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From drill hall to movie theatre, old Armouries building saw it all

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Phil Egan

Like many old-time Sarnians, I have a clear recollection of some of the city’s long-lost buildings.

These include the old bell-tower post office on the site of the current Federal Building, where I would travel every Saturday morning with my father to pick up the mail. The old City Hall on Christina Street housed the police station in its basement.

The old George Street Waterworks building was right on the waterfront. In the early 1960s, it became HMCS Repulse – the land-based headquarters of the Royal Canadian Sea Cadets.

But by far the most mysterious to my young eyes was the old armoury building on the west side of Christina Street, about where our current City Hall stands.

As the 19th century was becoming the 20th recreational activities for boys in town were largely limited to sports – organized and otherwise.

A man named Thomas W. Nisbet, manager of the Canadian Bank of Commerce and husband of historian Charlotte Vidal Nisbet, decided to form the first Boy’s Brigade in Sarnia.

Established as a combination drill hall and recreational facility, it was modelled on the British Boys’ Brigades, which sought to instil discipline, provide a site for recreation and foster Christian teaching in young men.

The building that would become the armoury was built as the Boys’ Brigade Hall in 1893. Many of the boys who grew up in the Boys’ Brigade would become the business and professional leaders of Sarnia by the 1920s.

It was at the Boys’ Brigade Hall that basketball was first introduced to Sarnia, as well as table tennis and badminton. At election time, the venue was the scene of spirited political rallies.

Nisbet died in 1915 and his estate sold the property to Thomas H. Cook, a prominent realtor and insurance broker.

Cook operated the hall as the “Grand Theatre” and films, known to patrons as “the flickers,” were shown there in the 1920s. The hall was also home to the city’s most anticipated social event – the annual Bachelors’ Ball.

In 1927, the Department of National Defence purchased the building as the new home of the Lambton Regiment. Once more, the facility rang to the sound of marching boots. It would later serve as a base for infantry, artillery, militia mobilization and recruiting centre.

The final tenants were the 7th field regiment of the RCA and the 11thy field regiment of engineers.

As the old building fell victim to old age and the battle to preserve it was lost, the doomed armoury was torn down to make way for the new City Hall.

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