Try as I might, I will never know as much about St. Marys, Ont., as Larry Pfaff.
Mr. Pfaff grew up in the pretty little town of 7,300 and, despite living and working in Toronto for 45 years (as the Art Gallery of Ontario’s head of reader services), he maintains a house there with a killer view of the Thames River. Oh, and then there’s the incredible research that went into three books he authored on the town (one, with L.W. Wilson, while I was still in elementary school).
Yet, with typical Canadian modesty, he’s invited Paul King along on our architour to ensure all the (heritage) bases are covered. Mr. King, a retired real estate lawyer, is a member of the St. Marys Heritage Committee and a founding member of the local Architectural Conservancy of Ontario branch.
On a sunny summer day, we gather first in the manicured gardens beside Town Hall, a lovely, 1891 Romanesque Revival building by Toronto architect George W. Gouinlock (1861-1932) that’s currently undergoing some restoration work.
And here, Mr. Pfaff gives me the lay of the land, literally. A British surveyor arrives in 1839; it’s an ideal spot since Trout Creek and the Thames River meet plus there is “water power potential”; there’s an outcrop of limestone; a sawmill comes first, followed by a gristmill and then log cabins; by the 1850s and 60s “Scottish, some Irish, some English stonemasons came and they started to build houses”; brick comes into vogue in the 1870s and 80s; stone returns and is used at St. Marys Town Hall.
The town thrived, Mr. Pfaff continues, because of the rich soil, farming and the grain trade: “There was a whole group of middlemen called grain merchants, and in the fall of the year, the farmers would bring the grain in, they’d line up on Queen Street, from top to bottom, and these merchants would come along and vie to buy the grains.”
So, like good grain merchants, we decide to walk along Queen towards the Thames. But first, Mr. Pfaff points down Church Street N. to ensure we take in the stately, limestone, Carnegie-funded library (1904, local architect J.A. Humphris); stone is rare for Carnegies, says Mr. Pfaff, but an exception was made due to “the proximity to Town Hall.”
As we walk down Queen, I learn of the town’s connection to Timothy Eaton – brother Robert had a dry goods store here first and then Timothy and James opened a general store in 1860 – and Mr. King points to Timothy’s building, now called The Chocolate Factory (No. 166).
“This is one of our best streetscapes,” Mr. Pfaff says of Mr. Eaton’s old building and its neighbours. “We have turn-of-the-century Queen Anne storefronts [with] lovely stained glass and great cornices.” At No. 159 is what Mr. Pfaff considers the town’s “best preserved store,” which was originally built for shoemaker George McIntyre; the enormous windows allowed light to travel deep into the rear work areas.
Walking a little further and admiring the buildings with round-topped windows, we stop at the mansard-and-clock capped Andrew’s Jeweller (1884), which still houses a jeweller today. The curved shop windows at street level are particularly impressive.
After a walk past a row of five “sober” limestone buildings (1850s) we arrive at the intersection of Queen and Water Street S. Before getting a tour of the building on the southwest corner, we take in the architectural frenzy that is the former Oddfellows’ temple/St. Marys Opera House. Built of limestone in 1879-80, this Scottish Baronial-style building was designed by London, Ont.-based architect Silas Henry Weekes, who died of tuberculosis in his late twenties.
To lighten the mood, the smiling Tracey Pritchard opens the door of the Flour Mill to our little group and welcomes us in. Ms. Pritchard, a caterer and food writer, took possession of the long building in June, 2019.
“And then we just started gutting,” she says with a laugh. “I really had no idea what was going to happen next; my kids would come from Toronto on weekends [and] we just got dumpster and dumpster.”
What happened, however, was what always happens when a creative soul combines hard work and a sense of adventure: a must-see destination is born. That Ms. Pritchard lives upstairs only adds to the magic: “all kudos to Tracey,” Mr. Pfaff says. “This is what we wanted for years, people to live in the downtown, over the stores.”
And speaking of where St. Marys folk live, after a delicious lunch (purchased from the Flour Mill), we jump into Mr. Pfaff’s car and hit Thomas Street to ogle some stonemason’s cottages. After drive-bys of Westover Inn (1867) and the Hutton family’s garden mound (no space to explain here!), the Baseball Hall of Fame and the quarry-turned-swimming-pool, we admire the Quarry Road cement-block houses built by St. Marys Cement for its workers in 1915.
A walk of the grounds of the St. Marys Museum is refreshing, as is a look at the Queen Anne mansion beside it, but I’m ready for some oddballs, and Mr. Pfaff doesn’t disappoint. Concrete houses at Nos. 341 and 418 Elizabeth St. can only be described as Art Modern/Spanish. And stunning. Designed by W.J. Stafford, the concrete on each, says Mr. Pfaff, was “stuccoed over and the [flat] roof is drained at the back [and] radiant heating in the floor.”
A few more Peel and King street grain merchant mansions – many are featured in Mr. Pfaff’s books, which are available at the St. Marys Museum – and we end our day with a visit to the impressionist Arthur Meighen statue in Lind Park (Canada’s ninth Prime Minister), and a stop at Broken Rail Brewing, to remind ourselves that St. Marys was once a stop on the Grand Trunk Railway.
“Checking out these different communities [in Southern Ontario], well, we don’t have any big mountains, but it’s amazing what’s hidden,” Mr. King says. “If you pay attention to what’s around you, it’s quite incredible.”
I couldn’t agree more. So keep an eye on this space and discover them with me.