Grand Trunk Railway Shops/Cooper Site Tours

 


Over a period of slightly more than a month in the spring of 2015, Dean Robinson conducted four tours of the GTR/Cooper site.                                                 


Most of the close to 200 people who joined Dean on the tours did so for the first time. The tour of May 2, 2015  was filmed by Simon Brothers of Powerline Films.

 

The Cooper Site 11th Hour Tour

 


Campaign to Save Stratford’s GTR Locomotive Repair Shops  

                                                                                                             
By Rick Huband and Dean Robinson

 

For more than a century, beginning in the mid-1850s, Stratford was a railway centre, first for the Grand Trunk, then for Canadian National. In addition to being a regional headquarters for both railways, the city was also home to their locomotive repair facilities, which were set on a 19 acre site in the centre of town. In the boom years of steam power, the Stratford shops employed as much as 40 per cent of the city’s workforce.
 

The buildings grew in piecemeal fashion until the early 1900s, when a mammoth structure was erected. When that building was enlarged in the late 1940s, Stratford became the largest repair operation in the entire CNR system.     

                     
Locally, the railway operation was the heartbeat of the city. Through the years, it led to the creation of Stratford’s first library, as well as construction of its first YMCA and floodlit baseball stadium. Members of its concert choir and band were the inaugural choristers and musicians of the Stratford Shakespearean Festival.


But as CN swung its attention to diesel power, it elected to shut down its Stratford works. Cooper-Bessemer, a U.S. firm, leased the buildings and site for several years but eventually moved production back to Ohio. Since then the property has come to be known as the Cooper site. As such, it has endured ownership changes, failed devel-opment dreams, a major fire and court battles.


Since 2009 the site has again been city owned. But regardless of ownership, for almost three decades the massive cathedral-like shops building, encompassing 185,000 square feet, has been left to the effects of climate and neglect. For most residents, the derelict state of the building has led to growing frustration and a desire to tear it down.


A number of heritage groups, principally the GTR Heritage Site Committee (GTRHSC), have advocated since 2010 to save at least part of the shops in commemoration of Stratford’s railway history. The GTRHSC members concede they made little progress with the City.


In January 2014, the city administrator recommended demolishing the shops. In May 2014, the council amended its official plan to eliminate the requirement for public discussion on the future of the Cooper site and the shops. Those two events spurred heritage groups to launch another campaign to save the shops.


The GTRHSC pressed Heritage Stratford (the municipal heritage committee) to conduct an on-site evaluation of the shops. The results of that evaluation confirmed the site was worthy of heritage designation. Armed with that document, two determined members of the committee overcame all opposition and the committee recommended that city council designate the shops under the Ontario Heritage Act. The council’s decision is pending.


At the same time, our Stratford/Perth County ACO branch decided to become more in-volved in the campaign. Through strategic use of local media we tried to build public support and pressure city councillors around three basic goals.


First, we encouraged the public to look beyond the current derelict state of the shops and to imagine the possibility of turning an important relic of our railway past into a cornerstone of the economic revitalization of our downtown core. To that end, branch members developed a post card with the slogan “Be Open to the Possibilities,” which was distributed throughout the city and became the theme of our campaign.


Second, we hoped to build support for retention of the shops. With the help of local and provincial ACO members, we were able to convince Heritage Canada The National Trust to place the GTR shops on its 2014 Ten Most Endangered Places List. The shops joined other places of significance across Canada, thus raising their importance beyond a purely local site to one of national interest.
We also wanted to provide an opportunity for residents who had been silent through the long controversial history of the shops to give voice to their support. For example, following a presentation to the Stratford and District Labour Council by branch members, the council passed a motion which said, in part, ”…that building formed the basis of all that was and is our wonderful city and should not be destroyed.”


As well, we developed a close relationship with the course director of the third-year ur-ban planning faculty at the University of Waterloo, who assigned his students the task of developing a vision for the shops and overall railway site. At a charrette last October, more than 50 Stratford and area residents spent a day with 11 teams of students dis-cussing ideas and concepts for the development of the site. The students returned to Stratford in December to present the results of their work to residents at a well-attended Open House.


Third, we wanted to offer a reasoned response to the city’s use of “no money” as its longstanding excuse for doing nothing. We suggested exploring development and fi-nancing opportunities with the private sector.


To this end, last September we sponsored a panel discussion of local and “big city” experts, attended by about 100 residents. The panelists included a developer whose firm is undertaking a major urban renewal project of a historic, industrial property on the Ottawa River, within site of the Parliament buildings. We wanted to bring a private-sector perspective to the discussion of development opportunities for the Cooper site.


On the night of our panel discussion, city council approved a memorandum of understanding with Riversedge Developments to submit a development proposal to the City. A key element of Riversedge’s proposal is that the GTR shops would be retained and rehabilitated while respecting the heritage nature of the building. It is proposed that the use of the shops evolve over time with the help of community input. The shops would become a focal point for mixed use development which would enhance the existing cultural aspects of the site, including the university and YMCA, and could become an important venue for public events. It is proposed that the development of the site be complimentary to and provide a strong new urban connection to the downtown.


We take comfort that our efforts may have had some influence in changing the conversation in our community. However, the story has yet to conclude and, at this writing, is subject to a final deal with the City.

 

The following people deserve thanks for getting us this far:

 

ACO Stratford/Perth County Members: Lorne Bolton, Thor Dingman, Roger Hilderly, Carole Huband, Rick Huband, Margaret Murray Nicholson, Dan Schneider, Dean Robinson

 

GTR Site Heritage Committee Members: Dean Robinson, Allan Waddingham

Heritage Stratford Members: Cynthia Venables, Lesley Walker Fitzpatrick

Significant roles were also played by: Michael Wilson, Richard Longley, Natalie Bull, Carolyn Quinn, John Lewis and his students, Catherine Nasmith, Alex Speigel

 

Rick Huband is President of the Stratford/Perth County Branch of ACO.


Dean Robinson is a Stratford historian and author. His books include Railway Stratford and Railway Stratford Revisited, both of which document the city’s 100-plus years as a national railway centre. He is also a member of ACO.

This article, from the Winter 2015 Newsletter, has been expanded to include the names of those who have been most active in the campaign to save the Shops.

 

UPDATES that have occured since the publication of the ACO Winter 2015 Newsletter:

 

Update (March, 2015): In March, the city’s Planning and Heritage Committee recommended that the Cooper Site should not receive a heritage designation until a site plan and heritage assessment are complete. A follow up recommendation was also approved requiring that once the site plan and heritage assessment are complete, a request will be made to Heritage Stratford to evaluate the site and recommend which elements should be designated.

 

Update (April, 2015): On April 20, an unexpected motion to demolish all but three bays of the structure was narrowly deferred for a week. On April 27, council voted 9-2 to reject the Riversedge Development proposal for the site, and entertained new public presentations that urged preservation of the shops. After a lengthy debate, the matter was again deferred, this time to a special meeting of council set for May 4.


Update (May 2015):  On May 4, 2015 a compromise motion in which the fire damaged portion of the building and roof (approximately 40%) will be removed was passed by a vote of 10 to 1. The previous motion to demolish 93% of the shops and keep only 3 bays was withdrawn by Councillor Brown who then moved the new motion. The west wall will remain to show the impressive length of the original building. The City of Stratford will be asking for proposals for the adaptive re-use of the remaining 75 000 square feet.


Update (June 2015): On June 8, 2015, a motion was passed to send out a Request for Proposal for the adaptive re-use of the GTR shops building before any demolition takes place thus providing a developer with options. 75 000 sq. ft. of the building must, however, be retained in any development proposal.
The deadline for proposals will be 4 months after the RFP is sent out. It was stated by the Chief Administrative Officer that it may take up to two months for the RFP to be complete and it will follow a template sent by Heritage Canada.

 


 

Grand Trunk / CNR Shops

by Dean Robinson

 

 

For more than a century, beginning in the mid-1850s, Stratford was a railway centre, first for the Grand Trunk and then for Canadian National.

 

In addition to being a regional headquarters for both railways, the city was also home to their locomotive repair facilities, which were set on a 19-acre site in the centre of town.

 

In the boom years of steam power, the Stratford shops employed more than 40 per cent of the city's workforce.

 

The buildings routinely grew in piecemeal fashion to meet demand until the early 1900s, when a mammoth structure was erected. When that building was enlarged in the late 1940's, Stratford became the largest repair operation in the entire CNR system.

 

But that claim was short-lived, as CN swung its attention to diesel and elected to shut down its Stratford works. Cooper-Bessemer, a U.S. firm, leased the buildings and site for a number of years but eventually moved production back to Ohio.

 

Since then the property has come to be known as the Cooper site. As such, it has endured ownership changes, a number of failed development dreams, a major fire and ongong court battles.

 

 

Since 2009 the property has belonged to the City of Stratford, which, as it plots the future of the property, is showing no appetite for saving any part of the remaining building or designating the site, which, according to restoration architect Christopher Borgal, "would easily meet the criteria required for provincial heritage designation".

 

Photos courtesy of the Stratford-Perth Archives