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Friday, June 14, 2024
Doors Open offers a behind-the-scenes look at NOTL history
Visitors to the Niagara District Courthouse could guide themselves among the many artifacts or speak with a guide to learn some less well-known bits of history about the building during Saturday’s Doors Open tour. JULIA SACCO

Niagara-on-the-Lake is a town known for its history – and with that comes a few secrets.

For those who toured 12 of NOTL’s historic buildings on Saturday, some behind-the-scenes bits of history were revealed. 

Organized across the province by the Ontario Heritage Trust, Doors Open granted visitors the opportunity to visit some of the town’s most eye-catching heritage sites.

Here are some of the tour highlights:

Niagara District Courthouse

Built in 1847, the old courthouse, located in Old Town, boasts a neoclassical design and serves as one of NOTL’s landmarks.

Beginning in 1862, the courthouse was adapted to town functions, including town hall, and occasionally served as a market, bank, post office, fire hall, library, suspender factory and theatre. 

Now, the building’s basement serves as a home for the Chamber of Commerce and Tourism NOTL, while the upper level is available for rent for several functions in the off-season when it isn’t being used by the Shaw Festival.

Lorraine Horton, a Doors Open volunteer, offered some unique insights on a time when the building was a multipurpose recreation hub. 

“They held dances up there,” Horton recalled. 

She said that groups including the Supper Club would use the upper space in the hall for social events. 

“There was a small kitchen, there was a stage. There was a live orchestra and sometimes a DJ,” she said.

“It was so much fun.”

Until 1962, she added, everything that happened upstairs in the theatre had to be transported up the fire escape since there was no elevator – a far cry from the convenience of today.

Grace United Church

Celebrating its 200th anniversary, Grace United approached this year’s Doors Open with a unique self-guided walk-through, highlighting its most interesting trinkets and architectural features to visitors who could follow along with a handout. 

Resident history buff John Sayers, a member of the church, was on hand and shared some insider information on the history of the building. 

His favourite piece on the tour was an early pump organ that was used in the church from 1900 to 1961. 

The organ is not in use any more, but offers a unique look at organ technology of the past. 

“As your congregation gets older, it’s hard to find someone who can consistently pump without their backs giving out,” he joked. 

Sayers and lifelong NOTL resident David Greaves also provided The Lake Report with a behind-the-scenes look at the church’s architecture, predating the church hall addition in 1896. 

“You can see where the heating was in here and where the pipes went through,” Sayers said.

Greaves explained that where a television now sits in the church hall was formerly the site of a large furnace that heated the entire congregation.

Behind a door in the back room of the church the building’s original church entrance can be found, along with the pipe organ mechanics. 

Even 200 years later, the church is still looking to expand. 

“We’re into around a $70,000 budget to make one of the washrooms wheelchairs accessible,” Sayers said.

Niagara Lodge No. 2

When it comes to secret history, NOTL’s Masonic lodge is certainly a highlight.

Rarely open to the public, Niagara Lodge No. 2, beside the King Street Gallery in Old Town, is the oldest Masonic lodge in Ontario.

During the tour, guests could take a look at photos dating back to the 1700s and get a rare glimpse of the meeting rooms and chairs. 

The Masons have been a strong part of the NOTL community for hundreds of years, dating back to 1792, said Mason historian Paul Kent.

“If your father was a Mason, the chances are you’d end up a Mason too and you’d be entrenched in the community,” Kent told The Lake Report.

Kent gave an example of a past Mason: the owner of what was McClellan’s Grocery Store and is now the fudge shop. 

A grocery boy at McClellan’s, Noel Haines, also became a mason, Kent added, simply because of his connections within the town.

“It was a family of Masons back then. Generations and generations. The Garretts for example, we’ve got three generations there,” he said. 

Kent emphasized that there is still a strong sense of camaraderie among the Masons, though numbers have dwindled from 130 members in the “glory days.”

“The organization in fact, I think, is better than we were 40 years ago,” he said. 

There are dedicated members of all ages still serving the community, Kent added.

“We’ve got young men and men taking the chair that are 100 per cent committed to masonry,” he said. 

“We’ve produced a tremendous amount of citizens of the years from this lodge. Which is a testament to what we do.”

St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church 

One of the most eye-catching parts of St. Andrew’s is its unique pew boxes. 

“They’re very much a British sentiment,” Jane Sanders, a church member and tour volunteer, told The Lake Report. 

Church patrons used to pay an annual fee for their select “box,” with varied prices based on its location.

Adjusting for inflation today, the least expensive box would have been $8 and the priciest $40, Sanders said.

“That was a lot of money back then,” she said.

Factors such as proximity to heat – two pot-bellied stoves used to sit on each side of the church – played into pricing. 

Now, 193 years later, the boxes appear almost exactly as they were when they were built in 1830.

Sanders said some church members still sit in their family’s original spot.

“We have one church member who is 98 years old and every week sits in her family’s box,” she said. 

NOTL Museum

The Niagara-on-the-Lake Museum is a home base for Doors Open. 

The museum provided tours throughout the morning and highlighted antique baking throughout the afternoon with presentations from Pam Mundy. 

Along with brushing up on a bit of NOTL history, guests could gather information on the other participants in Doors Open, including Butler’s Barrack National Historic Site, Clare’s Harley-Davidson of Niagara, the Exchange Brewery, the Niagara Apothecary, Niagara Pumphouse Arts Centre, Ravine Vineyard Estate Winery and RiverBrink Art Museum.

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