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May. 25, 2022 | Wednesday
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Embracing 180 years of Niagara-on-the-Lake heritage

 

Couple are on a quest to rekindle the Sherlock family legacy

 

When acclaimed poet T. S. Eliot wrote “the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time,” he may well have been describing the wanderings of Niagara-on-the-Lake native Brett Sherlock.

For over 20 years, Sherlock, now 57, lived and worked in the capitals of Europe and North America — Toronto, Hamburg, Paris, London, New York, Los Angeles — first as a fashion model and later as a senior executive in the international auction business.

But he couldn’t stay away from home.

He and his partner, James Booty, returned to town in 2006, reviving Sherlock’s deep and abiding love for family and heritage. The two were married in 2014, in their quiet, historic home, Hill House, at the corner of Ricardo and Wellington streets.

Sherlock is the seventh generation of his family to call Niagara-on-the-Lake home. Both sides of his family — Elliotts and Sherlocks — arrived circa 1840.

He tells a pleasing story of how his grandparents met. “The Elliotts were stonemasons,” says Sherlock, pride in his voice.

“My grandfather Elliott was building the Randwood wall. My soon-to-be-grandmother was the governess for General Nelles, when his family lived in what is now Riverbend. A private home. A fairly recent arrival from Scotland, my grandmother was pushing a pram with one or more of her charges down John Street, when he was building the wall. They met for the first time.”

The Sherlocks owned a dairy, a livery stable and several storefronts along Queen Street, alongside the Court House.

“My grandfather Sherlock had the ice plant — cutting blocks of ice from the marina and bringing them up for storage behind what is now the Christmas Store. They delivered the ice door-to-door by horse and buggy.”

His father’s service station and Datsun dealership was at the corner of Victoria and Queen, now the Shaw Café.

Sherlock grew up at Johnson and Nassau streets, in a house his parents proudly described as a “modern 1950s bungalow.” The house has long since been torn down.

When he describes where his mother, Heather, now lives, he falls into a characteristic quirk adopted by many longtime locals: “Butler Street,” he says. "You know, where Betty Mitchell used to live.” As if everyone will remember Betty Mitchell’s former house.

It seems most poignant that it was Sherlock’s mother who wrote the poem for the time capsule in the cornerstone at Parliament Oak Public School, for its 1948 opening.

Sherlock attended St. Vincent de Paul School, then St. Michael, then Niagara District and finished high school at Dennis Morris in St. Catharines.

He loved growing up in the early '70s.

“Bliss. We were the last generation of innocence. The town was our playground. There wasn’t a face you didn’t know."

“OK, the ‘smokers’ hung out on Greaves’ corner, and we were told to avoid them."

“I had a paper route when I was 11 and we all had odd jobs for pocket money. The greatest honour was being allowed to cut my grandfather Elliott’s lawn — where Niagara Realty now stands. He watched every row being cut.”

The arrival of the Shaw Festival opened the eyes of the small-town teen. “In my teens, it meant a huge amount to me, as a young gay man (whether I knew it fully or not), that we were the home of the Shaw Festival. I saw another normal.”

After a short-lived exploration of the Algonquin College interior design program, he was picked up by a modelling agency in Toronto and then off to the fashion mecca of Hamburg, Germany. He was in his early 20s.

“I had a bright, smiley face. I went to Europe for a year and stayed away for 22.”

And the auction business became his life’s work.

He joined Sotheby’s Auction House in London at age 24, first on a scholarship then in the silver department.

“I always wanted objects rather than flat art (paintings). I like to be able to pick something up. I finished my days there as senior director of the jewelry department.”

Sherlock moved to Christie’s in London, then followed opportunities around North America and finally back to Niagara.

Over his career, his list of clients became a personal who’s who. The Earl of Snowdon (for the sale of the collection owned by his mother, Princess Margaret), Barbra Streisand and the Princess Aga Khan, to name a few.

Sherlock continues his relationship with Christie’s as an international consultant. In his spare time, he is a member of the Gardiner Museum board of directors and a former director of both the Niagara Foundation and the Niagara Historical Society Museum.

When Sherlock moved to Niagara, James Booty came with him.

“I met Brett on his 40th birthday,” says Booty, who attended law school in France and was working — he describes it as slaving — at a London law firm.

“I left the law practice when Brett moved to New York. I needed to take a breather to try to figure out what I wanted to do.”

Booty, 45, is no stranger to small, attractive villages.

He’s a native of Cheshire, in northwest England, less than an hour south of Manchester, current population 3,500, often voted the prettiest town in England.

His father retired as the director of a civil engineering company; his mother was a former teacher cum artist. They went on to live in the south of France.

Once in Canada, Booty entered educational publishing, rising to senior product manager at McGraw Hill in Toronto.

With his publishing experience, Booty helped the Niagara Foundation publish its commemorative edition of "Early Architecture of the Town & Township of Niagara."

Seven years ago, he pivoted, becoming the executive director of a private family foundation. La Fondation Emmanuelle Gattuso typically distributes $7 million to $8 million annually, largely in the Greater Toronto Area.

“Since COVID, we are focusing on smaller organizations,” explains Booty, “where you can see the money going to the front lines and are often overlooked."

“The last two years we have concentrated on food insecurity, street-involved communities and people who are falling through the cracks.”

The most satisfying donation in his recent efforts was supporting the organization helping stranded Afghans, who had supported the Canadian Armed Forces, get out of their country.

“They needed the money quickly and, as a private foundation, we can move quickly.”

The foundation, in partnership with the Slaight Family Foundation, recently announced a $50 million gift to Princess Margaret Hospital in support of cancer discovery research.

Sherlock and Booty have gradually shifted their centre of gravity from a condo in Toronto to Old Town. “The pandemic sped the transition up,” says Booty. “We are now very comfortable spending most of our time here.”

The story of their accommodation wanderings since returning to town showcases a commitment to the town and its heritage. And, of course, family.

In some ways, it is like a heartfelt odyssey to find the perfect home.

“I’d always wanted a piece of property here,” says Sherlock. “If you grew up here, there is hope always to come back.”

After a brief sojourn at King’s Point, they purchased a property on Dorchester Street, near where young Sherlock grew up.

“It’s all about heritage — what I grew up with,” he emphasizes.

The Dorchester house — they called it “The Barn” — even has an outdoor fireplace “that my grandfather and great grandfather built.”

Their work on the Dorchester property earned the pair the Peter Stokes Award from Architecture Conservancy Ontario, recognizing exemplary restoration of a heritage structure.

Then, almost a decade ago, the couple stumbled on what for them was a perfect new property opportunity.

It was a challenge they believed would fulfil all their heritage and family aspirations.

The property was just along John Street from where Sherlock’s grandparents met all those years ago. With one foot in the vineyards and one foot in town. Just about perfect.

Their offer to purchase was accepted. Their Dorchester house sold.

And then came the disaster all home buyers fear: the John Street deal fell through.

Licking their wounds, Sherlock and Booty turned elsewhere, purchasing what the June 2017 edition of "House and Home" magazine called “the ultimate small town heritage estate at the corner of Ricardo and Wellington streets. Hill House, as they’ve named it, excels in that rarest mixture of warmth and polish.”

But they still coveted the John Street property.

Lo and behold, it came on the market again. They wasted no time locking up a deal, selling Hill House and starting immediately, in earnest, planning their dream home.

The exact timing of the new house is still a question. Approvals are pending. They are determined to use all local contractors.

“We enjoy the process together,” says Booty, and smiles. “We have diametrically opposed tastes, but we cross over enough and we kind of meet in the middle. It is stimulating for us.”

They are going to love living on the edge of town.

“It is totally a different life here,” says Sherlock, from a spot just about where his new living room will be.

“And it's only three minutes to town. We are outside the urban boundary, and you feel it. I mean where else do you wake up in the middle of the night and look out the window and you’ve three stags curled up on your front lawn.”

They are nearing the end of their odyssey.

 

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