Stratford and St. Marys to Host 2016 Ontario Heritage Conference


For four days next spring, May 12-15, more than 300 delegates are expected to be in Stratford and St. Marys to talk heritage.

Specifically, they will be discussing the preservation of heritage in a changing world, as the annual Ontario Heritage Conference comes to Perth County for the first time. It is sponsored by the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario and Community Heritage Ontario. ACO Stratford/Perth  County is taking the lead in planning, organizing and managing the event.

“We are in the process of putting together a wonderful team of volunteers,” says Rick Huband, chair of the local planning committee. “We are fortunate in our area to have so many people with such a variety of skills, and a willingness to use them to address the many needs of a conference such as this.”

The delegates, from across Ontario and Canada and beyond, will be a mix of professionals who work or teach in the heritage field, seasoned activists dedicated to recording and preserving our heritage, and younger people eager to learn more about our past and how they can involve themselves in preserving elements of it.

The theme chosen by the organizing committee, “Preservation in a Changing World,” will ensure the conference has something for everyone, says Huband. “It provides the basis for us to explore a variety of sub-themes through speakers and presenters, who will address, among other issues, the impact of climate change on preserving our heritage, new approaches to building our communities while preserving our heritage and cultural values, the effect of new technologies on the adaptive re-use of heritage properties, and the use of social media to more effectively organize heritage activism initiatives.”

The conference will also give Stratford and St. Marys an opportunity to showcase their built and cultural heritage.

“As well,” says Huband, “we are going to design our program to allow for delegates to experience local foods and arts and entertainment. So it should be a significant boost for the economies of Stratford, St. Marys and area.”

Further details about the conference will be released in the fall.

Dean Robinson



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.







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








                   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.


Events from the Past


Enjoy reading about and listening to presentations, news clippings and videos on the initiatives taken by ACO Stratford/Perth County over the last year! Many things have changed although much still remains to be resolved!


Athe 2016 Ontario Heritage Conference, David Prosser made the following address. It is worth reading at a time when our built heritage is more and more at risk.





On June 5, 2016 we held a sold out event centring around the Annie Macpherson Home

for Children in Stratford.


UW Planning Students Open up the Possibilities

Thursday December 11, John Lewis and six teams from his third year urban planning students showed their designs for the GTR Shops/Cooper Site in the atria of the UW Stratford Campus. They were as the Stratford Beacon Herald described “polished, poised and professional.”

Over 60 residents, including 5 councillors and Stratford’s CEO attended the event organized by Stratford/Perth County ACO and the university. The designs included spaces for residents to work and live as well as recreational areas for the whole city. Some designs included a new transit hub to replace the one behind City Hall when the new Market Square is completed.

Those who attended were mainly enthusiastic to see some creative ideas for the site and a number added their own well thought out suggestions.


Students offer 6 ambitious proposals: Beacon Herald story  here


University of Waterloo Planning Students Return to Stratford

Third year Urban Planning Students invite all Stratford residents to an Open House on  Thursday, December 11, 2014 which will be held between 7:00-9:00 pm in the main atria of the University of Waterloo’s Stratford Campus.

The Open House is a follow-up to the immensely successful charrette or planning workshop, held October 5th, during which about fifty Stratford residents engaged with teams of students to develop various visions and development ideas for the former Grand Trunk Railway (GTR) Shops and overall Cooper Site.

The consensus emerging from the planning session was the need to retain and rehabilitate the historic GTR Shops and to ensure that the project would create a community hub in the south end that was environmentally and financially self-sustaining and would generate tax revenue to the city.

There were a wide variety of ideas and suggestions for a multi-use, communal, recreational, commercial and residential development put forward by residents, which have been incorporated in the student’s proposals.

Representatives of ACO were invited to hear all eleven concepts presented by the respective student project teams with a view to reducing the number of designs to be presented at the Open House.

“This assignment has been rather unique for our students because apart from the technical aspects of urban planning, it has run in real time where the students needed to understand the social and political debate going on in the community about the future of the Cooper Site,” said course director Professor John Lewis.

“It has given the students tremendous preparation for the kind of challenges they will face in their working life’” Dr. Lewis added.

At the Open House, Stratford residents will be able to meet student project teams and ask questions about their individual proposals. Refreshments will be served



Grand Trunk Railway Site Recommended for Hertiage Status

Stratford's Heritage Advisory Committee is recommending designation under the Ontario Heritage Act for the former GTR/CNR building on the Cooper site.

The extraordinary work and determination of Cynthia Venables and Lesley Walker Fitzpatrick to see the GTR Shops get Heritage Status was recognized at the October 14, 2014 meeting when the committee voted to recomend to City Council that the building be designated under the Heritage Act.

See the article in the Beacon Herald here for more details.

See the article in the Stratford Gazette here.


In December Planning and Heritage recommended to the city not to

designate "at this time."


See Beacon Herald article here


Delayed until March 2015 here



GTR Site Brainstorm Session

UW Students and Stratford Residents Brainstorm the Possibilities


Dr. John Lewis and his third-year urban planning students met with Stratford residents on Sunday, October 5, for a brain-storming session about the Cooper site.
Approximately 100 people worked together to develop concepts to revitalize the site in a room overlooking the old GTR shops.
The students will use the ideas generated, along with the latest in digital and interactive video technology, to create a variety of plans for the revival of the former locomotive repair shops and the surrounding property.
The groups offered their preliminary thoughts at the end of the session. Many innovative and exciting ideas of which the residents heartily approved were presented. 
The Stratford/Perth ACO has invited professor John Lewis and his students back at the end of their term to present to the public in early December the various concepts they have developed.

Click here to see the CTV video clip of this session held in Stratford on Oct 5th.



UW students seeking ideas from the community

(Sunday, October 5, 2014)


The Stratford/Perth branch of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario is excited to announce that John Lewis and his third-year urban planning students will be back in Stratford on Sunday, Oct. 5, for a brain-storming session about the Cooper site.


For a term project at the University of Waterloo (Waterloo campus) the students are to use the latest in digital and interactive technology to create a vision and concepts for developing the former locomotive repair shops and the overall Cooper site.


Earlier this month, they were in Stratford for a two-hour tour of the property, during which they took photographs and learned of the railway operation’s significance to Stratford’s heritage.


“That tour went well,” says ACO branch president Rick Huband, “and we are hoping Sunday’s event is just as successful. Prof. Lewis and his students want to hear from citizens of all ages and backgrounds. They want to know what they would like to see done with the site. “

Officially termed a charrette, the gathering is to take place in the university’s Stratford facility, which was built on former railway land. It will start at 1 p.m.

   “Often we engage our students to look to European examples, but we have a tremendous example of a heritage site right in our own backyard,” says Lewis, “one  that influenced the development of Stratford and can become an integral part of the economic revitalization of its downtown core.”

The Stratford/Perth ACO will invite the students back at the end of their term to present to the public the various concepts they have developed.

More information about charrettes and charrette workshops, and their worth in the planning process, is available here




"Be Open to the Possibilities" Event and Panel Discussion Video


Held on Monday September 8, 2014 at the Queen's Inn, 161 Ontario Street, Stratford, Ontario.


Part 1 - Dean Robinson, Thor Dingman and Michael Wilson



Part 2 - Catherine Nasmith & Alex Speigel


Part 3 - Panel Discussion


Video courtsey of Simon Brothers.

Doors to GTR Shops


"Be Open to the Possibilities" Panel Discussion

Grand Trunk Railway Shops / Cooper Site


Monday September 8, 2014 @ 7:30 p.m

Queen's Inn, 161 Ontario Street,

Stratford, Ontario



The Stratford/Perth County Branch of the Architectural Conservancy Ontario (ACO) is holding a public meeting sponsoring a panel discussion on the future of the Grand Trunk Railway (GTR) Shops.

With the theme “Be Open to the Possibilities” the public meeting will be held at the Queen’s Inn on Monday September 8th at 7:30 pm. and will include the panel discussion followed by a question and answer session.


Click here to download the event invitation.


The panelists are:            

Dean Robinson is a former journalist who worked at the London Free Press and other newspapers, radio and television stations in south western Ontario. His most recent book “Railway Stratford Revisited” was published in 2012 and has become the definitive history of the GTR/CNR Shops. Dean has been a board member with the Stratford-Perth Archives and the Stratford-Perth Museum and in 2011 was awarded the certificate of lifetime achievement by the Ontario Heritage Trust.


Thor Dingman is an Ontario Registered Designer and Heritage Consultant who has worked for more than twenty years in Stratford and south western Ontario preserving heritage buildings. Thor’s first interest in the Shops and the Cooper Site began in 1988 as the subject of his graduate thesis. His adaptive reuse project envisioned a theatre school and a performance space within the GTR shops along with a pedestrian link between the Cooper Site and Market Square.


Michael Wilson received his Bachelor of Architecture in 1984 at the University of Toronto and is an architect with Marklevitz Architects Inc. who have been responsible for the restoration and adaptive re-use of buildings such as the Jenny Trout Centre in Stratford and more recently the St. Marys Opera House. Michael won a citation for a music studio for the North American Wood Design Awards in 2007. His association with the Shops goes back more than thirty years, when, in 1984, he worked the closing shift at the GTR/CNR shops, then Cooper Bessemer, assembling backup generators for the Darlington Nuclear Power Authority.  

Catherine Nasmith is a Toronto architect who specializes in heritage research, planning and restoration of heritage and historic properties. She is particularly proud of the Alton Mill Project, which rehabilitated and repurposed a 120 year old derelict mill, which received awards from the Heritage Canada Foundation and the Canadian Association of Heritage Professionals.


Alex Speigel will bring a private sector perspective to the discussion of the future of the GTR Shops and the Cooper Site. He is the head of the Toronto office of the Canadian company, Windmill Development Group, which specializes in environmentally sustainable development that protects and enhances the local community and its ecosystems. Windmill’s development, Dockside Green, in Victoria B.C. was named by the Clinton Climate Imitative, founded by former U.S. President Bill Clinton, as one of sixteen models of a sustainable community around the world. 


The public will also be offered a rare glimpse of the interior of the Shops as they exist today, in an installation of photographs taken by Stratford photographer, Lesley Walker-Fitzpatrick, which will be shown along with its regular exhibits by the Agora Gallery located at 17 Market Place from September 3 to 28, between 10 am and 6 pm.





The Night the GTR Shops Came Alive

Dean Robinson, ACO member and author of Railway Stratford, conducted a lively and informative guided tour of the Grand Trunk Railway Site on the evening of June 26th.


The purpose of the tour, which included ACO members as well as Councillors McManus and Famme, representatives from Heritage Stratford and the general public was to provide an overview of the important social and heritage value of the site and its buildings to the history of Stratford. For those on the tour the size, scale and scope of the operations and the men and women of Stratford who worked in the GTR Shops, came alive in Dean’s capable hands.


View of Grand Truck Railway Shop

Thank you to all of those who took the time to attend and become better informed as in one way or another they will be involved in deciding the future of this important landmark to our city.

Rick Huband



GTR/Cooper Site Added to Heritage Canada's 2014

Top Ten Endangered Places List

Heritage Canada the National Trust has placed Stratford’s Grand Trunk Railway/Cooper Site on its 2014 Top Ten Endangered Places and Worst Losses List from across Canada.


Click here to see the Branch's full press release (PDF).

Additional Media coverage can be found here:

CJCS 1240 Radio




Cooper Site Update

Stratford City Council’s Motion of February 10, 2014 asked staff for study and recommendations. In response to CAO Ron Shaw’s report, the Finance and Labour Relations Sub-committee of Council passed a Motion at its May 20 Meeting asking staff to look into possible adaptive re-uses of the existing GTR building – a step in the right direction!

Branch members and others interested in the Site attended the May 20 Meeting. In keeping with Branch contributions regarding the Site, we would hope to see a plan for the rejuvenation of the site that would include solutions to the removal of parking on Market Square. Linking the redevelopment of these two important downtown city sites makes good sense.

The branch continues to cooperate with other interested groups to inform the public on future possible uses of the site.



Presentations to Stratford City Council - 10 Feb 2014

Good news from the February 10th Stratford City Council Meeting!


Following six presentations made to Council regarding the Motion received from the Finance & Labour Relations Sub-committee to demolish the building on the Cooper Site, Council referred the future of the building and site back to city staff asking for a re-development plan and a report to come back to Council within 90 days.


See our Branch presentation made by President Ted Hales here. Member Thor Dingman's full presentation is available on the Cooper Site proposal page here.

The presentation of the Grand Trunk Railway Site Heritage Committee of the Stratford Perth Heritage Foundation made by Dean Robinson can be found here.

Other presentations were made by Michael Wilson, Architect and Lorne Bolton, Contractor.

Beacon Herald coverage of the meeting by Staff Reporter Donal O'Connor can be found here.




Monday, February 10, 2014 @ 7:00 pm, Stratford City Council Meeting

Call to Action!

The future of the Cooper Site is in front of the City Council and the citizens of Stratford with the Motion adopted by the Finance & Labour Relations Sub-committee at its recent Meeting. The February 10, 2014 Council Meeting will have the Motion on its Agenda.

A number of heritage groups and citizens have asked to speak, including our branch president, Ted Hales and ACO member Thor Dingman. 


Please see the Cooper Site Proposal page which illustrates how the building and the site can possibly serve Stratford's current needs without massive expenditure and investment.

City Council Meetings are open to the public. Consider attending in support of one of Stratford's significant heritage sites!



Previous Branch Initiatives

Our first ACO Stratford/Perth County President Edward Hales appeared before Stratford City Council on Oct 28th, 2013 concerning the preservation of the former CNR Railway Shops.


Launched the first ACO Stratford/Perth County newsletter, More than Bricks and Mortar, in September 2013


Branch members are also involved in and are members of a variety of local organizations and efforts:

Doors Open and Heritage Weekend 2012/2013/2014
The Stratford-Perth County Museum
The Fryfogel Inn and the Arboretum
Market Square
Railway Heritage
Heritage Stratford


Created and launched the Historical Plaque Program in 2011/2012.

Followed and participated in the assessment of the CNR site in downtown Stratford. Responded to the 2011 Borgel Report.

Supported the citizen’s group in Milverton who were fighting against the possible destruction of the Milverton Carnegie Library.

Supported residents of Shakespeare concerned about the effects of highway expansion through their village.

Wrote to the Ministry of Transportation outlining concerns about the loss of heritage buildings in Shakespeare and the negative effects on one of the oldest buildings in Perth County – Fryfogel Inn in 2009.