The Waterloo County Gaol and Governor’s House - WRX Property Group

The Waterloo County Gaol and Governor’s House

Can buildings tell tales? Can tall buildings tell tall tales? Do the walls have eyes? It’s hard to say, but if you’ll allow us, we’d like to take you on a journey back in time, to an earlier part of Kitchener-Waterloo’s history.

Perhaps buildings can’t tell their own tales, but that doesn’t mean we can’t.

For today’s Heritage Property, we’ll be looking at a very fascinating building indeed: the Waterloo County Gaol. So get comfortable, dim the lights, and prepare yourself for another entry in the Kitchener Heritage Properties Files. Today’s subject is: the Waterloo County Gaol and Governor’s House.

Count Your Counties

Before we dive into the Waterloo County Gaol and Governor’s House, here’s a brief word on counties, which will help to illustrate why these buildings were so important.

For a time, in the middle of the nineteenth-century, Waterloo County (quite familiar to us), Wellington County (another familiar place, centred around Guelph), and Grey County (Owen Sound area) were united as one ‘super’ county.

However, the happy union was not to last; in 1853, Waterloo County pulled out, and set out to become an independent, individual county.

There were several conditions to becoming a county in the 1850s, two of which were the presence of a local courthouse, and a local gaol (gaol has the same meaning of jail, and is pronounced the same way, but it exists because the English language is a trickster).

At the time, there were two leading communities in the fledgling Waterloo County: Berlin and Galt. Berlin was Kitchener’s original name, prior to World War I, and Galt is the southern part of Cambridge.

Berlin and Galt were each determined to be the county seat, and Galt had a strong case as the larger community at the time; indeed Galt attained ‘town’ status a full 13 years before Berlin. On the other hand, Galt was far less centrally-located than Berlin.

In 1852, a man by the name of Frederick Gaukel, a local hotel owner, swooped in to save the day for Berlin, though. He donated land by the intersection of today’s Queen Street North and Weber Street East for the construction of both a courthouse, which is gone, and a gaol, which is there to this day.

And thus, Berlin would be the county seat. Once again, Gaukel blocked all debacles for the small community of Berlin!

Enough of that – let’s move on to the buildings themselves!

The Waterloo County Gaol

Construction on the courthouse and gaol got started almost immediately after Gaukel donated his land.

The newly-appointed County Warden, Dr. John Scott, had put out an advertisement and settled on an architectural firm in Brantford. Both the gaol and the courthouse were completed within a matter of months between 1853 and 1853.

As noted, we can’t go and look at the courthouse today, as it was demolished in 1964 (the same year A Hard Day’s Night was released; coincidence?).

But thankfully, the Gaol still stands – and for a building that served as a prison, it’s somewhat beautiful. With its distinctive granite, stone and brick patchwork façade, and the symmetry of its six windows and arched roof on the west side, it epitomizes the Classical Revival architectural style that informed its design.

Berlin being chosen as the seat of Waterloo County was a major boon. Its population began to rise steadily (within 60 years it attained town and then city status); its economy became stronger; and it got much better rail service, with the Grand Trunk Railway connecting it to Toronto, and streetcar service connecting it to Preston, Galt, and even Waterloo (the town).

As such, the Waterloo County Gaol became something of a symbol for a new era of prosperity for Berlin. It was the last step in Berlin asserting itself as a community that matters on a much higher level – as the county seat for all of Waterloo County.

Berliners naturally took a degree of pride in this, and the Waterloo County Gaol was looked at more affectionately than your average prison.

But That’s Not All

This article’s subject, as you may have noticed, is not just the Waterloo County Gaol. No, as the title suggests, this article’s subject is the Waterloo County Gaol and Governor’s House. But as of 1853, there was only the Waterloo County Gaol and the courthouse –whence the Governor’s House?

Local Architect Detected

Don’t worry: by the end of this article, you’ll know more about the Waterloo County Gaol and the Governor’s House. But first, there’s a certain architect we’d like to introduce: David W. Gingrich (also known as D.W., not unlike the sister character in the gritty, subversive Arthur book and television series).

D.W. Gingrich was a local boy. Born and raised in Waterloo, Gingrich would go on to become one of the most accomplished local architects, despite the fact that his name and the details of his life remain less than well-known.

Among his (still standing) architectural projects are the beautiful Castle Kilbride in Baden and the former home to the Mutual Life Assurance Company in Waterloo.

Governors Gonna Govern

Just as a jail’s not a jail without a jailor, a gaol’s not a gaol without a gaoler (note again that both of those words are, in modern English, pronounced the same way). And the gaoler at Waterloo County Gaol determined that to perform his gaolerly duties properly, he would need a place to call home.

Enter: D.W. Gingrich.

In 1878, Gingrich was commissioned to design the Governor’s House, which would be built by the west side of the Waterloo County Gaol. Where the Gaol has a certain sleek, classically-inspired design, the Governor’s House is all Victorian splendour.

Looking like a European villa, it is tall and slim, with a four-storey tower and a deliberate affectation of importance and poise.

Good work, Gingrich!

From Then to Now

For many decades, the Waterloo County Gaol served its important civic function for the community. Indeed, it was even administered on the municipal level until 1968, when the province took over.

Waterloo County itself ceased to be in 1973, becoming instead the Regional Municipality of Waterloo that we know and love today. And in 1978, a full 100 years after Gingrich’s Governor’s House was built, the entire Gaol was closed, to be replaced by the Waterloo Regional Detention Centre.

And now, the two buildings stand, reminders of a bygone age, symbols of a very exciting time in Kitchener’s history. It’s worth noting two final things: they’re in a very valuable location, right by the heart of Downtown Kitchener and mere steps from the Central Branch of the Kitchener Public Library.

And Kitchener is, at the moment, going through yet another exciting time in its history, with things like the downtown revitalization project and the soaring tech economy making the future look very bright indeed.


Next time you’re in Downtown Kitchener, you might want to pause and take a look at the Waterloo County Gaol and Governor’s House, comfortable in the knowledge that since it’s a Heritage Property, not an active gaol, you needn’t worry about getting locked in.

Written by Will Kummer

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