing the Speed.


I adjusted the overlay by locating two fixed points: The first is the bend of Woolwich Street immediately east of Thorp Street (Woolwich used to bend south there instead of north); the second is the location of the bridge at Allan's Dam, where the railway bridge was later constructed. The result is a rough-and-ready map of the Priory. The bulk of the Priory's plan is now under Woolwich Street with the porch to the north of the sidewalk, facing the metal canoe in John Galt Park. The map helps to give a sense of the scale of the building and its grounds, the latter comprising all the lots between Priory Street and the Speed River on the map.

Progress soon made the Priory seem obsolete as a railway station. In 1904, the CPR began construction of the Guelph to Goderich Railway, at the behest of the GJR. It was proposed that Priory be razed and replaced by a larger and more modern building as a part of this project (Johnson 1977, p. 318). Although the cost of $40,000 proved prohibitive, the proposal brought the matter to a head. Many residents viewed the Priory as something of a relic, one that seemed increasingly shabby and out-of-place in modern Guelph. Others viewed it as a significant connection with the Royal City's past. Even the Mercury, normally a voice for progress, urged that the old place be preserved (Mercury, 4 June 1904):

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, to be used as a museum, containing interesting relics of Guelph, and including such old pictures as are now available.
Since the CPR's lease seemed to give them a free hand, the obvious way to save the Priory was to move it to another site. Buildings were moved around regularly in that era, so the scheme raised no technical problems. However, the notion of a historic park where old buildings might be located was, so far as I know, a novelty. Would it attract much support?

One important supporter of preservation was brewer George Sleeman. In 1905, then-Mayor Sleeman received a letter from one Gilbert Campbell, a Scottish fan of John Galt. In the letter, Mr. Campbell asked for confirmation of a story that had reached his ear to the effect that Guelphites proposed to destroy Galt's old residence. He offered a photo of Galt's birthplace in exchange for a photo (perhaps a postcard?) of the Priory. The Mercury (16 Oct. 1905) printed the letter along with the following observation:

His worship the mayor is one of the many citizens who hope that the old landmark will not be disturbed. He will acquaint to Mr. Campbell of the present situation.
In 1908, the CPR agreed to deputations from Guelph City Council urging them to build a new, better station in the town (Johnson 1977, p. 318). Construction of the new station in Trafalgar Square by the Eramosa Road bridge began in 1910. Their plans for the Priory site no longer included the building. Instead, they had plans to construct a short spur line and some pens and storage sheds at that location.

The crisis point was reached in 1911, upon completion of the new station. A letter from Donald Guthrie, a local lawyer, addressed to the Board of the GJR explains the situation (8 July 1911; UoG Archives XR1 MS A801—box 16, file 10). He explains that, in his opinion, the Priory is the property of the GJR and the CPR's lease does not entitle them to demolish or sell the structure. He reports that Mr. Oborne, Superintendent of the CPR, did not agree and said that, notwithstanding this news, the Company would demolish the building if it were not removed within a week! Mr. Guthrie advised that while the GJR could sue the CPR, it might be more expedient for Sleeman to contact Oborne personally to discuss the matter, as Sleeman was a prominent local customer of theirs.

Sleeman and the other Parks Commissioners explored numerous options. One scheme was to transport the building to Riverside Park. However, the cost estimate of $500 was more than could be mustered without help from either the CPR or the City Council, both unlikely. Besides,the building might not even fit under the streetcar wires on Woolwich Street.

Another scheme was to move the Priory a short distance back into Priory Park (the current location of the Blacksmith Fountain). However, the City Board of Works would not issue a permit to allow the move, a decision that the police promised to enforce (Mercury, 19 July 1911).

The CPR refused another suggestion to allow the building to be moved to the empty southwest corner of their site.

The situation provoked much popular discussion, much of it negative. Consider the following reports in the Mercury (26 July 1911):

All kinds of opinions continue to be expressed regarding the old building. 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 C.P.R. 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, said if the disposal of the building were left to him he would put a stick of dynamite under it and blow it up.
Another wag suggested that it be taken to St. George's Square, halved in size, and used as a comfort station for streetcar passengers there.

The City's Finance Committee recommended a grant of $500 for removal of the Priory to Riverside Park. However, this proposal was flatly rejected by City Council in a session that featured "fireworks" (Mercury, 19 Aug. 1911):

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, “of 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.”
Others objected that the shabby building would discredit the city and its citizens if displayed prominently in a city park:
Aldermen Calvert came back with a remark that if it was erected on the Priory Park site it would look like a man with a black eye.
Finally, the controversy also revealed a division along class lines. Most of the advocates for relocation of the Priory were wealthy and prominent men. Many citizens found the whole scheme evidence of how misguided and out-of-touch their wealthy patricians could be:
Alderman Howard was decidedly opposed to the removal of the building to Riverside Park. ”It is ridiculous,” said the alderman. ”I 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.”
City Council refused the grant. So, the ball landed squarely in George Sleeman's court. Sleeman had in the meantime purchased the building from the GJR and spent $300 on preparations for its relocation. He now contacted Mr. Oborne again and convinced him to allow the Priory to be relocated at the back of their site. It was relocated behind the Priory Hotel, on a laneway from Woolwich Street (as it was then) to Priory Street, roughly where the Supreme Car Wash stands on Woolwich Street today. The CPR had no immediate plans for that particular part of the site. Their condition on this agreement was that the Priory would be removed within 30 days of the CPR notifying Mr. Sleeman at some future time (2 Sept. 1911; UoG Archives XR1 MS A801—box 16, file 10).

The Mercury heaved a sigh of relief. On 29 Sept. 1911, a headline read, "Fate of the old Priory at last determined." However, the old building had merely been granted a reprieve. Also, dismantling of the structure had begun. Oddly, George Sleeman had the two side wings of the Priory removed and taken to his property on Waterloo Avenue, there erected as an independent structure (Mercury, 28 Aug 1911). Is was only the remainder of the building that was moved to the rear of the CPR grounds. It is unclear why Sleeman made this move. Perhaps it was the only way for the building to fit into the space made available by the CPR. Perhaps, seeing that the Priory was not out of danger, he had removed as much of it as he could afford to. In any event, the signs were not good.

Without anyone to maintain it, the Priory fell into disrepair and increasingly became an eyesore. It acquired the bad habit of catching fire, which it did at least three times in 1922 (Mercury, 27 Sep. 1922). That same year, members the City Parks and Buildings Committee asked the Council for some money to purchase the Priory from Sleeman with a view to moving it to Riverside Park, apparently in connection with a dam to be constructed there to make a swimming pool. Once again, the money was not forthcoming.

In 1923, the Guelph law firm of Guthrie & Kerwin corresponded with the CPR, suggesting that the railway lease the land on which the Priory then sat to the city, so that they could make a small park around it (31 July 1923; UoG Archives XR1 MS A801—box 16, file 10). Although CPR Superintendent Rutter confirmed that the company had no plans for that location, they were not willing to lease it out. The building caught on fire once again (Mercury, 28 Sep. 1923). At that point, the Fire Chief Knighton expressed the view that the ruin had become a fire hazard to the other buildings around it.

In 1924, the City Council consulted with Wellington Thompson of Huntsville, an expert on log cabin construction, for his opinion on whether or not a memorial to the building could be built in Riverside Park with the salvageable logs from the Priory (Toronto Globe; 29 May 1924). He expressed the view that a small model of 18 by 22 feet might be erected. The work was never carried out but the incident shows that the Council had given up on the idea of saving the whole structure.

In 1926, George Scroggie, building inspector for the City's Public Works Committee, was instructed to assess the remains of the Priory (Mercury, 2 March 1926). He reported that it should be condemned:

I have examined the building as requested and found it 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.
The Mercury published the following photo of the old derelict (16 March 1926):


On 4 May 1926, the Priory was demolished (Toronto Globe, 5 May 1926). Salvaged logs were stored at Robert Stewart's Lumber Company on Cardigan Street (KW Record, 22 Feb. 1958), the idea being to use them to construct a model replica of the Priory in Riverside Park the next year for Guelph's Centennial celebrations (Mercury, 21 Dec. 1926). However, the scheme was not carried out. The Priory was then just a memory.

It is certainly curious that Guelph's oldest building, and one associated so closely with the city's founder, came to such a sad ending. It is especially poignant that it was demolished on the eve of its 100th anniversary, when there was to be a celebration of the city's history. To understand this outcome, it may help to compare the Priory to other buildings that have been preserved.

Consider Zavitz Hall on the University of Guelph campus. When slated for demolition, Zavitz Hall was occupied by the Fine Art Department, for which no other accommodation existed. By contrast, the Priory was an empty shell, and one slated for replacement by the CPR not long after the Railway occupied the building. Also, whereas Zavitz Hall contributed positively to the space of Branion Plaza, the Priory was widely seen as an isolated relic shorn of the gardens of its former residents.

Importantly, supporters of the Priory lost the political battle to save it. Prominent political figures such as George Sleeman worked to preserve the building but were unable to raise sufficient money to carry out their plans. Many of the Aldermen and much of the electorate saw the scheme as the pet project of an elite out of touch with the priorities on the man in the street.

This last point is perhaps crucial. In the case of Zavitz Hall, supporters could articulate a vision for the future of the University in which the building played an important part: in making Branion Plaza a pleasant space, in honoring the significance of Charles Zavitz, and in respecting the achievements of the Fine Art Department. By contrast, would-be saviors of the Priory had difficulty making a similar case for it. The Priory had become a "black eye" that evoked no sympathy. Its association with John Galt was of little moment because, I suspect, most Guelphites knew little of or cared very much for Galt and knew the Priory mainly as an inadequate railway building, recently deprived of even that function.

The concept of using the Priory as museum and a tourist attraction was perhaps ahead of its time. As Guelphites grew tired of the building, some out-of-town newspapers expressed admiration for it and its historical associations, suggesting that the scheme was not hopeless. However, it seemed to make little sense to citizens of the Royal City at the time. Things changed dramatically by the end of World War II, as evidenced by the development of the John McCrae Memorial Garden and house as tourist attractions at that time.

Indeed, the Priory was later resurrected in various ways for this purpose. However, that is a story for another time.


Thanks to the folks at the University of Guelph Archives for help in locating documents for this post!

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