There’s an old building in Paris that has gripped my imagination since the first time I saw it. I tried my darnedest to book it for our wedding, but it was impossible. Then when it went up for sale in 2009, I spent many sleepless nights trying to figure out how I could purchase the building and make it into something lovely and useful again. If I had sold everything I owned, I still couldn’t have done it, but I enjoyed the dream anyways. And now, as a citizen and taxpayer of Brant County, I can celebrate the fact that I own that gorgeous old building because a generous private donation made possible the purchase of the property by the County. Known to many as the Paris Old Town Hall, the building has had many reincarnations over the years and is soon to play, once again, a beautiful role as the centre of our community.
I get so excited when I start talking about the Paris Old Town Hall. Part of it is because the historian in me relishes the historic significance of this building. Experts will attest to the exceptionality of this particular piece of architecture. Its unique design has national and international significance because it is the earliest example of a Gothic style civic building in North America. At the time that architect John Maxwell designed this town hall in Paris, it was a brand new idea to create civic buildings in the Gothic style that was traditionally used only for churches. Our Houses of Parliament in Ottawa were built in a similar style five years later. Think about that. Our little Paris was actually cutting edge and our town hall was the first example of civic Gothic architecture in Canada. It was a time of great growth and ambition for little Paris, which sat at the junction of two main rivers and along the Governor’s Road that marched straight through Southern Ontario. The building embodied the spirit of enterprise and democracy, and a devotion to all things English. It was modeled on the old medieval guild halls of England, where markets and offices shared a building and formed the heart of a community. The basement featured market stalls for local vendors to hawk their wares, and a few prison cells which still bear messages carved into the walls by the unfortunate inmates who occupied them over the years. The police and fire departments also operated out of the basement while the main floor held the government offices for the town, including the Magistrate’s and Treasurer’s offices and the Council Chambers. This was the seat of local government, and local government was a new thing at the time in what was yet to become Canada. The idea of local decision-making was fresh and exciting and people saw this building as a symbol of the power of democracy and community in Paris.
And then there was the second floor, with its magnificent open timber roof. It was the Assembly Hall – used for concerts and meetings and weddings and lectures and all manner of get-togethers for the community. It was acoustically perfect (no small feat) and even functioned as an opera hall from time to time. The early citizens of Paris envisioned this building, erected this building, used this building and cherished this building. It was the heart of the community and worth every cent of the approximately $12,000 it cost to build it in 1853/54. Before Canada was even a country, the Paris Town Hall was the hub and heart of this community.
The centre of town eventually moved from the hill to down by the rivers when the mills were built and downtown surpassed uptown in terms of power and population. St James Anglican Church, Sacred Heart Catholic Church and the Paris Old Town Hall were relics of an earlier time, and people were lured down the hill by all the new factories, homes and businesses that were being constructed there. Folks continued to set their watches by the bell in the town hall’s distinctive tower, and its chimes also sounded the alarm for fire or announced a death in the community. But most of the town’s activities shifted to the commercial area downtown and by the turn of the century, even the local government offices moved down the hill and the extraordinary building was left to take on new roles in the town’s story. Over the years, the building served as a munitions factory, part of the textile industry (needleworks), offices for the famous Mary Maxim enterprise, and most recently, an antique auction house. Much of the building is in disrepair and you have to look past a lot of dust and debris to glimpse its former glory. But I guess that’s the part that draws me to this glorious old building. It has so much history, but also so much wonderful potential.
While the history of the Paris Old Town Hall is fascinating and I honour the architectural significance of this grand old building, it is its future that excites me the most. Our community needs a centre again, so it’s the future, the Bawcutt Centre, which really makes me dizzy with ideas. Linda Schuyler (of Degrassi fame) and her family knew exactly what they were doing when they made the extraordinary gift of one million dollars to allow the County of Brant to purchase this building and restore it to its rightful place as the heart of the community. She cherishes democracy and community, as well as arts and culture. Her speech in which she talked about her family and the importance of this building can be seen here. It inspired me to get involved in the project to help bring this dream to fruition. This community desperately needs a place where people can gather, for community events and for concerts, for weddings and recitals, for dances and exhibitions, for shindigs and good old-fashioned town hall meetings. Imagine your favourite indie band choosing to play such a funky and acoustically fabulous venue, or a film festival running in our own hometown! My Airbnb guests regularly note that Paris has amazing restaurants and absolutely nothing else to do in the evenings. In fact, we often have guests who stay with us because they are going to yet another fantastic concert in Waterford. Well, we deserve to have our own fantastic concerts in our own fantastic venue, not for the tourists but for us – the people of Brant County. And it will only happen if we work together to make it happen.
So here is my plea: make it happen. This is our community and our project. Your council members need to know that you value this project and that you want to see the Paris Old Town Hall, now known as The Bawcutt Centre, returned to its former glory and rightful place in this community. Please contact your elected officials and let them know that this is important for the people of the County of Brant. Ask them how you can be involved because we need many people with various talents to participate in this project. You have a part to play. Read more about the history and the project – here, here and here. Join the facebook group here and sign up for the newsletter here. Watch David Powell and Holly O talk about The Bawcutt Centre on this recent interview with Global TV. Talk to your neighbours about The Bawcutt Centre. Take your own amazing photos of #bawcuttcentre and filter them like crazy and post them to instagram. Share your ideas and input, online and in person. Make yourselves heard. The citizens of Paris in 1850 knew what they wanted and they made it happen. They dreamed big and created something of international significance and extraordinary beauty, here in Paris. We have an opportunity to do the same, and to enrich our own lives and our own community in the process.
Full disclosure: I was able to tour the Old Town Hall one morning in June because I am one of the citizens appointed to sit on the mayor's Advisory Committee for The Bawcutt Centre. I was so intrigued when I saw the call for applicants but figured no one as new as I am to this small town would ever be appointed to such a committee. Then I forced myself to apply, simply because it didn’t seem fair to make that judgement without actually giving them the opportunity to turn me down because I wasn’t born and raised in Paris. So imagine my surprise when I learned that I was appointed to the committee! I think I had the perfect, freakish constellation of qualifications (from my career as a history teacher to my ownership of historic properties in Kitchener to my previous work as an event planner and my charity undertakings) and I somehow earned a seat at the table. So while I am new to this community, I am thrilled to play a part in this project that really will change Brant County for the better. I’d love to talk to you about any ideas or suggestions you might have for us as we work together to bring The Bawcutt Centre to Brant County.
Kari Raymer Bishop
Lover of Jesus, cheeses and tropical breezes... seeking balance in life, even as I embrace new challenges and chase new dreams. I am wife, mother, daughter and friend, as well as teacher, entrepreneur, activist, writer, beekeeper and hostess. Come along on the journey through my long-awaited midlife crisis!