Janis Barlow, executive director of Willowbank, calls the Hamilton-Bright Estate, or the “House on the Hill,” a “classical temple in the wilderness.”
The house is now home to Willowbank academy, which teaches classic restoration techniques and art forms.
“It’s such a gracious property,” she said.
Now she feels one of the school’s main challenges is to tell the many stories that come with it.
“Frankly I think the Niagara story is fascinating — topography as well as history. There’s a lot to be told about relations between many different peoples.”
Willowbank students study archaeology on the property as part of their curriculum, and often uncover ancient hearths and flints, leftover from the many Indigenous peoples who used the property for centuries — they have discovered one site that is more than 9,000 years old, said Barlow.
Alexander Hamilton built the house in the 1830s.
“Intermarriage with Indigenous people was quite common at the time — some of that history has been … mislaid, shall we say,” said Barlow.
The school has long welcomed Indigenous collaboration, and has given some of its land for a traditional herb and vegetable garden.
“We collaborate with the Niagara Peninsula Aboriginal Area Management Board (CCAB). I’ve simply said to the Indigenous folks, ‘It’s your land, you can use it any time you like.’”
There’s the Hamilton cemetery, peeking through the woods on the northwest edge of the property. “When the Brock Monument was bombed by Benjamin Lett, Brock’s body was moved to this cemetery.” The Hamilton family still buries their kin there, but the sides of the promontory are eroding, and the cemetery is not legally registered.
There’s even the story of the terroir of mortar. “Every year we put Queenston limestone in a kiln and create a mortar — each batch is completely unique, and, like wine, it improves with age.”
Barlow is eager to share the school, its knowledge, and its property. “Willowbank is a gateway property in more ways than one.” It was literally an entrance to a portage path established by Indigenous people. And it’s now an enticing way in to learn more about Niagara’s rich history.
Of course it’s also an active school, which is another entrance — to learning, and to careers. “Our students are passionate and enthusiastic. They come from all over Canada, and from all walks of life. We currently have a student who is a retired public school teacher from Newfoundland.”
Barlow is proud to tell the story of how Willowbank students beat engineering students from McGill, Carlton, Nebraska, and Texas at the Heritage Structures Design Build Competition. “We’re like the Hogwarts school, so that was pretty amazing.”
The school currently has twenty-four students, 8 in each year of its 3-year programme. Graduating students receive a Diploma in Heritage Restoration Arts. “Willowbank has the broadest academic and experiential scope of any school of its ilk in Canada. All of our students are employed in the field — we have a very good record.”
Most recently, the institution spent $1.3 million to upgrade the house on the hill to bring it to code. It added an elevator, levelled floors, improved the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning, and added fire alarms and sprinklers. The goal is for it to be open to the public. “We want it used for weddings, parties, events. We want people to use and enjoy this property.” There are plans to complete the dry stone wall building by the barn, and Barlow envisions it complete with a sprung wood floor. “I can see yoga classes, dance classes in here.”
Barlow welcomes all to picnic on the property, book a tour, maybe catch a glimpse of the five red foxes that call Willowbank home. She’s also eager to reach into the community in other ways: “We’re always looking for places to do dry stone walling and timber framing,” she says with a smile.