This story is the last in a series about the history of the Rand Estate, about 35 acres of land lying behind the stone wall on John and Charlotte streets, along the Upper Canada Heritage Trail and whose eastern boundary is a hedge between the properties at 176 and 210 John St.
Special to The Lake Report
After his parents’ deaths, it was Calvin Rand (1929-2016) who took the most interest in the property, spending summers there in the 1950s with his wife Patricia and their five daughters.
Starting In 1961, they lived at Randwood on a permanent basis with the girls attending Parliament Oak School but by the end of 1964, it once again reverted to a summer residence.
In 1971, Calvin Rand established the Niagara Institute of International Studies at Randwood and became its first president. He modelled it after the Aspen Institute, now based in Washington, D.C., but originally founded in Aspen, Colorado, in 1949 as a think tank and forum where leaders could examine the values of society and exchange ideas.
Its offices were in the Pillar and Post Inn down John Street with Randwood being the location for seminars.
The Niagara Institute proved to be a success as the executives of major corporations across Canada attended its seminars and conferences. They found the informal atmosphere of a home was conducive to reflection and discussion. The institute leased Randwood from the Rands for nine months of the year, while the family continued to occupy it during the summer.
In 1976, Randwood and the Sheets house next door were sold to the Devonian Foundation of Calgary, which continued to lease the two properties to the Niagara Institute. The foundation was named after the Devonian Shield in Alberta where its founder, Eric Harvie, had discovered a huge reserve of oil in 1948.
The Rand family, after renovating the guesthouse behind Randwood, continued to spend their summers there. In 1980, the institute, after considerable fundraising from public and private entities as well as trade unions, purchased the Randwood and Sheets House property from the Devonian Foundation.
Meanwhile, changes had begun to happen on other parts of the Rand Estate. In the 1950s, Col. Henry Sheets had sold the two gatehouses on Charlotte and the nearby stables and milkhouse.
It was in the gatehouse to the left of the Randwood arch that Brian Doherty was living when he founded the Shaw Festival in 1962 with the help of various townspeople, in particular Calvin Rand.
For the remainder of his life, Rand was a great supporter of the Shaw. Not only was he president of the board of directors until 1979 but remained on the board until his death in 2016.
Opening night parties, sometimes involving 300 to 400 people, were held at Randwood in the 1960s.
The stables in 1954 were remodelled into a series of rental apartments. In 1988, the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake designated the stables and milkhouse to be of architectural and historic value under the Ontario Heritage Act.
Architecturally, the two buildings were found to typify model farm buildings designed to accompany an estate in the early 20th century. Their historical value came because the property was associated with Peter Russell, William Dickson, Henry Lansing and the Rand family.
The barn near the railroad tracks, which George Rand II had had built in 1936, was bought in 1956 by Henry Sheets Jr., who had it converted into a house. He occupied it in the summer until 1979 when he sold it to Robert Dingman.
The stucco-clad house still retains the doors to the four original barn stalls and a cupola with a metal weathervane of a person riding a horse. A wing addition, which is not accessible from the main part of the house, was originally used for tenants. There are several one-room outbuildings as well. They served as a chicken coop and a small granary.
Also, in the 1980s, the land to the north and south of the stables was sold to developers. To the north, individual houses were built on Christopher Street while a series of townhouses was built to the south, on Weatherstone Court.
The Niagara Institute, despite its continuing popularity (in 1991, with a staff of 27, it ran 95 workshops and seminars), decided that the upkeep on the Randwood and Sheets House properties had become unaffordable and put them up for sale.
The institute, incidentally, after amalgamation with the Conference Board of Canada, continues to organize executive leadership programs through its headquarters on Glendale Road.
The institute property was bought in 1993 by William Fox to house the School of Philosophy which he was running, at that point, in Toronto. The school, which has branches around the world, was started in London, England, in 1936. Originally, it was set up for the study of economics, but it was later decided that an understanding of philosophic principles was also needed.
The Foxes greatly expanded Randwood by adding a solarium, a music room, a second kitchen and putting a large addition on the back for offices and classrooms. Designs for these additions were made by Chapman Murray Architects of Niagara Falls.
Renovations were also made to the Sheets House and the Coach House. As well, the Foxes purchased the former stables at 9 Weatherstone Court, which had been divided into apartments and had it transformed into a single-family residence. The two subsequent owners of the property have made many changes to both its interior and grounds.
July 2006, Randwood, the Sheets House, the Coach House, and 13 acres of land were sold to artist Trisha Romance and her husband Gary Peterson, who lived next door in Brunswick Place at 210 John St.
Four years later, they sent a proposal to the town to develop the property into an entity they called the Romance Inn & Artistic Centre. Their plan was to add five new buildings to the existing three, which would be developed into a 106-room hotel, a restaurant seating 200, a spa, artists’ studio, conference centre, special events site with a capacity of 250, as well as a parking garage. They also sought to change the zoning to commercial from residential under the town’s official plan.
The hotel plan and zoning change created a great deal of controversy in town as evidenced by the number of people who attended the two public meetings at the community centre in the fall of 2011.
The majority of residents who spoke at these meetings opposed the hotel development on the grounds that there would be insufficient parking, the adjacent streets could not handle the increased traffic, but particularly because of the expected high noise levels from the special events site.
And, of course, there was concern about the zoning change of a large piece of property that was surrounded by parkland and residentially zoned properties.
With the promise of changes to the site plan, the proposal came to a vote of the town council on Dec. 12, 2011. Four councillors were in favour and four opposed with the tie being broken by Lord Mayor Dave Eke who voted in favour of the rezoning.
However, along with the approval of official plan amendment No. 51, a number of stipulations were made: at the site plan stage, the property must be designated under Part IV of the Ontario Heritage Act, that new buildings and additions must be approved by the municipal heritage committee, and that a tree preservation plan must be prepared by a qualified professional.
No new site plan was ever submitted for the Romance Inn. Instead, by 2017, the property owned by the Romance-Petersons, that which Calvin Rand’s daughters had inherited, and the property owned by the Dingmans, were all bought by companies headed by one person: Benny Marotta.
However, after almost three years of allegations of destruction of historic features on the properties and vocal opposition to Marotta’s proposals for a hotel and other amenities, he put the Randwood property that faces John Street on the market in October 2020. The asking price is $19 million.
The final chapter in the story of the historic Rand Estate has yet to be written.
* Elizabeth (Betsy) Masson has been a research volunteer at the Niagara-on-the-lake Museum for more than 15 years.