Paul Wilson: Wreckers wait for Grove Hall, 1930s palace of play

Grove Hall, still beautiful and used every day, has provided recreation on the grounds of the old Hamilton Psychiatric Hospital for more than 80 years. Soon it will be torn down.
Grove Hall once had bowling alleys, a billiards room and an auditorium to seat 800. The building is still used every day, but soon it will be torn down. (Paul Wilson/CBC)

It used to be that buildings the province put up were designed in house. But 1931 marked the completion of one of the first projects turned over to private architects.

The firm was Wright & Noxon of Toronto. The project was to design a recreation hall on the parklike Brow grounds of what many still know as the Hamilton Psychiatric Hospital. 

Wright & Noxon really wanted to impress their new client – the province of Ontario – and they drew up a beauty. It’s called Grove Hall. It’s built in Colonial Revival style, four tall columns across the front, hipped roof with cupola. 

There are two levels. Below grade, accessible from a door beneath the raised and curved drive, Wright & Noxon made room for bowling alleys, billiard room, library, dining room, canteen.

The lights go out at Grove Hall in February. (Paul Wilson/CBC)

Above grade, they built a gym that doubled as an auditorium, big enough to seat 800. 

Grove Hall is still used every day. But soon they will pack up the weights and rowing machines, put away the volleyball gear, close this place down. Then they’ll knock it down.

The job is done

Right next door, the new $581-million five-storey centre for mental health is pretty well done. St. Joe’s takes possession next week. They’ll move in February 9.

It’s on time, it’s on budget. There will be single rooms for patients, each with an ensuite washroom. And on the second floor there will be a new gym, nearly 6,000 square feet, with big windows to the world outside. All wonderful. May it help those who struggle.

As for Grove Hall, it’s not in the way of the new hospital. It’s just old.

Grove Hall still has the flourishes of another time. (Paul Wilson/CBC)

The hospital lands are owned by the province, leased by St. Joe’s for 49.5 years. And after 2005, a municipality could no longer get protection under the Ontario Heritage Act for a property owned by the Crown.

But several years ago, the city’s heritage committee did ask that the hospital project be slowed down long enough to study several threatened buildings on the site, including Grove Hall. Maybe there was a way they could be repurposed.

The planning committee voted in favour of that idea. But St. Joe’s then launched some heavy lobbying, and said a delay of even months could sink the whole project. The planning committee backed down.

No worries

And the province said there was really nothing to worry about anyway: “Adaptive reuse for the buildings of concern continues to be investigated.” 

A study was done of the buildings. Grove Hall was said to need about $350,000 in repairs. The report listed potential uses for the hall: performance space, auditorium, community facility, artists’ co-op, children’s sports facility, medical offices, private gym, daycare, banquet centre.

Gate View, steps from West 5th, was studied too. It was built in 1877, a residence for staff of the Hamilton Asylum. 

Gate View, built in 1877 as a staff residence, will be demolished too. (Paul Wilson/CBC)

The report said it needed about $140,000 in repairs. Possible uses listed: B&B for visiting professionals, residence for researchers, medical offices, hospice, daycare.

A request for expressions of interest went out. A few parties responded, but no one had the resources to move ahead.

Theresa Reynolds, project director for the new Mountain hospital, has been working from Gate View “with all the ghosts and mice” since 2010.

No money for that

Why couldn’t St. Joe’s itself do something with Grove Hall and Gate View?  “We’re funded to run a hospital,” Reynolds says. “That in itself is hard enough. We just don’t have the funds.”

She says the public will soon be getting great swaths of new green space. 

The old hospital will be torn down to make way for parking. But the big parking lots nearer the Brow will vanish. There will be tennis courts, a baseball diamond, soccer field, a labyrinth and eight kilometres of winding trails open to the public.

The area between the new hospital and the Brow is going to look something like this. (St. Joseph's Healthcare)

Still, maybe we didn’t try hard enough to save Grove Hall – part of this city’s history, and pretty to boot.

Last week there was a well-attended heritage summit at the Hamilton Club. Dr. John Shipley, of the school of planning at the University of Waterloo, told the audience we save our beer bottles, “but throw our buildings away.”

If you want to gaze upon Grove Hall, don’t delay long. This winter is the last season it will see.

Paul.Wilson@cbc.ca  |  @PaulWilsonCBC