“Leave the beaten track occasionally and dive into the woods. Every time you do so you will be certain to find something that you have never seen before.”
— Alexander Graham Bell
BY LINDA MONDOUX
If you’re out exploring amid the vineyards and antique shops that dot the rural landscape of Niagara-on-the-Lake, don’t be surprised if you start seeing and hearing things as you stumble upon a wooded National Historic Site on the edge of the village of Queenston.
From your vantage point on a rise of land, imagine away the trees below and the journey through 8,000 years of human habitation begins, first with a clear view of natives camping out near the shores of the Niagara River. Soon, United Empire Loyalists will be hauling supplies from the wharf, before, in the blink of an eye, the scene changes and the area is blanketed in smoke from War of 1812 fires. Years pass. All around, the sounds of train and steamship whistles mix with music and merriment from an early Upper Canada garden party on the sprawling estate with a 19th-century mansion at its centre. A now-heritage automobile filled with tourists passes by on the new Niagara Parkway. More years pass. In a flash, you are transported to the 1960s as you peek through a window of the mansion-turned-monastery, where nuns are caring for mentally handicapped women. Fast-forward two decades or so, and schoolboys are laughing and running across the estate, only to be replaced by modern-day post-secondary students brandishing the latest cutting-edge conservation tools.
No, you haven’t fallen down a rabbit hole and entered Alice’s world of fantasy. You’ve discovered Willowbank, a gracious 13-acre estate and innovative educational facility owned by a non-profit organization and run by a board of directors. The estate, designated a National Historic Site, features an 1830s mansion that serves as the main campus for the School of Restoration Arts and the Centre for Cultural Landscape.
Unlike the majority of National Historic Sites that aim to promote heritage while conserving the past in a museum-like setting, Willowbank, named for the willow trees that once graced the property, is where the past is conserved for the future with help from the modern world.
'We're giving a continued life to a place ... '
According to Shelley Huson, Willowbank’s director of development, it’s when the mansion is filled with students that it really comes alive. “It’s buzzing,” she tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com. “It’s the people that come, that are part of the landscape, that make it so special — it’s not the artifacts by themselves.
“We’re giving a continued life to a place, as opposed to freezing it in time and making it static, which is often the deathknell for a place,” she adds.
The estate is a living lab for students at Willowbank, which grants a diploma in heritage conservation to graduates of an intense three-year program that is part academic and part hands-on, including onsite and offsite internships. The school, established in 2002, is one of the few of its kind in the world where students can learn design, conservation and craft skills at a historic site where the cultural landscape boasts 8,000 years of habitation.
“It is a perfect laboratory for 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,” Willowbank says on its website. “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.”
Because Willowbank is primarily a school, tours of the mansion have been limited to the summer months. But this summer, with the focus both staff-wise and cash-wise on the new school year in September (the number of students is doubling to 37 and there is already a waiting list for next year; a new dean has been hired; and a secondary campus is being readied at the former Laura Secord elementary school next to the estate in the village of Queenston) no one has been available to show visitors around the mansion, whose restoration is still a work in progress.
Huson hopes that will all change next year, when a “Friends of Willowbank” volunteer group is expected to be up and running at full speed to arrange tours and plan events. One of those events is expected to be the annual Willowbank Jazz Festival
, which will be held Sept. 16 at the Ravine Winery on York Road in nearby St. Davids. With headline performer Peter Appleyard, the festival also features food, wine, beer and a silent auction under a canopy. All proceeds go to benefit the School of Restoration Arts.
The jazz festival started out as a small fundraiser by a group of volunteers, and began life on the lawn at Willowbank. It has been moved to the Ravine Winery, which has a permanent tent area and lots of parking, to save money.
While smaller events such as the jazz festival are important to keep Willowbank and its work in the public eye, Huson says the push now is on a major $1.5-million capital fundraising program launched in March. Funds raised will help pay for the purchase and refurbishment of Laura Secord school, first built in 1914 and closed in 2011, and for upgrades to the Willowbank mansion.
New campus can be named after you
The capital campaign offers several naming rights opportunities. For the right price, you can get your name on the outside of the old school (as part of the sales agreement, the school board said the Laura Secord name must be retired), or inside on the auditorium (where cultural lectures and conferences will be held, attracting people from around the world) and major classrooms. Back at the mansion, Huson says all the rooms on the second floor now have sponsored names.
While drop-in tours at the mansion are not being held this summer, Huson says the public is always welcome to walk the picturesque grounds and take photos of the home from the outside any time. If you’re lucky, you’ll see students and master craftspeople working to restore the manor for future generations.
MyNewWaterfrontHome.com — August 2012