Thirty years after the fire – Victoria Hall to be focus of Heritage Day

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Dave Hext and members of Petrolia’s Heritage Committee are constantly finding pieces of the history of Victoria Hall.
Just last week, a resident gave him the flag that was flying atop the clock tower that fateful January day in 1989 when the building caught fire.
Hext says there are so many stories, about the fire, and the follies that went on inside the building, Petrolia Heritage decided to feature the building at the center of the town during the Feb. 16 Heritage Day celebration.
Built in the late 1880s at the height of Petrolia’s oil boom, Victoria Hall reflects a time when Petrolia was among the wealthiest towns in Canada.
With the discovery of oil in the 1860, Petrolia blossomed into a town by 1874.
By the 1880s, permanent brick buildings had replaced the small wooden structures of the early boom years. The construction of the town hall was the highlight of this phase of permanent construction.
Victoria Hall had many uses. It’s always been the seat of municipal government. It housed the jail at one time, a court room, the fire department and armoury.

Thirty years ago, on Jan. 25, residents watched with horror as Victoria Hall was consumed by flames.

When it was built, there was a 1,000 seat opera house reflecting the opulence of the time and attracting some of the best entertainers of the time.
It was designed by London architect George Durand, and reflects the Victorian era and the influence of American forms of the Queen Anne Revival style.
Victoria Hall became a National Historic Site in 1979.
In the 1980s, a glass foyer was added and the clock tower was temporarily removed for repairs.
Then on Jan. 25, 1989, – 30 years ago today – fire gutted the building, destroying much of the original exterior wood trim and glazing, but the original form and masonry detailing of the building survive.
It was a devastating event but people rallied to rebuild – at a cost of $6.5 million.. By 1992, Victoria Hall was in use again and included a rebuilt theatre for the performing arts.
Petrolia Heritage volunteers have meticulously cared for the artifacts from the fire, displaying some at town hall and bringing others out for historical events.
“These things came out of the fire – that’s part of the balcony,” Hext says showing off beautifully preserved ironworks. “These have been cleaned and painted. We sold a bunch of them because we had boxes of them.”
“This would have been near the stage.”
On a window sill sits gears from the original clock. Larger pieces are squirrelled away at the committee members homes and shops.
“We wanted to keep pieces of everything, we didn’t just want to get rid of it. It was a matter of we keep receiving new stuff.”
“Somebody texted me last night, they had the flag off the roof that fell down during the fire.
“It fell away from the building and they picked it up and rolled it up and kept it. So he’s going to give it to me for the weekend to put it on display.”
Hext is hoping to have the fire department at Heritage Day to talk about what happened when the call came in and how they fought the blaze.
“I think people are still interested, I know I’m still interested.”
And Hext says, with a building which has be around as long as Victoria Hall, lots of people will have stories about it including they mystery of the man who was found dead in the boiler room.
“It’s been here as long as anyone has been here – it’s always been here, there is nobody here older than the building.”