In 1887, Stratford mayor Charles J. MacGregor proclaimed that a hospital was needed due to the number of industrial accidents in the city and area. A determined group of women responded and raised more than $7,000, enough to erect a building that could be expanded. So efficient was the raising of money through local fundraising ventures that the building was opened in 1891.
In the spring of 1889, a committee of local worthies chose London architect George F. Durand to draw up plans for Stratford’s first hospital. The prolific Durand had already designed the iconic Perth County Courthouse and the city’s pumphouse, which was later repurposed as the city's art gallery. The new hospital, on the southerly bank of the Avon River was one of his last designs.
The High Victorian Queen Anne Style, which cost a little more than $13,000 to build, opened to enthusiastic crowds in May 1891. Picturesquely set back from John Street on a curving drive, it was an imposing structure, symmetrical in plan with a central tower and wings boasting generous bay windows and turrets. High chimneys rose from its roof and crowning the tower was an iron weather vane.
The building’s siting and stylistic characteristics are reminiscent of the much larger legislative building at Queen’s Park in Toronto (completed in 1893). Over time, the hospital was enlarged with major rear additions, more functional than complimentary to the style of the original building.
Open-air porches, later closed in, were added on the southeast corner. Responding to postwar demands, by the late 1940s a new Stratford General Hospital was under construction across the street. It was linked to the original hospital with a pedestrian tunnel under John Street. The tunnel remains in service, but the original hospital was closed in 1950.
It remained standing, however, and n 1955 was repurposed as Avon Crest, a convalescent facility. That chapter in its history continued into the late 1980s when the last patients were moved out.
Fast forward to today, where the building, run down and about 65 per cent occupied, is home to a hodgepodge of hospital related offices, including the Stratford General Hospital Foundation, educational services and the wonderfully cluttered two-room hospital and nursing school archives.
The structure has lost many of its external details. Gone are the turrets and the chimneys, and the tower has been truncated. The building is practically surrounded by a huge parking lot and almost no one enters by the old front doors. Overall, the effect is rather shabby and forlorn.
But changes are afoot according to Andrew Williams, president and chief executive officer of the Huron Perth Healthcare Alliance, which governs Stratford General and three other hospitals in Huron and Perth counties.
Will the almost 125-year-old Avon Crest building be preserved? The answer will depend on many things, including what might be made of the site, finances and the degree to which the community cares about the heritage of its first hospital. A Save Avon Crest campaign has been launched by members of the Stratford and District Historical Society, who say, "Demolishing a building that might instead be re-purposed and re-developed is irresponsible, both economically and environmentally."
Certainly, there are many examples in Stratford and elsewhere of the rejuvenation and repurposing of old, faded but still solid and handsome institutional structures, all of which have contributed to the growth of the community and have an important story to tell.