Built in 1905, the Watson Art Centre (WAC) originally housed city hall, which included council chambers, a
general office and an engineer’s department. It also held a reading room, the fire department, police
headquarters and the jail. Over the years it was home to the library, Ukrainian Cultural Association,
Jack & Jill Nursery School, public washrooms, the town band and had many other uses.
The second floor has always served as a public auditorium for plays, dinners, dances and meetings. In the early 1970s the building was slated for demolition. The Dauphin and District Allied Arts Council (DDAAC), organized by Dr. Vernon L. Watson, lobbied the town to save this fine old building and took over its management.
The WAC is now a designated heritage site with the Province of Manitoba and the City of Dauphin, ensuring its historic character is maintained. The WAC is financed by Manitoba Cultural Heritage & Tourism, the City of Dauphin, rental income, memberships and various fund-raising programs. Support from the local arts community, the City, citizens of Dauphin and the surrounding area is key to the restoration and upkeep of the beautiful old building, along with the continued development of local arts programs.
DDAAC’s mandate is to promote and support the arts in Dauphin and the surrounding area through on-going visual and performing arts programs, arts-related activities, classes and workshops. The board-run council is volunteer based and works diligently to produce a range of entertainment, classes and activities for Dauphin’s public each year, employing a part-time administrator and part-time caretaker.
History of the Building:
The Upper Fire Hall was originally the offices of the police station. This area is now rented out along with the lower fire hall area for various concerts, workshops and events. It is even used every Sunday for church services. When an election is called, the space is rented by Elections Canada exclusively.
The Lower Fire Hall area is somewhat different from when the building was built. There were originally two large doors and bays for horse-drawn fire wagons. The horses for the fire wagons were housed in various stables around town. When the alarm went off, the first ones to the Fire Station were the ones used and paid. The office area and sleeping quarters were on the left side of the fire hall. The two doors were eventually extended to accommodate longer fire equipment. At some point between the 1930s to the 1950s, the outer wall was extended even further and a third bay was added, removing the office and sleeping quarters. When the fire department moved into its current space on the next block, the large doors where removed and bricked in.
Watson Room was the main town office area, with wickets into what is now the hall or gallery area. It currently serves as a meeting and board room, using the original council chambers table from when the building was the town hall.
The Gallery doors and walls at either end are not original. The gallery houses quality local and touring art exhibits and showcases regional artisan works available for sale through our Made In The Parkland gift shop.
Ballet Room, previously known as the Gold Room, may have housed offices or council chambers when the building was functioning as the town hall. The room is currently used as a dance studio, for meetings and as a performers’ dressing area when shows are held in the auditorium or Old Fire Hall.
Main floor bathrooms were originally one room where, for a lengthy period, the town band used to practice.
The DDAAC office was once the mayor’s office with stairway access to the basement vault and a private washroom. This basement space is now the elevator machine room. After DDAAC took over, the stairway was closed off and a second door was added to the former vault. The original office was downsized when the elevator and shaft were added.
The Auditorium still has many original features including pressed tin ceilings, a balcony, hardwood floors and woodwork. Electric lighting was added at a later date, as were theatre lights and a sound system. The mirrored ball was donated by a past dance group in Dauphin. The balcony originally sat 110 and now seats 106. The circular staircase, donated by the Lionettes, was from Winnipeg, replacing a ladder-type of staircase. This staircase provides two exits off the balcony, in case of fire. The glass balcony front provides safety the original balcony rail lacked.
There was a boxing ring on the stage during the 1940s. The second level kitchen was originally located behind stage right and the present kitchen housed bathrooms. A built-in bar from 1970 was removed to install the elevator.
Basement has served a variety of functions over the years. The current Theatre Amisk storage room was previously used as Cubs and Scouts meeting rooms and a police station. Traces of the large shower room off the main room are still visible.
The Vault used by the town was accessed through a stairway from the Mayor’s office down to this basement space, then it became a storage area with the addition of the second outer door. Now, most of the two-foot thick walled structure houses the elevator machine room.
The Pottery and Art Rooms in the basement have been used by affiliates, the Dauphin Pottery & Ceramics Club and the Dauphin Art Group, since DDAAC took control of the building. Information is scarce regarding use prior to that time. We do know in the late 1940s and early 1950s the rooms were used as a ladies public washroom facility.
The Bell Tower siren is still in place and was used to sound for 911 emergency dispatches, at noon hour and for evening curfew until the practice was abandoned.
DDAAC is continually restoring and repairing this beautiful heritage building. The elevator installation and a refurbishment of most of the public areas were completed during the fall of 1997 through the spring of 1998. In 1999 the pressed tin ceiling was added to the Old Fire Hall. Metal roofing was applied to the building’s slant-roof in 2002 and replaced in 2009, following the infamous hail storm of 2007. The gallery received a new gallery track system in 2009, was re-drywalled and painted in 2010. Many other improvements were completed in 2010, such as landscaping, a new front sidewalk, new front doors, painting and refurnishing the main floor lobby and the wheelchair accessible washroom, painting and new flooring for the Watson Room, and repainting the auditorium. A gallery tracking system was also added to the Watson Room, to allow it to be used as an overflow gallery and to exhibit some of the extensive collection of work we received from the late Dr. Watson and family. DDAAC invested in a new wireless router system, PowerPoint projector and screen, a television and a DVD player, as well as a new sound system for meetings.
Click here for the WAC History Brochure.
''Remembering The Old Town Hall'' by Bernice Gorby Reid - This story was found buried in a box in the basement of the Watson Art Centre. No-one is sure when it was written by Bernice, but that should not keep it from being shared with the public.