Bell O'Donnell House
House of Heads
96-98 Water Street
Links and documents
Listed on the Canadian Register:
Statement of Significance
Description of Historic Place
The Bell O'Donnell House, located at 96-98 Water Street, is situated on the southeast corner of Mary and Water Streets, in the City of Guelph. This two-storey limestone building was designed in the Gothic Revival style by architect Matthew Bell and was constructed in circa 1858.
The property was designated, by the City of Guelph for its historic and architectural value, under Part IV of the Ontario Heritage Act (By-law 1979-10058).
The Bell O'Donnell House is associated with Matthew Bell (1820-1883), an architect, sculptor and mason. Bell came to Guelph from Newcastle, England with his family around 1850 and purchased the property, on which the home stands, in 1858. From the quarry at the junction of Water Street and the stone bridge, Bell procured the limestone needed to build this, his first home. The building served as the Bell family's residence until it was sold, in 1872, to local melodeon-maker John Jackson. Long-time owner Wilf O'Donnell purchased the property in 1948.
The Bell O'Donnell House has come to receive national recognition due to the distinctive series of eight carved stone heads which adorn the northeast gable of the house. It is due to these near life-size heads that the home has become colloquially known as “The House of Heads”. The structure has survived with little alteration for 150 years and is one of a number of stone houses, including 40 and 49 Albert Street and 22-26 Oxford Street, in this area of the City, which illustrate Bell's fine sculptural decoration.
The Bell O'Donnell House is an example of fine craftsmanship and exquisite detail, as illustrated in the sculptural decoration of the eight carved stone heads adorning the home's northeast elevation. During the winters, Bell worked on sculpting intricately detailed lintels for the windows and doorways, the eight heads, and other carved works to be used in the construction of this fine Gothic Revival structure. It has been noted that Bell was a great devotee of the works of Charles Dickens, and that perhaps the heads were modeled after characters from his novels. The interior of the home is also impressive, containing much of the original woodwork including an unusual staircase, lit by a skylight.
Sources: City of Guelph By-Law 1979-10058. “Around and About – The House of Heads”, Olive Sunde. Statement of Reasons for Designation, Schedule C, 1979.
Character defining elements that contribute to the heritage value of the Bell O'Donnell House include its:
- detailed carvings by Matthew Bell
- limestone walls on three sides of the house (elevations facing Water Street, Mary Street and to the west)
- roof and the skylight feature over the interior staircase
- eight carved stone heads on the front (northeast) gable-end of the building
- elaborate Gothic copings over paired windows on both floors
- intricately carved stone lintels over the doors and windows
- decorative bargeboard
Local Governments (ON)
Ontario Heritage Act
Municipal Heritage Designation (Part IV)
Theme - Category and Type
- Expressing Intellectual and Cultural Life
- Architecture and Design
Function - Category and Type
- Multiple Dwelling
- Single Dwelling
Architect / Designer
Location of Supporting Documentation
City of Guelph
Community Design and Development Services
1 Carden Street
Cross-Reference to Collection