Victoria Hall, built in the 1850s, is the centrepiece of History and Architecture in Cobourg. Below right is how it is today but in the 1950s, after years of successive town councils paying no attention to maintenance, the inevitable happened. In 1970-71 Victoria Hall was declared structurally unsafe and it was vacated. A band of Cobourg citizens, interested in local history, organized themselves into the Society for the Restoration of Victoria Hall. Architect Peter John Stokes was hired to draw up plans to restore the building to its original grandeur and also to bring its operating facilities into the 20th century. (For a video on the history of Victoria Hall, see The Grand Gamble.)
After Phases I and II of the restoration were completed, the project had to be shut down for a whole year because of financial problems. When Phase III finally resumed, the architectural firm of Chapman and Walker was hired to complete the restoration.
Years of hard work by dedicated volunteers, generous donations by thousands of individuals, corporations and foundations and grants from federal, provincial and municipal governments finally paid off and the restoration was completed. On October 7, 1983 Victoria Hall was officially re-opened by the Governor General of Canada, the Rt. Hon. Edward Schreyer. As in 1860, the festivities were crowned with a Grand Ball.
To understand how Cobourg came to build the Hall, one has to understand how people thought in the early 1800s. A good description of that is given in the story of the Cobourg Peterborough railway starting here. By the 1850s, Cobourg's leading citizens decided to express their confidence in the future of Cobourg by building themselves a fine town hall. They held a design competition which the famous architect, Kivas Tully, won. [Kivas Tully at left].
From 1856, when the cornerstone was laid by Sir Allan MacNab, until 1860, when it was opened, the building was under construction by local builders David and William Burnet.
Edward, the young Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII, came to Cobourg during his Canadian tour of 1860. On September 6 he officially opened Victoria Hall which was named for his mother Queen Victoria. Much to the delight of the local citizenry, he remained for the Grand Ball and midnight supper.
More on this event described here.
Kivas Tully's three-storey building has many worthy features. The imposing entrance portico has four Corinthian columns, Greco-Roman roofed porch and speaker's balcony. The building of white brick construction is faced on three sides with buff Cleveland sandstone and is elaborately decorated with symbols of the British Isles, carvings of lyres, dolphins, shells, a bearded head and other intricate examples of the stone-cutter's art. The ceiling of the portico is decorated with the restored painting of Cobourg's original coat of arms.
The symmetry of the building is emphasized by its 96 ample multi-paned windows and a glance toward the roof reveals the splendid crown topped cupola with its weather-vane and four crested clock-faces.
Inside, the grand design continues. Tully designed an E-shaped building to accommodate a variety of services. The foyer, the deep-well courtroom, the two grand staircases and the Concert Hall are the most impressive areas. However, the building has always housed the municipal offices for Mayor, Clerk and Treasurer, and the Council Chamber.
Until 1971, the Masonic Order also had rooms here; Sir Allan MacNab, Grand Master of the Masonic Order for Canada and formerly the Prime Minister of the United Canadas, laid the cornerstone.
The Courtroom is modeled on that of the Old Bailey in London's criminal courts and is one of the few remaining deepwell courtrooms in Canada still in use (but no longer as a courtroom). It retains its original window arrangement, woodwork, floor plan and trompe-l'oeil wall painting of the Royal Arms by a German artist named Moser.
Two portraits of famous Cobourg jurists by Sir Wyly Grier are hung here. To the right, Judge T.M. Benson; to the left, Chief Justice J. D. Armour. The room has seen some memorable trials - to name one of them - that of Sir Arthur Currie's action for libel against the Port Hope Guide in that he needlessly sacrificed men on the eve of the Armistice of World War I. He was vindicated and granted damages.
The original ceiling of this court room was plaster. It deteriorated and was replaced by a wooden one in 1879. Under restoration requirements, this was removed and the present drop ceiling was put in, covering ductwork etc.
The Grand Concert Hall
(80ft. long, 45ft. wide, 35ft. high)
This magnificent room is the core of Victoria Hall. It had a wooden floor supported by pine beams bolted together, each about 6 inches wide and about 20 inches deep spanning the width of the hall. Now the floor is reinforced concrete with an overlay of hardwood.
The beautiful painted ceiling was originally done by Mr. Moser as were the walls and the curved freize. The redecorating of this hall has been done by Mr. Roman Svoboda, and follows very closely the original design, as a considerable portion of the original painted ceiling was intact above the 1880 wooden ceiling.
The plaster ceiling began to deteriorate after about 20 years and was replaced by a wooden ceiling about 5 feet lower in 1880. The stage was enlarged, the main floor was changed to a sloping theatre type floor and a double balcony was added. This curtailed the use of the hall to chiefly theatre and musical use. Under the restoration programme the hall had to be changed back to its all-purpose use, with the floor again level.
This room has seen a great variety of functions:
- It began with the Ball for the Prince of Wales in 1860 (more about the grand opening Ball).
- The loyal Societies, St. Andrew's, St. George's, St. Patrick's, have had many a concert and entertainment here.
- Prof. Koerber, Marie Dressler's father, conducted concerts and tableaux here;
- it has seen "Uncle Tom's Cabin" twelve times;
- "Ten Nights in a Barroom" was dramatized in this hall;
- various churches held soirees here to swell their funds;
- it was used as a training and demonstration area for the devotees of the new craze of velocipedestrianism;
- the Cobourg Horticultural Society held its Summer and Fall exhibitions here;
- the midget, General Tom Thumb, and his company performed on stage in the hall;
- old Victoria College held its convocations and conversaziones in this hall;
- the Marks Brothers vaudeville troupe and the Guy Brothers Minstrels also put on shows here;
- numerous have been the political rallies to rouse party enthusiasm;
- The Dumbells Concert Party, the Cobourg Drama Club, the Cobourg Opera and Drama Guild have all played to enthusiastic audiences in this hall;
- the West Northumberland Agricultural Society held their Fall shows here.
Whereas the Hall was originally heated by box stoves it is now heated by gas and has also an air conditioning system. Before the advent of electricity it was lighted by gas.
Town Council Chambers
Before the restoration this room had seen various uses:
- As an armoury for No. 1 and No. 2 Companies of the 40th Northumberland Battalion
- The Cobourg Branch of the Red Cross used it for assembling parcels during the two World Wars;
- The Cobourg Drama Club used it as a little theatre with a stage on the north and opera seats from the old King George theatre on the south end.
- The most recent use was as a Lodge room for the ladies of the Order of the Eastern Star.
Above the Mayor's dais is Cobourg's Coat of Arms painted by Louis Stover a native of Cobourg.
The Honourable James Cockburn Room
This room is named in honour of Cobourg's Father of Confederation, James Cockburn. Born in Scotland in 1819 he came to Canada with his parents when he was fourteen. He attended Upper Canada College, then studied Law, and at the age of twenty-seven was called to the Bar following which he began to practise law in Cobourg. He became a prominent lawyer in the Town where he had his offices in Victoria Hall.
Six years before Confederation he had been elected to the Legislature of Ontario and at age forty-five was appointed Solicitor-General. He attended the pre-confederation conferences and, when the Dominion of Canada was formed he was elected the member for the riding of Northumberland West in the first Dominion Parliament. When the first session of the new Dominion's Parliament convened on 7 November 1867 he was proposed as Speaker by Sir John A. Macdonald supported by Sir George E. Cartier and was unanimously elected Speaker which office he held for seven years. His health deteriorated and, at the age of sixty-four while engaged in supervising the consolidation of the Dominion's laws he died in 1883.
The room is fitted up as it might have looked in the 1860s and 1870s when he had his legal office in Victoria Hall. (More on James Cockburn)
Art Gallery of Northumberland
The Art Gallery of Northumberland has been accorded the honour of being a National Exhibition Centre by the National Museum of Canada. The room was originally used by the Sons of Temperance but in February 1873 they vacated. The Masonic Lodge then leased it until 1971 when they were forced to vacate. Now it is the main Gallery.
At the front and to the right is a small gallery named after Paul Kane, the famous Canadian Artist who was married to the daughter of F. S. Clench a prominent cabinet-maker of Cobourg who lived in a building on King Street West opposite the West Collegiate (now William College).
The gallery's collection is quite extensive - more information at their web site.