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The Many Lives of Festival Square

by April Taylor of AJ‘s Hair Studio

“Old buildings whisper to us in the creaking of floorboards and rattling of windowpanes.” – Fennel Hudson

Oh, the many lives of Festival Square. I love old buildings, in particular, and I have a soft spot for The Festival Square in beautiful downtown Stratford. I have been fortunate to have worked in this gorgeous heritage iron-framed building built in 1893\94. Originally it consisted of two blocks, The Gordon Block and The Idington Block. This important building located at the junction of Downie, Erie and Ontario is vital to the landscape of the city.

I have worked in this building since 1988 and have seen many changes, businesses have come and gone as have the people that were part of those businesses. This leads me to think of the history and the chapters and phases of this grand old edifice. It seems to me that we have multiple lives in our one lifetime. I sometimes remember something that happened in my past and it feels like it belongs to someone else entirely. Do you know what I mean? I think this is also true of an old house or building.

This big building stands strong, quietly observing, the comings and goings of its tenants, watching over Stratford for over 130 years. Imagine… what this structure could tell us if it had a voice.

In the earliest of days the tenants consisted of offices and shops – John Idington, Barrister, and the man who built the block would see his clients there and if you needed a gun, John F Freemantel, Gunsmith, was there to serve you. Thomas Ballantyne, Merchant … I wonder what he sold, I am picturing dry goods but I don’t know for sure. Also, a quick visit to A E Ahrens for a dental check-up. All are available in this one building.

Years go by … things change as things do. Skip ahead to the 1960s. Department stores were popular and Eaton’s and Metropolitan stores were the place to go for clothing, housewares, toys, etc. I have vague memories of these stores then located in a building facing Downie St. This was the era of women coming into their own, working out of the home. The times they were a changin’ as Bob Dylan would say. My own grandma got a job working for Eaton’s, reflecting on that now, she was a pretty forward-thinking Grandma. When you bought something at Eaton’s the money was sent in a brass tube to the manager’s office. High tech for those days. I like to imagine the ladies dressed up, hair done and high heels with their shopping baskets telling Curly Davidson, the “Lift Man” who operated the cage elevator, which floor they wished to go to. I remember my Grandma giving my brother and me heck for playing on the elevator. The funny thing is … there’s still an elevator in the building and kids still play on it. I guess not everything changes.

In 1975 the building was scheduled for demolition and thankfully a local group lobbied to save it.

In 1978 Glen Wood a developer from London, Ontario, purchased the building (then vacant for 5 years) for $324,000 and spent $1 million transforming the interior into a then cutting-edge retail shopping center. I was a bit older by then and would go uptown every Saturday with my friend and go into every store in town. Wow! We could not believe it when we saw the new indoor mall. What made it unique was the winding path through 3 floors with an interesting shop in every nook and cranny. I loved it. Leighton Mcleod helped jog my memory of who and what was located and where. He came from Toronto to open his store Record World in the newly renovated building. Leighton and I sat in Lady Glaze Donuts (now located in the Festival Square) and reminisced about the retail heydays of the 70s. I miss those days when shopping was an outing, greeting friends and neighbours as you moseyed around the downtown core.

The Giannakopoulos boys with Craig Foster opened their first restaurant Cafe Mediterranean on the main floor. Brian Young had The Palm Restaurant; I remember sitting in the second-floor restaurant watching the city below from the oversized windows drinking the best milkshake. Brian also ran the Engine Shed Bar located in the basement, where he brought in big-name bands. Also, on the main floor was Oxford Books, Spare Time Hobbies, and I could almost see George Lamont sitting at the lunch counter gabbing with his buddies at the United Cigar Store. On the second floor, there was The Travel Merchant and Optical Design. Also, Rag-a-muffin, The Gold Shoppe, Gadabouts, Stephenson’s Kitchen, Bloomers and a place where you could have a T-shirt printed. I remember that being a big thing, I do believe I bought a Barry Manilow t-shirt there. On the lower level was Devon’s Seafood and a cheese shop. You could spend the whole afternoon wandering around in there. I think this was the best chapter of The Festival Square. Glen Wood received an award from Heritage Canada for his reverberation of the buildings.

We (AJ’s Hair Studio) moved into the building’s second floor in 1990, (then owned by the Zentil’s of Toronto) and things had changed yet again. The Scotia Bank was the building’s anchor. The younger Giannaopoulos brother now had Cafe Med in the center; the cigar shop and the bookstore were still there. Gordon’s Ladies Wear faced Downie Street where Eaton’s once was. However, some shops had left and more offices had moved in. We were delighted to be in this historical building. I was drawn to the exposed brick and it’s still my favourite part.

In 2014, the building was sold again to Europro (a company from Toronto) and had 16 tenants. 

Here we are now in 2022. The building still stands, observing our movements. The building is in flux once more. Offices now occupy the second and third floors, and we mustn’t forget a hair salon. For a few years, the main floor was somewhat empty but recently it has begun to fill up once again. Rocky Mountain Chocolate, Lady Glaze Donuts, Boutique 14+, Hi-Times, and most recently Features Restaurant moved in having relocated from their spot on Ontario and Waterloo. This is a nice addition to the building.

Festival Square holds a lot of history. Sometimes I can feel the ghost of my Grandma wandering around where Eaton’s was, which funny enough is where I have worked for the last 30 years. Times will continue to change as it always does, things come and go but what remains the same is people. Over 100 years ago this building was the place to meet, full of offices and stores as it still is today. We might order things online nowadays and use technology, but I believe we will always need a downtown with buildings such as this. We are human beings and we crave and need human connection. 

“We humans are social beings. We come into the world as the result of others’ actions. We survive here in dependence on others. Whether we like it or not, there is hardly a moment in our lives when we do not benefit from others’ activities. For this reason, it is hardly surprising that most of our happiness arises in the context of our relationships with others.” – The Dalai Lama

The many lives of Festival Square is a fascinating chapter in Downtown Stratford’s history.

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