Description of Historic Place
The building at 12-20 Water Street South, commonly known as the St. Marys Opera House, is situated south of the intersection of Queen and Water Streets in downtown St. Marys. The four-storey limestone building was designed in the Gothic Revival style by architect Silas Weekes and was constructed between 1879 and 1880.
The exterior of the building is protected by an Ontario Heritage Trust conservation easement. The property is also designated by the Town of St. Marys under Part IV of the Ontario Heritage Act (By-law 59-1981).
Located on the west side of Water Street, slightly south of Queen Street, the Opera House holds a prestigious position along the bank of the Thames River. The building is one of approximately 120 stone buildings in St. Marys, and together with the W.V. Hutton Block (1863) to the north and the Armouries (1868) to the south, it forms one of the most significant rows of stone architecture in all of Ontario. The Opera House also possesses one of the most interesting façades in the town centre and its double-faced design contributes to the visual identity of St. Marys on both its street-facing and river-facing sides.
The St. Marys Opera House is significant for its association with the development of social life in St. Marys during the late-19th and early-20th century. Its origins date back to the late 1870s when the St. Marys chapter of the Independent Order of Oddfellows purchased land on Water Street for the construction of a new meeting place. The Oddfellows, who had outgrown their frame meeting house, required a large building with various amenities and in May 1879 they decided to construct an opera house on their newly acquired piece of land. Seventeen months and $22,000 later, the building was opened with three commercial units on the ground floor, a concert hall on the second floor, and a meeting room on the top floor.
The Opera House quickly became the focal point of social life in St. Marys with frequent performances of Shakespearean plays, musical comedies, vaudeville shows, and even political rallies. Amongst the famed Canadian entertainers who performed at the Opera House were Agnes Knox Black, a recognized elocutionist; Nora Clench, an internationally-known violinist; Pauline Johnson, a Native-Canadian poet; and Beatrice Lilly, one of the world's great comediennes. As a place for political rallies, the Opera House was also visited by many great politicians including Sir John A. MacDonald, who in 1891 spoke to constituents about the dangers of free trade with United States.
Despite the success of the concert hall component of the building, the Opera House as a whole experienced significant financial losses and in 1904 it was sold by the Oddfellows to Church and Watt Ltd., a harness-making company. A flour-milling company called G. Carter and Son bought the Opera House in 1907, and in 1919 the character of the building changed forever when the company decided to devote the entire building to flour production. The Opera House remained in industrial use as a flour mill until 1973. The building was rehabilitated by the St. Marys Lions Club in 1987 and is now used for commercial purposes on the ground floor and residential uses above.
The St. Marys Opera House has an eclectic blend of Gothic Revival, Scottish Baronial, and castellated Medieval motifs. It was designed by Silas Weekes, an architect of the London firm of Weekes and Smyth, and its construction was managed by prominent local stone mason James Elliot. Due to the large size and intricate design of the structure, construction tasks were divided with decorative stonework contracted to local masons Fitt and Tobin, carpentry undertaken by local tradesmen Craig and Hamilton, and painting and decorating appointed to John Willard. The large scale of the project attracted so much attention during its construction that in 1879 the Beldon Illustrated Historical Atlas of the County of Perth published an entry about the Opera House stating that it “promises to compare favourably with any building of the kind in Western Ontario” and will “contain as good a public hall as there is in the Western Peninsula.” The building has retained much of its original exterior fabric despite the truncation of the central gable on the east and west elevations that occurred during the 1919 conversion to a flour mill.
Source: Conservation Easement Files, Ontario Heritage Trust
Character defining elements that contribute to the heritage value of the St. Mary's Opera House include its:
- eclectic mix of Gothic Revival, Scottish Baronial, and castellated Medieval architectural motifs
- composition of all elevations in uneven-coursed squared rubble limestone accented with sandstone detailing around door and window openings
- highly ornamental architectural presentation of the main (east) and rear (west) elevations
- articulation of the five-bay main façade into two end pavilions, two intermediate bays, and a central pedimented bay
- end pavilions of the main façade with ground floor Gothic arch entrances, two second storey flat-arched windows, an upper second storey quatrefoil oculus, and a third storey trefoil Gothic window
- intermediate bays of the main façade with glazed ground floor storefronts, two second storey double height Gothic trefoil windows, and two recessed third storey Gothic trefoil windows above a band course decorated with carved quatrefoil recesses
- central bay of the main façade with glazed ground floor storefronts, two second storey double height Gothic trefoil windows, two third storey Gothic trefoil windows, and a truncated gable peak
- highly ornamental roofline of the main façade with pronounced battlement, bartizans featuring lancet windows at the corners, and miniature turrets separating the end pavilions from the intermediate bays
- glazed storefronts on the ground floor of the main façade with ornamental cast iron pilasters, painted wooden panels, and stone buttresses supporting a simple sign band
- Gothic arch entrances featuring twin coffered doors, Gothic-arched transom, sidelights with simple tracery, and a peaked triangular dripmould
- prestigious location near the intersection of Water and Queen Streets and along the bank of the Thames River
- landmark status on both its street-facing and river-facing elevations
- siting in proximity to the W.V. Hutton Block (1863) and the Armouries Block (1868)