At Willowbank we live and breathe our heritage. The history of the site infuses everything we do.
Willowbank is best known for the impressive Greek Revival mansion designed and built in the 1830s for Alexander and Hannah (Jarvis) Hamilton, by John Latshaw. However, the richness of the natural site runs much deeper. Indigenous peoples have recognized the importance of our ravine as a natural feature and as the logical starting point of a portage route around the Falls. The Willowbank site has evidence of encampment sites and the trading practices typical of an important crossroads, with significant artifacts dating back to the Archaic Period (9,000 BCE).
In 1834, the Hamiltons built their magnificent Greek Revival mansion set within a romantic picturesque landscape, creating a masterpiece of Upper Canadian Villa architecture. Alexander was very involved in the design and suggested many of the features, including the deep two-storey portico. He insisted on using the latest of technologies and though the chimneys had already been built for fireplaces, he had them retrofitted and installed the first wood stoves in Upper Canada.
"He [Alexander Hamilton] insisted on using the latest technologies…and installed the first wood stoves in Upper Canada."
Alexander Hamilton died in 1839, leaving his widow Hannah to raise ten children and manage the Willowbank Estate. Hannah continued to live in the house for almost fifty years. Her mother, from the prominent Jarvis family in Toronto, lived at Willowbank for many years helping her daughter maintain the property. The two women left many hundreds of letters, which provide a fascinating glimpse into the life of early Upper Canada and give insight into the proud matriarchal family.
Exactly one hundred years later in 1934, the Bright Family—pioneers in both wine and orchard industries—purchased the property just as the Niagara Parkway was being completed. The Brights undertook extensive renovations of the house, most notably changing the main entrance of the house from the east façade to the west. Noted automobile enthusiasts, the Brights added a circular drive, an allée of trees, a garage, and new curved stairs, effectively reorienting the house towards the Niagara parkway. The Brights also transformed the western part of the site, widening the verandah stairs and introducing broad sweeping lawns. On the interior, they created a spacious parlour with ornate cornices and scenic wallpaper typical of the period, this large southern room is still known as the Bright Parlour.
“Noted car enthusiasts, the Brights…added a circular drive, an allée of trees, a garage and new curved stairs…effectively reorienting the house towards the Niagara Parkway.”
After the Bright Family ownership the property went through a number of owners who made some minor changes but did not fundamentally alter the architecture or the landscape, including the Congregation of Missionary Sisters of Christian Charity and the Appleton Boy’s School. In 1985, the estate passed to its third owner in the span of less than twenty years: J. Anthony Doyle, a developer who began to restore the house to its 19th Century elegance and who pursued a number of potential end uses for the property. Archaeological surveys were done to allow a formal plan of subdivision to be processed and approved, but uncertainties continued and in 2001, Doyle applied for a demolition permit in part to force a decision on rezoning.
In 2003 Willowbank was rescued from demolition by the Friends of Willowbank, organized and spear-headed by the late Laura Dodson who would later found the School of Restoration Arts at Willowbank. In 2004, Willowbank received its National Historic Site designation and was placed under easement protection with the Ontario Heritage Trust, ensuring that it will never face the prospect of demolition again.
"In 2003 Willowbank was rescued from demolition by the Friends of Willowbank…and was placed under easement…ensuring it will never face the prospect of demolition again."
The present management plan sets out a clear framework for the use and interpretation of the site in ways that highlight and sustain the many layers of history and allows for ongoing use by the school’s students and faculty as an interactive learning site.