Ancestral Roofs

"In Praise of Older Buildings"

Friday, July 9, 2010

Willowbank - a preservation success story

Willowbank, in Queenston near Niagara on the Lake is a preservation success story. This majestic residence was built between 1834 and 1836 for one of the captains of industry in early c19 Ontario, Alexander Hamilton. A fine example of the Classical Revival style, with its imposing temple front and massive paired pillars with Ionian capitals, Willowbank was named for the willow trees that graced the hillside property which must at one time have ended, in a pictureque manner, at the river. The National Historic Site plaque considers Willowbank "one of the finest country estates of its type in Canada".

Willowbank looks to be in peril.....a first glance inside the front entrance (top photo) revealed broken plaster, exposed lathe, water damaged walls and ceilings, broken windows. Outside, bulging stone walls indicate serious (and expensive) structural problems. These are the very signs that encourage developers to plan ambitious 'executive cul-de-sacs' with names like, let's see, Willow Estates, once the historic structure inspiring the name is safely reduced to builder's rubble. The fact that we found only one (small, not majestic at all) willow on the property seemed prophetic. Indeed, there was at one time a demolition order for the house.

But those despair-inducing details do not deter Shelley Huson. As we peered into the front hall through the grand double doors, wondering whether it was safe (let alone permitted) to enter, Shelley, who turned out to be Director of School Programs, Willowbank School of Restoration Arts, invited us in with the pronouncement - this is a classroom. Where we saw structural issues and deteriorating decor, the folks at the school see an opportunity for their 'craft skills' students to work in stone, plaster, wood, metal, and glass, in an authentic preservation setting.

The Heritage Conservation Diploma Program is a three year program in conservation theory and practice, with two years based at Willowbank, and the third an independent study year - when we visited, a group of students had just headed to Italy to rebuild medieval stone villages. Shelley explained that entry to the program is open - they currently have PhD level students and college age kids in attendance. Wow, if I were 40 years younger! This would be a great opportunity for heritage-minded, 'learn by doing', hands-on types of students.

The attitudes conveyed at Willowbank are refreshing too. Their information package reveals them to be very 'green' in their preservation orientation ("the greenest building is the one that already exists") and inclusive and revolutionary in their thinking. Their mission statement explores the layering of history - heritage buildings and sites are not to be viewed as shrines to the past, but part of "the rich layers that make up our unique history". Shelley shared with us the layers that make up Willowbank's history: the first peoples' use of the land, the early traders' route through the ravine near the house, the stories of the families who built and changed the house over the 19th and 20th centuries, and its new evolution as a school, a National Historic Site and a Foundation.

To find out more about this wonderful place and the exciting activities taking place there, visit their website at

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