The Rockwood story

Rockwood Villa (Photo © Ontario Realty Corporation, 2009)

"The Ontario Heritage Trust unveiled a provincial plaque in 1968 to commemorate Rockwood. The plaque stands on the grounds of the estate."


Ellen Kowalchuk

Buildings and architecture

Published Date:12 Feb 2009

Photo: Rockwood Villa (Photo © Ontario Realty Corporation, 2009)

Behind the stately façade of Kingston’s Rockwood Villa lies the history of mental health services in Ontario. Built in 1842 as a residence for local politician and businessman John Solomon Cartwright, Rockwood Villa was purchased by the government in 1856 as the nucleus of the Kingston Asylum. Since then, the site has evolved and new buildings have been constructed that reflect changing attitudes toward the delivery of mental health services. Other buildings on the site – including Rockwood Villa – have also been adapted to new uses.

In commissioning George Browne to design his residence, Cartwright selected one of Canada’s leading architects. Browne took advantage of the site’s topography and lakefront setting by orienting the villa’s formal, neoclassical façade towards King Street and positioning a sequence of rooms to culminate with a spectacular view of Lake Ontario. Cartwright, however, was unable to enjoy the picturesque beauty of Browne’s design as his health deteriorated shortly after completion of the building.

Cartwright’s death in 1845 prompted his widow Sarah to rent the property to John Palmer Litchfield, a British physician and educator who used the villa for a private asylum. In 1856, when the government of Upper Canada purchased the estate for use as an asylum, Litchfield and his male patients resided in the villa while the stables were renovated to house female patients. With completion of the massive Rockwood Building to the south in 1870, Rockwood Villa ceased to house patients and reverted to a residence for the hospital superintendent.

Today, the 50-hectare (123.6-acre) site is owned by the provincial government and managed by the Ontario Realty Corporation (ORC). ORC recognizes the heritage significance of the property and has identified it as a key heritage resource. Management of the property is guided by the ORC Heritage Management Process that provides for the identification and conservation of heritage places in a manner that protects their values for future generations.

Through its heritage management process, ORC identifies and communicates the heritage values of a place; provides training and support for ORC staff and service providers; undertakes routine maintenance; and hires heritage professionals to complete evaluations and conservation projects. ORC also consults directly with the Kingston Municipal Heritage Committee on capital works projects affecting Rockwood Villa. ORC’s continuing stewardship of the property includes comprehensive conservation planning to ensure that the cultural landscape, of which Rockwood Villa is an integral component, is appropriately and sensitively integrated into future uses.

Today, Rockwood Villa provides office space for 25 provincial ministry staff. Despite changes to its use, much of the villa’s original layout and fabric remains intact. This includes rectangular and curving spaces, vaulting and a two-storey octagonal tribune. Interior fabric includes French doors, plasterwork, woodwork and inlaid flooring.

Introducing contemporary features while retaining the heritage character of the building is a challenge for the ORC. Over the last several years, ORC has integrated life safety measures, improved heating and cooling systems, and incorporated modern office infrastructure into the 19th century building.