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Arnprior Post Office clock tower. Photo by Lorie Lee SteinerTOWERS OF TIME

The Thomas Fuller Legacy

by Lorie Lee Steiner

BONG…BONG…BONG…the haunting cadence drifted through the architecture like a lonesome thought, only to be swallowed by silence. My search had taken me to the end of a dark passage on the third floor, where I paused, peering like Alice at a little white, four-panelled door in the corner. Suddenly, an icy draft crept down from the tower, raising goosebumps on my arms as the door began to—ever so slightly but unmistakably—open.

Real-life adventures seldom rival the imaginings of Lewis Carroll, or the mysteries of Agatha Christie, but a history sleuth always dreams of the exception…that one fantastic find that makes the risk-taking worthwhile. So, ignoring the instinct to beat a hasty retreat, and armed with an insatiable desire to snoop, I grasped the darkened doorknob, and stepped over the threshold…

Though it reads like a scene set in Great- Aunt Matilda’s Victorian mansion on a dark and stormy night, this isn’t fiction. It’s true, and takes place in what could be considered one of the least ominous and most unromantic places imaginable—a post office. Still, however, it’s a tale that begs to be ‘tolled’…

The location: a former Post Office and Customs House, now home to the Arnprior and District Museum. The set creator, and founder of the architectural feast: none other than 19th century visionary Thomas G. Fuller. World-renowned designer of the original (1859) Centre Block of the Parliament Buildings, and the recently restored Library of Parliament, Fuller left an equally impressive legacy—a testament of time in the guise of impressive stone federal buildings in towns across the country. His brilliant use of local materials—combining warm red sandstone with bold-faced statements of quarry-cut limestone—resulted in instantly recognizable symbols of the new Dominion image…trademark designs reflecting the strength and stability of government in federal architecture.

But Fuller also showed an inspiring sense of romance in his work, designing the Gothic and Romanesque structures with commanding clock towers, round-headed arches and intricate stone carvings. During his tenure as Chief Architect of the Department of Public Works (1881 to 1896), more than seventy of these monumental post offices rose up in picturesque communities such as Smiths Falls, Strathroy, and Almonte—as well as the aforementioned blushing gem imbedded deep in the heart of Arnprior.

Which brings us back to the tour. On the other side of the ‘Alice door’ was a small, drafty room with curved walls of thick grey stone, and a winding wooden staircase. As I entered, afternoon sun streamed down through a series of skinny ‘porthole’ windows, warming the chilly air and highlighting a collection of miscellaneous cast-offs that littered the floorspace. Tattered window screens, glass milk bottles—everything, including the kitchen sink, or in this case a smaller porcelain version resting upside down on the second step. Judging by the clutter and the giant jigsaw-shaped holes in the lath and plasterwork, the space had become nothing more than cold storage.

Thomas Fuller once said, “Light, God’s eldest daughter, is a principal beauty in a building,” and seeing the sun cascade, as it had for more than a century through those same narrow panes, I realized that I had indeed stumbled upon an abandoned treasure. But the best was yet to come, high above, where the upper reaches of the tower culminated in a dome of crisscrossed, hand-hewn pine, as breathtaking in workmanship as any royal crown. Suspended from the ceiling, a protective container housed the brains of the operation, the clockworks. Four cylindrical metal driver arms extended from the housing, to the north, south, east and west sides of the tower, where they manipulated the hands of time like a puppeteer.

If there were any bats in residence that day they’d forgiven me my trespass, for the belfry remained dark and quiet. The only sound was a steady clicking. Obviously the original clock gears and doohickeys had long ago been replaced with some miracle of modern electronics, but the aura, the musty essence of bygone moments lingered, as each ticking second became part of the past.

BONG…BONG…BONG…BONG…four bells and all’s well.

Chances are, if you reside in small town Ontario, you’ve grown so accustomed to the deep, resonating toll that it literally goes in one ear and out the other—a sound taken for granted like the once prominent shriek of the mill whistle—as expanding technology vies for majority share of our senses.

But it wasn’t always so. When Canada was in her infancy, and personal timepieces of any description were considered a luxury, people quite literally looked up to the village clock tower for guidance. Though slightly bulkier and more intrusive than today’s streamlined scheduler—a.k.a the ‘Blackberry’—those lofty timekeepers wielded great power in their finely crafted hands. And a clock tower designed by Thomas Fuller was not only practical, but a great source of pride to the community as well.

Perhaps the most bizarre example of ‘tower love’ is in the city of Trenton, Ontario. As the Murray Canal neared completion in 1888, the federal government anticipated a wave of growth and prosperity for the town, and commissioned Thomas Fuller to design a Post Office in keeping with the importance of the area. With the laying of the cornerstone, the local newspaper reported that the “building will be a permanent improvement in the town.” No expense was spared in the landmark construction, as Fuller’s specifications of “the best quality limestone from Ox Point Quarries near Belleville,” and red brick, “the pick of the kilns” from the Belleville Brickyard, were incorporated into the two-and-a-half storey Romanesque beauty. When the town fathers complained that there wasn’t a clear view of the clock faces from the street, the tower was raised ten feet higher than the original design, to a soaring height of ninety feet.

Trentonians became so enamoured with their beloved Clock Tower, that in 1979 it was designated as a heritage property under the Ontario Heritage Act, for architectural and historic reasons. The ultimate irony is that the tower is all that remains. The Post Office building itself was demolished eight years earlier, in 1971, to make way for City Hall and a parking garage. Joni Mitchell had it right when she sang, “they paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”

Thomas Fuller died in 1898, and since then, sadly, many of his prized post offices have been lost. Only sixteen of the almost eighty original works still exist, many of them converted to museums, eateries, or tourist venues. Recently, while enjoying a cold beverage and a snoop around the interior of one such conversion—a magnificent stone structure in Cambridge, Ontario—I happened to mention this article and Thomas Fuller’s name to the server. At which point a voice from behind commented, “Yes, there aren’t many of us left.”

Enter Marv, the owner of the establishment, who was boasting of the Fuller designed Galt Post Office which is home to his pub, the Fiddler’s Green.

“The workmanship of this building is amazing, gorgeous,” he added, “you just don’t see that anymore. By the way, did you know that Creepy Canada is doing a segment on our ghost?”

A haunted post office, you say? It’s true. Tantalizing tales of a spirit roaming the clock tower started circulating after a tragic incident in the early 1900s, and continue to this day. According to legend, William S. Turnbull, a married man, and postmaster at the time, was having a rather risqué relationship with a postal employee named Emily. Not a patient girl, Emily became restless at having to keep the secret and threatened to go public—a scandal that would ruin William’s reputation and most certainly cost him his career. How ironic that not long afterward her lifeless body was discovered swaying from a rope high up in the Galt clock tower, and a few weeks later, William himself died in his sleep, some say of a broken heart. Was Emily’s death a suicide or murder most foul? No one knows for sure, but either way, Emily and William became the talk of the town.

Today, employees and patrons of the legendary pub revel in sharing stories of the haunted happenings—levitations, mysterious lights, doors opening and closing on their own. A surreal mural of Emily floating past the old Post Office graces a rounded wall on the second floor, alongside a set of stairs that spiral to the tower room where she died. Though the narrow windows are regularly nailed shut, about once a month the nails are found pulled out and scattered on the ledge. Reports of Emily peering from the attic window are common, and William, with a mournful expression, has been sighted as well, in the upper staircase to the tower—pining for his beloved.

Mystery and mayhem aside, Thomas Fuller’s masterpieces have earned their place as national treasures by virtue of their distinct architectural beauty and resilience. From the Victorian magnificence of Parliament Hill to the stand-alone determination of the Trenton Clock Tower, Fuller’s legacy is destined to live on, forever carved in stone in the towers of time.

The Thomas Fuller Legacy

Thomas Fuller’s treasures continue to make the headlines—most recently the re-opening of the Library of Parliament. After seven years of preparation, four years of construction, and a cost somewhere in the soaring vicinity of $140 million, the Victorian Gothic jewel has reclaimed her sparkle and is once again ready to receive visitors.

In 1859, the architectural team of Thomas G. Fuller and Chilion Jones won a design competition, sponsored by the Department of Public Works, to design the Houses of Parliament in Ottawa. The pair were awarded first place for their stunning rendition of a Gothic Revival Centre Block, graced by a stately clock tower. The Victoria Tower, fifty-five metres high and topped with an intricate crown of ironwork, affectionately came to be known as the birthday cake tower. The drawings also included a circular domed library at the rear of the complex, overlooking the river—a less formal addition, but a masterpiece in its own right, designed to blend in with the picturesque beauty of the natural scenery.

Construction began in earnest in 1859, taking seventeen years to complete, and today, the Library building is the only section that remains of the original structures. Some say she has led a charmed life, saved from a devastating fire in 1916 that destroyed the rest of the Centre Block, when a quick-thinking employee, M. MacCormac, closed her solid iron entrance doors. In 1952, flames again lit the skies over Parliament Hill, this time in the Library itself. Caused by an electrical malfunction, fire raged high in the dome, forty metres above the floor, for more than ten hours. When it was over, 200,000 gallons of water had entered the structure—destroying books in the reading room, the two upper galleries, and many of the underground vaults. This left the Government at the time faced with a moral dilemma—raze the Library and replace it with a modern version, or restore the original. Wisely, our Nation’s leaders put heritage first, and subsequently closed the building for a period of four years for restoration.

Since then, age and weathering have continued to take their toll on the famous Library, resulting in such extensive deterioration that by 2002, her doors once again had to be closed to the public. The roof leaked, walls were crumbling—not only the integrity of the structure was at risk, but her priceless literary contents as well. Again, the Government intervened on the side of conservancy, sparing no expense to preserve a Canadian legend. Perhaps the ultimate tribute to the Thomas Fuller legacy came with the hiring of a construction firm to oversee this latest restoration. You see, the company awarded the tender is one which symbolizes the true Canadian spirit—hardworking, meticulous, respected. A family business, handed down through the generations. Its name—Fuller Construction—owned and operated by William, Mark, Anthony, and Simon…Thomas Fuller’s grandchildren. The legend lives on.

The Peace Tower overlooking Fuller's domed masterpiece, the Library of Parliament. Photo by Jeffrey Steiner.The Peace Tower

Yet another famous clock tower made the news in recent weeks—The Peace Tower on Parliament Hill. While a crowd of visitors gathered at her base, eyes raised, listening intently for the sweet chime of the carillon, the Tower mysteriously went to sleep—7:28 a.m., May 24, 2006, the day that time stood still.

Blamed on a ‘small electrical relay malfunction,’ the repercussions were anything but small. Frustration and disappointment abounded as tourists repeatedly checked their watches for the actual time. Many had travelled quite a distance in anticipation of a 53 bell serenade from the Peace Tower—promoted worldwide as one of the highlights of the Capital tour. The present day tower replaced Thomas Fuller’s original Victoria Tower that burned in 1916, and the electric clock of which we speak has never stopped in the 25 years since its installation. Government officials stated it needed only a minor repair, but, well, it would take up to 72 hours for the work to begin.

What’s that you say, Mr Fuller? They don’t make ‘em like they used to?

Interesting websites relating to Thomas Fuller and his accomplishments include:
www.parliamenthill.gc.ca
www.creepy.tv (Creepy Canada, Season Three)
www.townarnprior.on.ca (Arnprior & District Museum)


This is an original story, first published in
The Country Connection Magazine, Issue 52, Summer 2006. Copyright Lorie Lee Steiner.

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