Choosing quality – a proud Stratford tradition
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Oct 02, 2013  |  Vote 0    0

Choosing quality – a proud Stratford tradition

Stratford Gazette

This is the next in a series of articles about the possible design and use of Market Square.

Stratford, though it’s a small city, has a history of thinking big and of choosing quality in its cultural and creative projects.  These projects reveal the vision of the people doing the planning, not only the civic and community leaders but also many other Stratfordites.  They were our predecessors and ancestors, and we enjoy their legacy every day.

In 1900, when R. Thomas Orr took the lead in deciding to create a parks system along the lake, the city chose one of the best landscape designers available: Frederick Gage Todd.

Todd, American-born, had apprenticed in the office of Frederick Law Olmsted, one of the most renowned landscape architects of the time and the creator of Central Park in New York City. In 1900, Todd moved to Montréal and from then on he was the first resident landscape architect in Canada. He worked in many Canadian cities, including Ottawa, where he made a design study of the capital’s urban region.

Stratford, therefore, by hiring Todd to design its parks, opted for quality.

The outstanding parks system which Todd designed was, a few years later, threatened by the CPR, which wanted to use the lakeshore for tracks, a station, and freight yards. The townspeople protested and, in a municipal referendum which took place 100 years ago this year, the CPR’s project was defeated. The parks were saved.

The war memorial is another example of Stratford’s choosing quality. At the end of World War I, the city wanted to remember and honour the 344 men and one woman from the area who had died. The local chapter of the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire (IODE) was one of the first groups to support the project; a committee was set up and fundraising was begun.

To design the memorial, Stratford went to Walter Allward, then the most important monument sculptor in Canada. It was Allward who, some years later, created the Vimy Memorial commemorating the Canadians who died in France, one of the world’s great cenotaphs.  Again, Stratford chose quality.

Then there was the Shakespeare Festival. Stratford might – if it wanted a theatre festival – have gone for summer stock. But Tom Patterson had a bigger idea, and he communicated it to enough Stratford residents so that, as the project developed, the vision and the planning shaped a world-class theatre festival.

Patterson writes in his book First Stage that he presented to the City Council “a cultural program for Stratford that would make the city world-famous as a Shakespearean centre and mean thousands of extra dollars for the city.” It was “a challenge of unusual proportions for a community of Stratford’s resources.”

Patterson wrote about what he called the Stratford sensibility, which is “that progress is not measured in dollars, population, or numbers of factories.” He said it was that sensibility “which allowed me to dream, and dream in colour, about a Shakespearean Festival.”

People like Tyrone Guthrie, Alec Guinness, and Tanya Moiseiwitsch would not have come to work on anything less ambitious.

We now have our world-class theatre festival; it brings us a constant flow of commercial and cultural benefits, and it helps to define who we are.

Stratford also has a history of saving what is good. Though we all know about architectural treasures that were destroyed, the townspeople saved City Hall when it was threatened with demolition in the 1960s and early 1970s. It is now a National Historic Site. As with saving the parks, this was another movement involving huge efforts by many citizens who recognized that the City Hall was worth saving.

This proud tradition can help the Market Square to become a world-class public space and also to preserve and enhance what we have, which in this case is the surrounding buildings that are essential to the beauty and dignity of the Square.

The creation of the new Market Square will involve starting with a first-class design concept – the one already created by Plant Architect Inc. or another one of comparable quality.  We need to draw on expertise in urban design, just as our predecessors hired a leading landscape architect to design the parks.

The big vision will have to come from the whole city, just as the creation of the Festival, the saving of the parks system, and the saving of City Hall came from the vision, energy, and determination of large numbers of Stratfordites.

We can take pride in the fact that in the past City Council and Stratford residents achieved some not-so-easy projects, and we can appreciate the foresight that they showed.

The Market Square project is our generation’s chance to choose quality, to be as far-sighted as our predecessors were. It can be our proud legacy, added to theirs, to pass on to the future.

My warmest thanks to Carole and Rick Huband, and Susan Wright, for their help with the research.

Marianne Brandis has lived in Stratford since 1996 and is a full-time writer.  She is the author of a number of books – see www.mariannebrandis.ca.

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