The Exhibit Hall

Known locally as the “Barracks”, the Sifton-Cook Exhibit Hall has been an enigma to many who have studied it, both in terms of it’s distinct design and the use of limestone for construction of the walls. The building has the distinct look and dimensions of a military building of the early nineteenth century, a fact confirmed by Carl Benn, Curator of Military History at Heritage Toronto, in a letter dated October 30, 1997. A reading of the arrangement of doors and windows on the only wall with openings suggests a multi-purpose building which could have contained a small barracks room, an officer’s quarters, a secure room and an equipment repair and storage room. The limestone walls were extended vertically, well above the level of the loft floor, which resulted in enough head room to permit additional human use. A set of low double doors can be found at the west gable-end wall serving the loft. The question of where the stairs to the loft might have been located has yet to be determined.

The one most tantalizing question is why limestone was used when there were mature trees within easy reach. Log structures were sturdy and fire resistant, and often used for military purposes. Since the British Military often sold off their buildings after a threat or conflict was over, a wood structure would have been easier to modify for a subsequent purpose.

There is also the fact that the limestone used is of very poor quality (highly fractured) and cannot be shaped. The use of random pieces in building the 20 inch thick walls meant using a high percentage of mortar, a substance whose lime component was produced by the burning the limestone itself. The use of this type of mortar is appropriate to limestone masonry but it is slow to cure and the walls could only have been built in lifts of approximately 18 inches before work would have to stop for about a week while the mortar stiffened. There is evidence of eight such lifts indicating that the building would have taken as long as three months to build. This could imply that the need for the building was not an urgent one and that its construction was part of a larger plan.

A source for the stone is known to have been from the lakebed nearby but the transportation of this very dense and heavy material to the site over poor roads would have been extremely difficult.

One possible explanation is that the building was constructed by Europeans who were more familiar with and skilled at building in stone than wood. It has been suggested that it was built by regular British army soldiers or mercenaries, or by the same soldiers on half-pay waiting to return to Europe after 1814 and the end of the War of 1812. The design is distinctly that of British military structures of the time.

Until the Rush-Baggot Treaty of 1819 there was always the risk of the conflict resuming and during this time the British strengthened defenses along the North shore of Lake Ontario, including extending the Kingston Road (now Route 2) and improving the fort at Kingston. It is possible that the “barracks” was built as a multi-use building at this time.

Another suggestion is that the “barracks” was built as an industrial building in the early 1800s. Plans for the building design may have originated from the British military.

Archeological evidence has been discovered that indicates there were two successive wood floors early in the life of the structure. This implies it was first put to human use, whether soldiers or civilians.

Since its construction the building has been owned by at least 20 different parties and modified and used for a number of purposes, not all of which are yet known. They include that of a barn for livestock, a livery (for which it was not well suited), a possible blacksmith’s shop, a possible malt processing house for a nearby brewery, a storage shed for a local demolition company, and a laundry serving the surrounding area.

Over time distinct modifications were made to the building including: the conversion of an unusually wide single door with no associated windows into a window; the addition of a round, brick lined opening just below the peak of each of the gable end walls; the addition of a bricked chimney within the structure of the east gable end wall; and the raising of the header above one of the two entrance doors.

Most Canadian sources of the early history of the “barracks” have been explored, but not all. Another source may be the Archives of the British Royal Engineers in London, England.