Description of Historic Place
The building at 51 Stuart Street, known as Hamilton Custom House, is situated adjacent to the Canadian National Railway track and yards, overlooking Burlington Bay, in the City of Hamilton. The two-storey, sandstone clad building was designed in the Renaissance Revival style, by architects Frederick J. Rastrick and Frederick P. Rubridge, between 1858-60.
The exterior of the building and scenic character of the property are protected by an Ontario Heritage Trust conservation easement (1982). The property is also designated by the City of Hamilton under Part IV of the Ontario Heritage Act (Bylaw No. 79-218) in 1979. The property was designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 1990 and now functions as the Ontario Workers Arts and Heritage Centre.
The Custom House overlooks Burlington Bay and is located immediately across from the tracks of the Canadian National Railway, formerly the Great Western Railway. At the time construction, Hamilton Custom House, was located immediately south-east of the Great Western's station, offices and yard, making inspection of the rail-transported goods especially convenient. Placement halfway between the business district and the bay shore, but adjacent to the railway, indicates the importance of the railway to the activities of Hamilton's Custom House. Elements of the stone gateposts flank both sides of building.
The Hamilton Custom House was the last in a series of customs houses constructed by the colonial government, prior to confederation. Of substantial character and construction, the Hamilton Custom House, built 1858-60, recalls the growing responsibilities and presence of the government, during this time. Prior to this, government offices had typically been located in rented or private quarters, with construction campaigns focused upon transportation projects such as roads and canals rather than buildings. With collected duties representing the largest single source of revenue for the colonial government, and with Hamilton being the largest source of collection revenue in Ontario, after Toronto, the construction of a suitably prominent Custom House was justified. In the years leading up to the construction of the Custom House, Hamilton enjoyed the status as a leading Canadian port, commercial centre and transportation hub, with lines from the recently completed Great Western Railway converging in the city. The Great Western's lines connected Ontario to the United States at Niagara Falls and Windsor, contributing to Hamilton's large amount of international trade, and supporting the need for a large customs facility. Additionally, in the early 1850s, Hamilton was represented in Parliament by Sir Allan McNab, Premier of the Province of Canada, from 1854-56, who influenced the decision to locate a substantial Custom House in Hamilton, to benefit the city. The Custom House functioned in its original capacity until 1888 when overcrowding forced the relocation of this function to the Post Office building at John and King Streets.
The Hamilton Custom House is the oldest, major, Canadian government building in Hamilton and among the oldest in Ontario. Expensive to build and maintain, few government structures of this calibre were built, prior to Confederation, making the building a rarity from the beginning. Designed in the Renaissance Revival style, the Custom House is inspired by the Palladian and Renaissance palazzo architecture of Italy. Contributing to this characterization is a façade with a heavily rusticated first storey, containing large round headed windows, with voussoirs, while the ashlar finished second storey displays quoining, Corinthian pilasters and pedimented window crowns. While the Royal Coat of Arms survives in the roofline parapet, the rooftop balustrade with urns, and elaborated chimneys have been lost. Attesting to the sophistication of the composition, the structure is clad entirely in Hamilton and Ohio sandstones, and is detailed on all elevations. The interior was notable for its modern conveniences such as central heating, running water and gas lighting. The functional design contained a first floor examining warehouse and a second storey 'long room' where most public business was conducted over a long counter. Though Frederick Rubridge, architect for the Board of Works, finalized the plans, Frederick Rastrick is known to have produced the plans on which the design was largely based, with credit thereby extended to both architects; Frederick Kortum served as the supervising architect and was succeeded by Albert Hills.
Source: OHT Easement Files.
Character defining elements that contribute to the heritage value of the Hamilton Custom House include its:
- Royal Coat of Arms in the roofline pediment as well as the carved stone lettering 'CUSTOM HOUSE' in the frontispiece below the cornice and the carved stone lettering 'VICTORIA REGINA' in the portico all reflecting the building's original use
- symmetrical, regular, rectangular, two-storey plan, seven bays in width
- masonry construction clad with Hamilton freestone (sandstone) on the first-storey and Berea (Ohio) sandstone on the second storey
- rusticated first storey, rock faced on the side elevations with a façade displaying a drove work finish and vermiculated window bases
- second storey frontispiece transom light ornamented by cusp-like tracery
- stone portico with square-sided columns, and plastered ceiling with plaster cornice and medallion
- round headed entrance with voussoirs, transom light and wooden, panelled double doors
-ashlar second storey of Berea (Ohio) sandstone with quoining, Corinthian pilasters, and pedimented and bracketed window crowns
- rectangular windows in single and triple assembly with stone mullions
- round headed windows with voussoirs, transom lights and 2 over 2 wooden sashes
- bracketed, stone cornice
- blind, rectangular windows atop the second storey
- location adjacent to the railway (formerly the Great Western), and immediately south-east of the rail yard
- location between the bay and the historic business district
- sandstone gate post elements flanking both the east and west side of the façade comprised of engaged posts and free-standing posts