QUEENSTON, ONTARIO -- As a young girl I used to spend many lazy summer days cycling the Niagara Parkway in search of our country's past, imagining the footsteps of Sir Isaac Brock or Laura Secord. Until one day I stumbled across a big white stone house on the hill overlooking the historic town of Queenston. Long abandoned then, the two-storey mansion was known as Willowbank. It appeared to me like a home in "Gone With the Wind," a grand antebellum mansion. I was enchanted forever.
For years, the Greek Revival country home, which was built from locally quarried limestone and is adorned by eight massive columns that encircle the portico, stood abandoned, radiant as the day it was first built. Constructed in 1834 by renowned architect, John Latshaw of Stamford Township Hall fame (today's Lundy's Lane Historical Museum, 5810 Ferry Street), Glencairn and Ruthven in Cayuga, the regal white house on the hill stood steadfast during the making of our country. But it almost didn't survive the 20th century.
If it were not for the wisdom and determination of one, the entire legacy of Willowbank could have ended on a different chapter for on one fateful day in 2001, the previous owner attempted to obtain a demolition permit.
"Words couldn't describe what a horrible blow this would have been to our community," recalls Laura Dodson, a retired schoolteacher and the main force behind saving the Willowbank Estate.
Dodson rallied her troops. She lobbied politicians and granting agencies, putting her own money at risk and after a deluge of appeals, letters and committees, the prized classical structure which is considered by many as one of the finest examples of colonial architecture in North America was saved from demolition.
Designated as a National Historic Site in December 2003, the Grand Dame of Queenston Heights, Willowbank, was described by former Heritage Minister Sheila Copps as "a beautiful example of the classical revival architecture that characterized country estates of Upper Canada." "The designation of Willowbank as a National Historic Site of Canada will allow Canadians to better appreciate the built heritage that emerged in early 19th century Upper Canada and how it contributed to Canada's development as a nation," she said.
Built for Alexander Hamilton, the son of Robert Hamilton, Queenston's first mayor and brother of George Hamilton, founder of the city of Hamilton, Willowbank was the envy of all who laid eyes on her. At least one rebel, Benjamin Lett of whom historians believe torched Willowbank unsuccessfully, also torched the first Brock's Monument, which resulted in Sir Isaac's remains to be temporarily interred on the Willowbank property, while the now familiar Brock's Monument was being erected at Queenston Heights.
At first glance, Willowbank resembles one of the old southern mansions that hug the banks of the Mississippi River. Only Willowbank overlooks the banks of the Lower Niagara River, which at the time was the hub of Canada's earliest commerce trade. "Mr. (Robert) Hamilton was one of the wealthiest men in Upper Canada," says Mrs. Dodson citing a number of merchant shops, warehouses and property under the Hamilton name. Many consider Robert Hamilton as the prominent figure who initiated the whole portage trade along the Niagara River. For years, the prosperous Hamilton family controlled all shipping and portaging between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie.
"This was a thriving shopping centre of its day. All the descriptions of it say that it was one of the busiest ports in North America. The Loyalists were cutting across the river in barges and boats and landing here. People came to buy and trade goods. Soldiers came through to buy goods. When the country's first post office was established here on the Willowbank property, trade boomed as all the mail ships came here to Hamilton Wharf which was just at the end of the ravine," points Mrs. Dodson.
Although Alexander Hamilton dallied in the family business, it was as a civil servant where he shone. He was (Upper) Canada's first postmaster and also served as sheriff. Alexander's death at 45 years is often described as a heart attack brought on by depression over his overseeing of the grisly hanging of James Morreau, a rebel leader. After the hangman fled, the task of hanging Morreau went to the unskilled, inexperienced sheriff. It is said that Hamilton was haunted until the day he died over having to perform the execution. Hamilton died within a year of the botched hanging and only enjoyed his home for five short years.
Today, thanks to an anonymous donation of $1.3 million through the American Friends of Canada, $300,000 of Dodson's own money and a $200,000 loan guarantee that the Dodson's secured, the 12.5-acred estate was saved from the wrecking ball. On April 15, 2002 the NOTL Conservancy and the American Friends of Canada acquired the Willowbank School of Restoration Arts. Except for some cosmetic changes by previous owners, the home has remained virtually untouched over the years.
Talk to Mrs. Dodson and you'll discover there is a common thread woven into her causes. She cares about preserving the past for future generations. She was active in "Operation Clean," serves as president of the Niagara-on-the-lake Conservancy, a dedicated preservationist group, for more years than she cares to admit and she is an associate editor of "Edifice Magazine," Canada's magazine of knowledge among other activities.
Soon, Laura Dodson will become the recipient of the Order of Canada for her work in saving the historic Willowbank. Sporting a shy schoolgirl smile, she grins, "Oh I don't care much for a big ceremony. I would be very pleased with just receiving it (the Order of Canada) over a cup of tea."
Like many of other Mrs. Dodson's realized dreams, the Willowbank School of Restoration Arts was born over a cup of tea. "About five years ago, I was visiting my friend and CBC Radio was airing a story on students regilding Casa Loma through a school. The idea was for students to take a course from a master gildsmen and have them learn a craft. I thought why couldn't we do something like that with Willowbank." Fast-forward that year when Mrs. Dodson took a calligraphy class in Wales over Christmas. Lo' and behold it was again over a tea break that her teacher's wife, a well known fabric restorer, recalled how she helped to match the fabrics and tapestries at Windsor Castle after the tragic fire of 1992.
The spark for the school struck and became a reality when as president of the Niagara-on-the-lake Conservancy she passed a resolution that one day it would establish the Willowbank School of Restoration Arts. The future of Willowbank has been put in the caring hands of Dodson. As the founder of the Willowbank Restoration School for the Arts, her focus remains on preserving the past and teaching the lost craft to a new generation of restorationists.
"I thought there are jobs out there for people who love restoration work," she noted and added, "We're going to have lectures from Master craftsmen and the students will be able to restore in the place where they are working." So far, a Saturday morning lecture series has been conducted with more to come.
"As we grow in reputation, acquire additional funding and attract skilled craftspeople, we plan to add new courses every year. Eventually, we will have a full Heritage Restoration Programme and accreditation," she says and adds, "We plan to work closely with Heritage Canada to help establish national standards in Heritage Restoration and Preservation skills."
Today, unwavering on the hilltop, the ionic columns of Willowbank stand as a proud testament to our past. A Grande Dame saved by another.