johnwood1946

New Brunswick History and Other Stuff

Risen From the Ashes, Phoenix Square in Fredericton

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From the blog at https://johnwood1946.wordpress.com

Risen From the Ashes, Phoenix Square in Fredericton

The earliest record that I have of Phoenix Square in Fredericton is from 1822, when City Council agreed to build a water tank and engine house for the fire department at that place. This project was completed in 1823 and was called the tank house. It was a multi-use building, and City Council met in the Temperance Hall on the second floor. The fire hall and meeting rooms burned 27 years later, in 1850.

A city market was then constructed and, again, there was a Temperance Hall on the second floor where City Council met. There was also a liquor store, conveniently located two levels below the Temperance Hall in the basement. This building also burned, in 1867, and all we have of it today is a photograph from the New Brunswick Provincial Archives:

Fredericton market 1863

Fredericton Market Buildings, 1863

From the N.B.P.A., via the York Sunbury Historical Society

A new City Hall was then built, on the site of the present City Hall. The high risk of fire continued, however, and this City Hall burned in January of 1875.

Finally, the present City Hall was completed in 1876, using some of the foundations left over from the one that burned the previous year. This was the fourth meeting place for Council that I have been able to discover, and followed the one in the fire station, and the one in the market building, and the one built specifically as a City Hall. Each of the previous buildings were destroyed by fire. This latest City Hall was also a multi-use facility and included a jail, a farmers market and an 810 seat opera house with a balcony. Council met on the second floor, while the main floor was mostly given over to the opera house. The contractor who built the building was H.B. Crosby and O.M. Campbell of Saint John, and the architect was McKean and Fairweather, also of Saint John. A clock had been planned for the tower, but was omitted from the construction of 1875-76.

George Fenety was elected Mayor in 1877 and was determined to have a clock installed in the tower. In April of 1877, he made a proposal to Council, and this was accepted. It was estimated at that stage that the clock would cost $1,164.

Fenety did not like the idea of paying for the clock through a subscription. The clock would be for all of the people of Fredericton, he said, and the costs should be well distributed among the citizens – but also without raising taxes. Fenety offered to act as guarantor for the necessary loan, and proposed that it be paid from the proceeds of concerts, teas and lectures to be held in the opera house. He also donated his $200. salary to the clock fund, and several Aldermen followed his lead and donated their honoraria.

A clock committee was established, and they submitted a report to Council on April 3, 1877. It was recommended that the clock be ordered from London, with a fire bell to be ordered from Boston.

Fenety lost re-election in January of 1878, and summarized all of the background of the project in a report to Council. The report was subsequently published as a book. The pendulum clock was ordered and arrived in Halifax by ship on April 7, 1878. It was then transported to Fredericton by rail, where it arrived on April 9. The clock was installed and struck for the first time on May 1, 1878 at 12:00 noon.

The police department first moved into the building in 1883.

I find it interesting that the auditorium at City Hall was home to Lee’s Opera House. Lee’s was more than an opera house, and also presented plays, concerts, and speeches. It was the Fredericton Playhouse of its day. If Lee’s had not moved to the City Hall auditorium, then they would have lost their home to yet another fire when their original building burned on the morning of August 12, 1893. That building was located on Westmorland Street at a site later occupied by Levine’s Ltd. I believe that this was at the corner of Queen Street. Arson was suspected, but this was never proven. Several other nearby properties also burned.

There were many memorable events in the auditorium at City Hall. John Philip Sousa performed there and other notables also appeared. Oscar Wilde gave a presentation at 8:00 PM on Wednesday, October 4, 1882, and this was a raucous affair. A disgusted lady described how “a gang of young men” from U.N.B. trooped in, five minutes after the start of the presentation wearing sunflowers and other ornamentation. She said in a letter to the editor of a newspaper that they stomped their feet, made cat calls, and responded, without invitation, to parts of his presentation. The students answered in a letter to a different newspaper that the disgusted lady had misunderstood the situation, and that the twenty-five students had only, in fact, indicated their full agreement with and enthusiasm for Wilde’s presentation. This is one of those situations where you would have to have been there, but my guess is that the students’ efforts at letter writing were too clever by half. After the presentation, and before his departure on October 5th, Wilde met at length with Charles G.D. Roberts.

Firefighter Choir Fredericton

Fire Department Men’s Choir, City Hall, 1899

From the N.B. Provincial Archives, via the York Sunbury Historical Society

George Fenety once again contributed to the story of Phoenix Square and City Hall when, in 1885, he gave $100. toward a public subscription to build the fountain. The fountain was his idea, and was intended not only to serve a decorative function, but also be a watering place for horses. The fountain was built and it didn’t take long before the public started to complain about it. The fountain was too large and too close to the stairs, thus interfering with carriage traffic. It was also useless as a watering station since it was too low to the ground and horses would not use it. The cherub on top of the fountain was also judged by some to be in poor taste and later became known as Freddy, the nude dude.

These complaints passed, of course, but the fountain was 127 years old in 2012, and was showing it. The two upper basins were missing, the remaining basin was in bad shape, and the nude dude had seen better days. A specialist contractor was engaged to restore the fountain, and it was reinstalled in 2013. Now, after 129 years, it remains a city landmark.

The cost of the clock was finally paid off in 1888.

Fountain Phoenix Square

The Fountain at Phoenix Square, on Market Day, 1907

National Gallery of Canada, via the Fredericton and Region Museum

Anyone responsible for maintaining heritage buildings, and there are many such people in Fredericton, knows that it is an endless and sometimes thankless task. For example, the auditorium was altered in 1904 to allow for easier exiting in the event of fire, and to install lighting. Following these improvements, two firemen would be in attendance at each performance at the Opera House.

The opera house did not continue beyond the 1940’s, and the farmers market moved out in 1952. The Police moved to new quarters in 1971. The City Hall extension was built in 1971 and 1972.

Some people say that Phoenix Square got its name because of all of the fires that happened there. I do not know if this is true, but the name would certainly be fitting for a place that has risen from the ashes many times over the last almost 200 years.

References:

  1. Government of New Brunswick, Fredericton City Hall, at http://new-brunswick.net/new-brunswick/fredericton/page1.html
  2. Fredericton Firefighters Museum Online, Historic Fires, and What Flames have Undone, at http://www.frederictonfirefighters.ca/museum/
  3. Canada’s Historic Places, Fredericton City Hall, at http://www.historicplaces.ca/en/rep-reg/place-lieu.aspx?id=12837
  4. Wikipedia, Fredericton City Hall, at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fredericton_City_Hall
  5. Open Buildings, Fredericton City Hall and Phoenix Square, at http://openbuildings.com/buildings/fredericton-city-hall-phoenix-square-profile-39214
  6. Fenety, G.E., The City Hall Clock, Addressed to the Citizens of Fredericton, June, 1878, at https://ia600803.us.archive.org/22/items/cihm_94514/cihm_94514.pdf
  7. Canada’s Historic Places, Phoenix Square, at http://www.historicplaces.ca/en/rep-reg/place-lieu.aspx?id=17202
  8. Fredericton Heritage Trust, Phoenix Square and City Hall Clock, at http://www.heritagefredericton.org/ystour/docs/info.pdf
  9. City of Fredericton, Freddy’s Back!  Fredericton City Hall Fountain Reinstalled, at http://www.fredericton.ca/en/citygovernment/CityHallFountainReinstalled.asp
  10. Belier, Patricia, Oscar Wilde in Fredericton, The Officers’ Quarterly, vol. 12, no. 4, Fall 1996, as reproduced at http://www.oscholars.com/TO/Appendix/Library/BELIER.htm
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Written by johnwood1946

June 18, 2014 at 9:24 AM

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. Nice article John .I like the pictures they add to the story . Strange how some landmarks like the fountain endure and other do not .I guess fire had a lot to do with the landmarks that we have today . David

    David Blair

    June 19, 2014 at 5:00 AM


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