Architectural Credit: Kivas Tully (Original Building); Peter John Stokes Architect, Chapman and Walker (restoration)
Location: Cobourg, ONArchitects:
Kivas Tully (Original Building); Peter John Stokes Architect, Chapman and Walker (restoration)Date of completion:
1860; Restored: 1983Nominated by:
Lou Rinaldi, MPP (Northumberland – Quinte West)
Long considered one of the finest examples of public architecture in Canada – and among the most significant heritage buildings in the Northumberland region – it is hard to imagine Cobourg without its ornate Victoria Hall. However, had it not been for the efforts of a caring community and the voice of activists within the town and beyond, Cobourg’s Victoria Hall would be nothing but a memory, a victim of a wrecking ball in an era where heritage preservation was not at the forefront of city building in Ontario.
Mayor George Gummow greets Duke of Connaught at Victoria Hall 1910, 720-59, Photo Courtesy of Cobourg Public Library
Built between 1856 and 1860 following the designs of renowned Toronto architect Kivas Tully (who would later become the government’s first appointed Ontario Provincial Architect in 1868), Victoria Hall was conceived as a three-story sandstone community hub for the growing town of Cobourg. Its construction was fuelled by a growing economy based on trade and agricultural wealth, and its ambitious programming included the town’s administrative and government offices, as well as a council chamber, a court room, judge’s chambers, offices, a concert hall for around 1000 people, community meeting rooms, law offices and Masonic lodge rooms.
Victoria Hall, c.1910 720-72, Photo Courtesy of Cobourg Public Library
From the exterior, Victoria Hall is characterized by exuberance - its lavish Victorian Neoclassical façade includes 34 pilasters and 96 windows, as well as a prominent front piece comprised of a pedimented portico with Corinthian columns enclosing a speaker’s balcony. Sitting atop of the hall is an elegant cupola which can be seen from numerous vantage points around the town.
Its lavish Victorian Neoclassical exterior is complemented by an equally stunning interior, heavily ornamented and decorated with trompe-l’oeil.
Victoria Hall - interior, Photo Credit: Cindy Taylor, Courtesy of the Town of Cobourg
With such significant architectural value it is hard to imagine that this public building was ever at risk of being demolished. However, its future became uncertain when Cobourg’s economic fortunes waned. Expected revenue from office rentals never reached expectations, maintenance declined, and the building was declared unsafe and vacated in 1971. Following its closure there were discussions about demolishing the hall in order to make way for parking or other “productive uses.”
Victoria Hall, Cobourg: Concert Hall prior to restoration.  (RG 47-65, Image 37, D011399; Heritage easement photographs), Archies of Ontario
Thankfully, Victoria Hall had a community behind it. Since the late 1940s community activists had been calling for the restoration of the hall and in the late 1970s and early 1980s – with the help of Architect Peter John Stokes, an authority in Ontario’s architectural heritage – they began the restoration of the century-old hall. By 1983, Victoria Hall reopened its doors.
Courtroom, Photo Credit: Cindy Taylor, Courtesy of the Town of Cobourg
Today Victoria Hall continues to house most its historical functions, as well as an arts museum – continuing its history as the heart of Cobourg. The court room, no longer used for cases, has now become a popular event space and a regal backdrop to weddings.
Once threatened by neglect and near-demolition, Victoria Hall once again stands proudly as the heart of Cobourg – thanks to an active community that saw the latent potential in this handsome 1800s structure.
Victoria Hall, Cobourg: Courtroom looking to the south-east. (RG 47-65, image #25 D011399) . Heritage easement photographs), Archives of Ontario
This post forms part of our World Architecture Day Queen’s Park Picks 2016 series in which we asked Ontario’s Members of Provincial Parliament to nominate a prominent building, past or present, in their riding for a chance to learn more about it. Check out the rest of the series to learn more about Ontario’s great architecture.