Arriving from the west the greeting sign says: “Welcome to Stratford, home of the Stratford Festival and the Ontario Pork Congress.” Add to that mix of culture and agriculture a legacy of industry — both railway and furniture making — and a splendid park system makes visiting this city of 32,000 people a very rewarding experience for fans of architecture.
Stratford’s location almost dead centre in southwestern Ontario is evident in its street names and its unusual “Y” shaped layout. Ontario Street stretches east, generally toward the lake of the same name from its terminus at the handsome courthouse cleverly sited on axis with Stratford’s broad main street. Erie Street heads south more or less in the direction of London and points to another Great Lake, while Huron Street takes you westwards directly to Goderich on Lake Huron.
The nexus of the three spokes is a public square in downtown just two blocks from the Avon River and Lake Victoria. Having an extensive park system in such close proximity to its core — now entirely a heritage conservation district — makes Stratford a very beautiful place. The Y geography gives rise to some distinctive building shapes exemplified in the Renaissance Revival City Hall’s response to its triangular site.
Civic boosters in the early twentieth century battled railway interests who wanted to transform the old millpond along the Avon River for rail purposes. Instead, an impressive system of parks was created. When the railway left in the 1950s, the loss of this major industry helped spur citizens to create the Stratford Shakespearean Festival. From its tent beginning in 1953 it has grown to be North America’s largest repertory theatre, normally attracting 500,000 people to Stratford during the season. Buildings and businesses related to the theatre have changed the city in the past six decades. Many older industrial warehouses remain, some being repurposed as residences. Sadly, evidence of the city’s once-prominent furniture making history is hard to find.
But the shuttering of the theatre season in 2020 has made other sides of life in Stratford more evident. Without hastening to a matinee or rushing through an early dinner to make an eight o’clock curtain, one has time to explore and experience much that this working city has to offer.
Stratford is known for its collection of nineteenth century residential, commercial, ecclesiastical and civic buildings, well documented on the City’s website https://visitstratford.ca/heritage-search-interactive-map/. But there are many other buildings and places, mostly from the twentieth century, that are worth noting. This is my personal compilation of interesting places. See map at end.
All photos by Robert Lemon except as noted. Click on images to enlarge.
1. Shakespeare Gardens, 1936
Site of Dufton’s Woollen Mill with smoke stack retained as a dovecote. Sculpture of Shakespeare by Cleve Horne, 1949.
2. Scotia Bank, 1962
(Formerly British Mortgage and Trust Co.)
1 Ontario St.
Rounthwaite and Fairfield, architects
Not widely loved, this building is interesting to show how it responds to its three storey Victorian neighbours and the impressive Court House across the street. An awkward trapezoidal shape resulted in this massing based on 120degree angles. Uses Quebec granite and imported Portland stone. Listed in DOCOMOMO Ontario gallery.
3. CIBC Bank, 1979
Moffat, Moffat and Kinoshita (Ken Rawson)
30 Downie Street
Interesting shape that responds to a dogleg in Downie St, stepping down from the three storey massing of adjacent Victorian commercial buildings.
4. Post Office / Federal Building
75 Waterloo St.
This is typical of many modernist post offices of the post war period in southwestern Ontario similar to ones in St. Thomas and Chatham.
5. Knox Presbyterian Church, 1913-15
142 Ontario Street
Lindsay, Brydon & Greig Architects
Impressive rather austere massing, dark brown brick with copper detailing, somewhat Nordic Gothic influences, with late Arts and Crafts stencilled interiors and a lovely barrel vaulted narthex. The tower on the southeast corner of the building was later removed.
6. Tower House and Former Rundles Restaurant, 2001
7 and 9 Cobourg Street
Shim Sutcliffe Architect
James Morris founded Rundles Restaurant in 1979 and made it one of Canada’s best places to dine. He co-established the Stratford Chefs School to operate here and elsewhere during the off-season months. The roster of fine chefs and food purveyors that learned and taught here gained Stratford a remarkable cachet for food.
Morris commissioned Shim-Sutcliffe to redesign the restaurant and a new townhouse, dubbed the Tower House, in the late 1990s. Its design is unconventional but somehow fits with the 1920s brick apartment building to the west and affords views across to Lake Victoria. The front garden with its profusion of exotic perennials and annuals attracts much attention, as does the Tadao Ando-inspired koi pond in the back. It has been widely published as an example of modern design in Canada. Now being refurbished as seven&nine inn for short stays in the Festival City.
7. Stratford War Memorial, 1922
Foot of Erie and Downie Streets
This Walter S. Allward monument was moved here in the 1950s from its original location downtown at Ontario and Erie streets. Its sombre and heroic male figures are extraordinary. Allward would later design the Vimy Ridge Memorial in France and a war memorial in Peterborough.
8. Furniture Industry Interpretive Panel
This information panel near the band shell on Veterans Drive commemorates Stratford’s furniture history. The Canadian Wooden Airplane Company retooled after the Second World War to make moulded plywood furniture including the chair shown here, designed by W. Cserwinski and H. Sybolt
V. Wright, Modern Furniture in Canada, 1998
9. R. Thomas Orr Plaque
Near the band shell on Veterans Dr. opposite 7 Cobourg Street
Tom Orr was the founder of Stratford’s park system. He battled with railroad concerns which wanted to convert the Avon River and mill pond area for rail purposes, eventually creating the extensive park and Lake Victoria that dates from the early twentieth century.
10. Tom Patterson Theatre, 2020
111 Lakeside Drive at Waterloo St.
Harari Pontarini Architects
The Stratford Festival commissioned Harari Pontarini to design a new Tom Patterson Theatre to replace the one that occupied the old Casino Dance Hall and Badminton Club on this site. The core theatre space is clad in bricks handmade in Denmark with the lobby, café and circulation spaces overlooking Lake Victoria behind an undulating glass and bronze façade.
11. William Allman Memorial Arena, 1924
14 Morenz Dr at Lakeside Dr
One of the last “Ice Palaces” left in North America, still in use. Rather simple and elegant arched truss structure. NHL players Howie Morenz, Tim Taylor started here.
12. Stratford Festival Theatre, 1957
Rounthwaite and Fairfield Architects / KPMB Architects (Tom Payne)
Built in nine months on the concrete amphitheatre of the tented theatre erected for the first season of 1953, the building, won a Massey Gold medal in 1958. KPMB designed and major renovation and addition in 1997.
Listed in DOCOMOMO Ontario website. Photo from DOCOMOMO Ontario website; image by Ervina Boeve
13. Meighen Gardens, 1997
KPMB (Tom Payne) architect and Neil Turnbull garden design
A modern perennial garden, endowed by the family of Arthur Meighen, a former Prime Minister who grew up near Stratford. The concrete and field stone paths step down gently in two directions on the awkward sloping site; the pillars are hollow shafts of translucent fabric within which hollyhocks grow; they are internally lit at night. This garden was a controversial shift from the formal and carpet bedding style associated with the early landscaping at the Festival Theatre.
14. Water Street Houses
Along Water Street near the Festival Theatre are a number of very interesting houses, including many late nineteenth Ontario Gothic and Victorian styles typical of small Ontario towns. But at 210 is the mammoth Beauxs Arts 1908 mansion of George McLagan, owner of a prominent furniture company; furniture manufacturing was once a mainstay of industry in Stratford, which dominated the Canadian furniture market. Surrounding it are some unusual and handsome examples of 1920s Arts and Crafts, Regency Revival and Classical styles unique to Stratford. The two below are my favourites, both clad in the dark brown brick similar to Knox Church.
15. Festival Hydro, formerly Stratford Public Utility Commission, 1959
187 Erie St.,
G. M. Ritchie architect
An interesting exposition of forms using local yellow (commonly called white) brick. listed in DOCOMOMO Ontario gallery
16. Grand Trunk Railway Locomotive Repair Shops, 1909
St. David Street east of Erie Street
This is the vestige of a vast campus industrial buildings, occupying some 5 acres in downtown Stratford, that were part of the Grand Trunk Railway’s role in the development of Stratford in the mid-late 1800s. Listed on the National Trust for Canada’s 2014 Endangered Sites list. Very sad to see this impressive building boarded up.
17. Post War Houses
Coriano Street and Glastonbury Drive
This remarkable cluster of post war houses on curving garden city influences design has numbers of standard bungalow and storey and a half design houses many intact. A similar neighbourhood is found in Kitchener’s St. Mary’s neighboured, listed in DOCOMOMO.Ontario.
18. Erie Drive In
I could not resist including this, for the sign alone. But the foot longs are quite good –
a Schneiders wiener on a toasted bun with chopped onion and tomato.