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Nov. 20, 2019 | Wednesday
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Niagara's History Unveiled: Willowbank
Willowbank, a house built in 1834 for Alexander Hamilton. (Dariya Baiguzhiyeva/Niagara Now)

Linda Fritz

Exclusive/The Lake Report

Overlooking the village of Queenston stands Willowbank, a house built in 1834 for Alexander Hamilton.

The man responsible for it, Alexander Hamilton (1790-1839) was the son of Robert Hamilton (1753 - 1809), a businessman, politician and judge who, along with his partner Richard Cartwright opened the Great Lakes for shipping private goods.

They became extremely wealthy men. With their inheritances, two of Robert’s sons built grand houses on the Niagara River, John at Clencairn and Alexander at Willowbank.

It should be noted that Queenston’s Alexander Hamilton was never involved in a duel, nor does he have any place in American musical theatre. Although Alexander, his brothers and half-brothers inherited Robert’s businesses, none of them possessed his acumen, and unfortunately ended up in debt. 

Alexander fought at the Battle of Queenston Heights. Afterward, he received a number of patronage appointments, including justice of the peace, post office official, judge, and sheriff. He was actively involved in building the Erie and Ontario Railway, as well as the Niagara Suspension Bridge, enterprises that were meant to compete with the Welland Canal. By 1833, Alexander was in a position to be able to build Willowbank, a beautiful American classical revival house. 

Willowbank was designed and built by John Latshaw, an architect who was born in Niagara Falls. Hamilton worked closely with Latshaw. As the building progressed, he would add new touches. Construction began in 1834 and took two years to complete. The building’s importance and style is indicated by the cost of the first insurance policy bought for it. In 1835, Hamilton paid five hundred pounds. 

Many villagers believe that Willowbank is haunted by the ghost of Hannah Hamilton. Born in 1797, Hannah was Alexander’s wife. She survived him by almost fifty years. When a visitor walks by the big stone house and glances up at the windows, he or she may catch a fleeting glimpse of Hannah peering back at you.

The Willowbank Estate has had six owners since the Hamilton family years. From 1888 to 1932 it belonged to Alfred Boultbee, Alexander’s great-nephew. 

John Bright, a descendant of the founder of Brights Wines and who later built Greystone, yet another imposing building on the riverbank in Queenston, purchased Willowbank in 1932, nearly a century after the house was built. At the time of the property transfer from the Hamilton family to Bright, Queenston was undergoing a transition. With the advent of the automobile, and the increase in tourism, the Niagara River corridor was becoming a modern tourist destination, a good place for a country home. 

The Brights employed noted architect A. E. Nicholson to modify and modernize Willowbank. Nicholson was also the designer Greystone and the Laura Secord School. In the winter, if you stand on Princess Street and look at the front of the former school, now Willowbank’s lower campus, you can see how Nicholson used the same themes in the two facades. (In summer, the trees block the view of Willowbank from the school.) Nicholson’s drawings for Willowbank survive. They show that some of the renovations requested by the Brights were not carried out. Unfortunately, according to some villagers , Bright destroyed many letters and other documents he found in the house.

In 1966, Willowbank was sold by the Bright family to the Congregation of Missionary Sisters of Christian Charity. The estate was renamed Holy Trinity Monastery, and the nuns used it as a residence for themselves and for women with mental handicaps. In 1982, the estate changed hands once again, and became the Appleton Boys School. The school, founded in 1976, provided special education for boys with learning disabilities. It occupied the site for only three years.

In 1985, the estate passed to its third owner in less than twenty years. J. Anthony Doyle was a developer who set out to restore the house to its 19th century elegance. He looked at a number of potential end uses for the property, including a winery, an inn, and a conference centre.

He finally proposed a residential subdivision for the western half of the estate. The future of the property was threatened when Doyle applied for a demolition permit in 2001, in part to force a decision on the land. The Lord Mayor of Niagara-on-the-Lake at the time, along with an American couple attempted to buy the estate in order to restore it. Once restored, they hoped to donate it to Brock University in St. Catharines.

Eventually the mansion was saved by a group of local residents and other concerned people. The Friends of Willowbank were led by the late Niagara-on-the-Lake heritage crusader Laura Dodson. With the help of the American Friends of Canada, an organization established by the late Bluma and Bram Appel, an anonymous American donor came through with more than one million dollars.

Dodson and her husband Jim contributed $300,000 of their personal savings. It was Dodson’s vision that Willowbank become a school to teach restoration arts. It took her more than four years to bring the school to a reality. She said that the idea began at a Niagara-on-the-Lake Conservancy meeting. The intent was to bring students in to learn the art of restoration by working under experienced instructors who would allow the students to apply their craft while restoring local edifices.

The school’s first students graduated in April 2009. 

In 2014, the Prince of Wales agreed to be the Willowbank School of Restoration Arts royal patron. By 2016, it had received a royal stamp of approval. Former leader of the school, Julian Smith was honoured for his work in promoting the school with his appointment to the Order of Canada in the 2017 honours list.

The students at Willowbank come from all over and some board in homes in the village. They have assisted in the restoration work going on in Ottawa at Parliament Hill and at Massey Hall in Toronto. Among the skills being taught are blacksmithing, stained glass restoration and dry stone wall building. 

The students have entered international competitions including the Association for Preservation Technology’s Heritage Structure Design-Build Competition. The competition is open to engineering students across North America. The Willowbank students who participate are in second year. They compete against those attending universities such as Nebraska and Texas as well as another Canadian competitor, Carleton University in Ottawa. The competition varies in that one year will see students building arches and in another, bridges. 

In 2018 the Willowbank students won third prize in the competition that was held in Buffalo, with their masonry arch. It held over 600 pounds and was the only one constructed of natural materials. 

Sarah Bulman and Aly Bousfield are two of the students who participated in the 2019 competition. They won first prize with their Douglas fir suspension bridge. It, too, held over 600 pounds. The Willowbank students have proven to be the only ones who can actually answer questions about preservation. It seems that most of the others have never actually built anything other than models in plastic and spray foam.

This year’s competition will take place in Miami, Florida in mid-November. The students, who will be building a masonry arch pay their own way to the competition, so any donations to help them to defend Willowbank’s title would be welcome. Please contact the school at willowbank@willowbank.ca

The grounds at Willowbank are open for the public to enjoy. Indeed, the hill running from the house down to Queenston Street remains a grand place for sledding on cold snowy days. The screams of the younger Queenston citizens and their friends seem to help them to be brave as they fly down the slope. This has been a village tradition for years.

Willowbank, whose history and inhabitants has inspired many writers has a grand past. There’s no question that its future will be just as exciting.

Willowbank is listed under the Ontario Heritage Act as a National Historic Site. It is also recognized by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada as a site of National Historic Significance.

More Niagara’s History Unveiled articles about the past of Niagara-on-the-Lake are available at:
www.niagaranow.com

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