Published on Brock University (http://www.brocku.ca)
The concept of organizing a federation of the many local groups interested in various aspects of arts and letters originated with Mrs. David Wright who, in 1955, began to interest others in the idea. Among Mrs. Wright's supporters were Mrs. R. M. Schmon, who was particularly interested in the possibility of such a federation working for the establishment of an auditorium suitable for concerts, and Mr. and Mrs. John Guest, who saw the many advantages which would result from coordination of activities among the cultural groups active in St. Catharines and region. These people stimulated my interest, and I undertook to call a conference of group representatives to see what others thought of the idea of forming a federation. This conference was held on January 18, 1956, and was attended by the following people:
The original conference, which gave enthusiastic support to the suggestion that an arts council be formed, was followed by a meeting of interested group representatives on March 1, 1956, at which objectives were defined and an Interim Executive Committee was appointed. St. Catharines and District Arts Council was the name chosen for the new organization. The objective which best summarizes the aim of the Arts Council at that time reads as follows:
"To stimulate greater public interest in all phases of cultural activity, provide increased opportunity for public enjoyment of drama, music, painting and the allied arts, and to support, encourage and endeavour to effect the establishment of a civic centre to provide auditorium facilities, space for suitable display and housing of fine art, and headquarters for all affiliated organizations interested in arts and letters."
At the third meeting of the newly-organized Arts Council, held in Committee Room No. 1 at the City Hall on May 3, 1956,1 was elected President, with Mrs. R. M. Schmon, J. S. Guest and Wilson A. Salter as Vice Presidents and Ralph Rawsthorne as Secretary.
The Council met on various occasions during 1957 and 1958 and each time advanced toward the goal of obtaining a building and facilities to provide workshop and studio space for activities of the member groups and a gallery for art exhibitions. There was interest in early 1958 in the possibility of acquiring the County Building at the corner of King and James Streets, but it soon became apparent that it might be years before differences over construction of a new building were resolved. In late 1958 there were negotiations to purchase the old Woodruff home on the corner of Adam and Ontario Streets, but these were unsuccessful. In early 1959, Mr. J. S. Guest approached Mr. T. R. Merritt, then the owner of Rodman Hall, and learned that Mr. Merritt was not only willing to sell his property, but was pleased at the prospect of his family home becoming a civic cultural centre. An agreement was reached quickly, on price and conditions, and the Arts Council was ready to proceed with property purchase and arts centre establishment. It had everything except money.
The official campaign to raise funds began in April 1959. The target of $68,000 seemed out of reach to some. But subscriptions poured in. By year-end the total campaign objective had been reached. More than four hundred individuals, businesses and companies gave in amounts ranging from $1.00 to $5,000.
Many people helped in various ways with the campaign. Valuable advice on campaign procedure was given by Messrs. A. W. Taylor, Arthur A. Schmon and C. Bruce Hill. Mr. Hill was responsible for the great success achieved with "Special Names." The strong editorial support given by the St. Catharines Standard was of tremendous value. Outstanding was the contribution made by the St. Catharines Art Association which, as a member group, donated $2,500 from its own treasury, an additional $2,000 from its members, and followed this with a further gift of $500, being almost the entire net proceeds from its Annual Arts Ball.
Among those to whom special credit is due, is the Rotary Club of St. Catharines. Long before the campaign for capital funds began, the Rotary Club had indicated its interest in the project on the basis that if the Arts Council could start such an arts centre, Rotary would contribute to the first year's operating expenses. This grant was made and has been continued yearly ever since.
With the campaign success assured, the program for arts centre establishment picked up speed. A formal agreement binding the sale of Rodman Hall had been signed on May 25, 1959, by the St. Catharines Art Association acting as agent in trust for the Arts Council. On January 15, 1960, the Arts Council received its own letters patent under Ontario law as a non-profit corporation whereupon the Art Association transferred its interest in all titles and properties to the Arts Council. At an organization meeting on January 7, 1960, a Board of Governors, consisting of the following fifteen persons, was elected: Mesdames C. D. Complin, A. R. Gooch, R. M. Schmon; Messrs. R. R. P. Court, T. S. Drake, Gordon Godwin, J. S. Guest, C. Bruce Hill, H. J. Pothier, J. L. Reid, W. A. Sailer, M. A. Seymour, Philip Torno, R. S. K. Welch and W. J. Wood. The first regular meeting of the Board was held on February 17, 1960. Elected as officers were C President: Gordon Godwin; Vice-Presidents: Mrs. R. M. Schmon, R. R. P. Court and J. S. Guest; Treasurer: W. J. Wood; Membership Secretary: Mrs. C. D. Complin.
A special tribute must be paid to Mr. M. A. Seymour, Q.C. and to the law firm of Seymour, Lampard, Goldring, Young and Nicholls. Messrs. Seymour, Goldring and Young contributed many hours of their time in handling all aspects of property purchase and Council organization. The purchase was closed on April 1, 1960. Title to Rodman Hall, which for one hundred and seven years had been the home of the Merritt family, passed to the St. Catharines and District Arts Council.
Professor Eric Arthur of the School of Architecture, University of Toronto, said this at the time, "I should like to congratulate the Trustees on saving, for St. Catharines and the nation, so distinguished a house, and more important, for putting it to so active and laudable a use."
Prior to property purchase a search had been in process for a suitable Curator who would direct Arts Centre affairs. Choice fell on Mr. A. Peter Harris, a graduate of The Ontario College of Art, who had acquired broad experience in fields related to the problems of arts centre management. His appointment as Curator became effective the minute after property purchase had been closed.
By the end of April the Women's Committee had been organized, had held its inaugural meeting, and had elected as officers C Mrs. D. G. Willmot (Chairman), Mrs. F. J. E. Lockhart (Vice Chairman), Mrs. F. S. Stevens (Recording Secretary), Mrs. C. R. S. MacKenzie (Corresponding Secretary), Mrs. R. R. P. Court (Treasurer), and Mrs. Gordon Godwin. On June 17th this Committee convened "The Curator's Reception" as the first social occasion in the Arts Centre. Despite a rainy day the event was successful beyond all expectations, and the attendance of five hundred and fifty guests provided proof of the structural soundness of the building.
On April 21st, Mr. J. S. Guest, representing the Arts Council, proposed to the City Parks Board that Rodman Hall grounds, consisting of approximately 8.5 acres, and excepting the formal garden area, be leased to the City as a public park without charge. This proposal was accepted by the Parks Board and the wooded area and lawns surrounding the building are now available for public enjoyment as Rodman Hall Park.
April also saw the completion of arrangements between the Public Library Board and the Arts Council whereunder the function of providing public exhibitions of arts was transferred from the Library to Rodman Hall.
An important "first" in Arts Centre history occurred on May 24th when Mr. John Martin, A.R.C.A., O.S.A., gave several important paintings and drawings to the Arts Council as the nucleus of a permanent collection. Mr. Martin's gift consisted of three of his own etchings, four early drawings by A. Y. Jackson, an etching and an oil by Leonard Brooks, and a small but delightful oil by Homer Watson. Immediately thereafter a second gift was made by Mrs. G. J. Lane of Baie Comeau, P.O., who presented an oil by Rheaume and a fine water colour by Varley. An important addition to the collection was made in early August when Mr. Tony Urquhart donated one of his water colours to the Arts Centre.
In late 1960 construction began on an addition to Rodman Hall in the form of a single-storey, one room wing of fireproof construction designed by architects Salter and Fleming and built by Art Ellis Construction Company Limited. The new room was built to serve as a studio for musical and theatrical rehearsal and also as an additional exhibition gallery with an automatic fireproof door protecting the connection between the new room and the old building. The design was such that at some future time the new room could become the foyer of a theatre and concert hall, for which suitable area exists within the Arts Centre property. This concept was later abandoned for reasons described later in this history.
During the summer of 1960 work proceeded with renovation, decorating, installation of exhibition lighting and with many other aspects of preparing the Hall for Opening Day. The restoration of the verandah on the garden side was of particular importance. Over the years much of this wooden structure had decayed beyond repair. The verandah as restored, now has a concrete floor slab instead of the old white pine deck, and the wooden column bases have been replaced with concrete pedestals cast to the original shape. The roof and its supporting columns remain as in the original construction and the verandah will stand for another hundred years in continued contribution of elegance to Rodman Hall.
In 1960 member organizations were:
On September 17, 1960, the Arts Centre was opened officially and a new chapter in its history began.