Building on the past

The dining room at Fulford Place in Brockville

Buildings and architecture, Community

Published Date: Feb 12, 2009

Photo: The dining room at Fulford Place in Brockville

Eastern Ontario offers an array of impressive historic houses. Some of these houses – owned and operated by the Ontario Heritage Trust – are featured here. They are the former homes of Ontario’s leading citizens, providing a lasting legacy of prosperity that started with the fur trade, continued through the development of 19th-century towns toward the dawn of the 20th century. Several of these buildings are also National Historic Sites. Individually, they are provincially significant in both architectural style and in personal history. Collectively, however, they represent a rich cross-section of over 200 years of southeastern Ontario’s history.

In the late 18th century, what would become Upper Canada was inhabited largely by First Nations. Loyalist settler Peter Ferguson was granted land in remote Charlottenburgh Township where, in 1784, he erected a log cabin. He eventually sold his property to another settler, John Bethune. In 1804, Bethune built a one-and-a-half-storey house that incorporated the log cabin as a wing. The house eventually passed to renowned cartographer and North West Company partner David Thompson. This is the lineage of the Bethune-Thompson House that stands in the hamlet of Williamstown. It is notable for the French construction techniques of its walls as well as its fine late-Georgian front door, staircase and parlour mantel. But most importantly – and still visible within the west wing – are the over-200-year-old log walls of the original Ferguson cabin, a witness to Ontario’s antiquity.

Pointe Fortune on the Ottawa River straddles the Quebec-Ontario border. On the west bank, at the head of once-mighty rapids, stands an imposing, four-square Georgian stone mansion built by North West Company partner John Macdonell. From this remote spot, Macdonell operated his trans-shipment service for voyageurs. The house is unexpectedly grand and well finished with a Georgian central hall plan, 10 fireplaces and a second-floor ballroom featuring ornate Adamesque plasterwork – features that attest to Macdonell’s success in business. Prosperity also characterized Macdonell’s home-life as he and his wife Magdeleine Poitras had 12 children in the course of their life together. The upper floor still retains the original four bedrooms, each with central playing/dressing area flanked by 13 bed-closets tucked into corners of each room.

Sleeping closet at the Macdonell-Williamson House

On the St. Lawrence River near Maitland, Loyalist Dr. Solomon Jones built a large two-storey Georgian stone house in 1800. For many years, Jones was the only doctor between Kingston and Cornwall. The house passed to his son and remarkably through five more generations of family ownership before being acquired by the Trust. The house contains a magnificent collection of textiles, furnishings and agricultural and medical artifacts amassed over 172 continuous years of Jones family occupation.

Further inland, the Town of Perth was a well established commercial and military centre by the second decade of the 19th century. Two of the town’s prominent lawyers, Thomas Radenhurst and Daniel McMartin, are associated with Trust-owned properties in Perth – Inge-Va (1824) and McMartin House (1830).

These roughly contemporary structures make for an interesting contrast in style. Inge-Va was built of rough, coursed sandstone by Scottish masons. Throughout the 19th century, it underwent alterations reflecting late Georgian, neoclassical and Gothic Revival tastes – but it always remained picturesque, finely detailed and diminutive in scale, in the image of a cottage. McMartin House was built on a grand scale approaching that of a public building – an expression of the American Federal Style, with a two-storey façade of semi-elliptical arches constructed of carefully coursed brick with cut marble detailing and quoins. The tin clad roof featured two lanterns plus a central cupola, all bracketed by massive chimneys at each gable end. It was in towns such as Perth that the confidence of an establishment professional class began to take root in the early 19th century.

The turn of the century ushered in the creation of that supreme show of individual confidence – Fulford Place – on the banks of the St. Lawrence in Brockville. Fulford Place and its grounds were completed in 1900 by George Fulford who, in an age before income tax, had amassed a huge fortune from the patent medicine business. He built this massive stone mansion on a ridge above the river and softened it with expansive wood verandas that take advantage of the views across the river and the surrounding landscape, designed by Boston’s renowned Olmsted Brothers firm.

From humble homesteads to resplendent mansions, these buildings represent a range of people whose lives added to an already distinct eastern Ontario culture. Visiting these buildings today provides you with a unique perspective on how our ancestors lived, worked and shaped Ontario. Saving these treasures for future generations is the mission of the Trust. Experiencing them and learning their stories remains your pleasure.

McMartin House, Perth, 1830

Photo: McMartin House, Perth, 1830

Inge-Va, Perth, 1824

Photo: Inge-Va, Perth, 1824