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Willowbank (National Historic Site)
The magnificant grounds of Willowbank house three distinct but related entities: the School of Restoration Arts, the Centre for Cultural Landscapes, and the Willowbank National Historic Site.
Willowbank is one of the undiscovered jewels of the Niagara Peninsula. Its curved entrance drive keeps it mostly hidden from the hundreds of thousands of people who pass by its gates every year – people using the Niagara Parkway to make the connection between Niagara Falls to the south and Niagara-on-the-Lake to the north. But for those who enter, it is a special world, a place where the many layers of its rich history seem tantalizingly present.
In pure physical terms, it is a very romantic site. The beautifully designed Greek Revival mansion is set within acres of lawns and mature trees. The interiors have the kind of decay that keeps revealing more and more of the past as present layers are peeled back. The ghosting of the original carriage drive up the hill from the east adds to the sense of a still-tangible mid-19th Century reality. And along the north side is the deep ravine, part of a First Nations portage route around Niagara Falls for thousands of years, and now a fragile ecosystem with its own sense of mystery.
Added to this are the intangible associations – with the traditional knowledge of the First Nations who understood, at this site and elsewhere, the deep connections between nature and culture that must be rediscovered by all of us if we are to create a sustainable future; with the Hamilton family, and particularly Hannah Jarvis Hamilton, a remarkable woman whose husband died only a few years after they moved into Willowbank but who herself lived here for almost fifty years, raising ten children and leaving a rich legacy of hundreds of letters only now being rediscovered; with the pioneering Bright family, who played such a key role in creating the wine and fruit industries in Niagara and who brought an early 20th Century ; and now with a vibrant school and centre that are bringing international attention to this place.
The estate has been a designated National Historic Site by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Parks Canada. It is also one of the richest archaeological sites in southern Ontario. It is a perfect laboratory for the Willowbank’s students and faculty associates, whose task is not only to investigate and conserve its past but to give it an equally rich future. Part of that future is opening up the estate to more visitors, allowing more cultural events, private functions, and special occasions on the grounds and within the main house and the barn complex. A Saturday morning lecture and discussion, a weekday evening candlelit dinner with visitors in the Bright parlour, a seminar session or conservation workshop in Reif Hall, a jazz festival on the lawns – all of these allow the history of Willowbank as a place of human habitation and exploration to continue.
Tours of the estate, both exterior and interior, are available throughout the spring and summer months when the Diploma Program is not in session. Information about the estate, including planning for special events, is available through the main office.
The Willowbank Estate is named for the magnificent willow trees that once graced its grounds. Exceptional historic architecture in the context of a picturesque landscape makes Willowbank a valuable cultural asset.
Willowbank is an elegant example of the rural estates of the wealthy settlers of Upper Canada, and is considered one of the finest Classical Revival buildings in North America. The mansion was built for Alexander Hamilton, third son of the Honourable Robert Hamilton, one of the founders of Upper Canada. Designed by renowned master carpenter and architect John Latshaw and built of local whirlpool sandstone, the building is characterized by the rare feature of eight hand-carved columns running its full two-storey height, and by a front doorway considered to be a masterpiece of Greek Revival design. From the date of her husbands untimely death in 1839, Hannah Jarvis Hamilton displayed extraordinary effort and ingenuity in sustaining the Willowbank legacy. The estate supported the family and enabled them to maintain their social position. In the 1930s the house was transferred to the Bright family, prominent in the development of the orchard and wine industries in Niagara. Construction of the Niagara Parkway led to the creation of a treed driveway providing access from the road. The orientation of the house switched from the east to the west, and interior changes were made to reflect a 20th century aesthetic. In 2002, with significant support from Tom and Mary (Bright) Urban and from heritage advocate Laura Dodson, the ownership of Willowbank passed to the Niagara-on-the-Lake Conservancy and its current era began. Willowbankis comprised of the buildings, grounds and artifacts that together constitute this National Historic Site. The Estate is an operating museum, open by prior arrangement to visitors, researchers, and special-interest groups. It interprets the rich history of the site and celebrates the life of Hannah Jarvis Hamilton. It serves as a living laboratory for The School of Restoration Arts. It is an important venue for public education and dialogue in the area of conservation and cultural resource management.
History of Willowbank. http://www.willowbank.ca/content/beta/welcome/index/
Ontario's Provincial Plaques - Willowbank - http://www.ontarioplaques.com/Plaques_MNO/Plaque_Niagara107.html
Wikipedia - Willowbank, Canada - en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Willowbank,_Canada