Description of Historic Place
The Willowbank Estate at 14487 Niagara Parkway, commonly known as Willowbank, is situated on a height of land overlooking the village of Queenston and the Niagara River. The three-and-a-half-storey Classical Revival mansion, named for the willow trees growing at the southern end of its property, was constructed between 1834 and 1836 in an architectural style popular to the elite Upper Canada society at that time.
The exterior of the building and surrounding property are protected by an Ontario Heritage Trust conservation easement. The property is designated by the Town of Niagara-On-The-Lake under Part IV of the Ontario Heritage Act (By-law 1659-86) and is also a National Historic Site.
The mansion stands at the edge of a plateau and overlooks an open lawn and beyond to the Niagara River and the village of Queenston. Vestiges of the original carriageway leading up from the Queen Street gate to the home are still visible in the relief of the slope. Some of the present landscape features at the mansion's western side date from the 1930s and onwards. These include a dirt driveway from the corner of the Niagara Parkway and Dee Road leading to a circular drive at the rear of the mansion. Many of the ornamental and exotic species that are randomly located around the open lawn date from the creation of a Victorian garden landscape during the late 1800s. Placing the home in a Picturesque setting was, and continues to be, one of its essential characteristics that reflect Classical Revival architecture of the early 19th century.
Willowbank is significant as a surviving mansion of the British colonial era in Canada that reflects the ideals of both Classical Revivalism and the Picturesque tradition. Alexander Hamilton, its original owner, was the fourth son of The Honourable Robert Hamilton. Alexander himself, held a number of public offices in the area, including postmaster, surrogate court judge and Niagara District sheriff. The wealthy aspired to build impressive homes such as Willowbank that adequately reflected their success. Revival mansions in Picturesque settings were a key component of Upper Canada's cultural landscape and were also suggestive of a romantic idealism to see the British rural countryside recreated in the colonies. A naturalistic landscape setting was an element which enhanced and offset the Classical Revival buildings as imagined in French 17th century pastoral landscape paintings. Naturalistic landscapes with irregular outlines, contrasts of light and dark, and varied compositions and vistas, were common elements in creating the Picturesque landscape that characterized country estates of Upper Canada in the early 19th century.
Colonial architecture was strongly influenced by a popular interest in the forms of Greek and Roman temple architecture and antiquity, from the late 18th to the mid-19th centuries. Classical Revival was a sub-style of this neo-classicism and was characterized by a front elevation with a central projecting pediment and supporting row of columns with applied measurements, proportions and details based on prescribed rules. Willowbank is an example of this style but it does not strictly adhere to the formula although it exhibits features that are a strong reflection of Classical Revival design. Among these are its setting, temple-like front portico, massive cubic volume and the symmetrical placement of large windows and doorways on the front façade. The large dimensions of Willowbank's hip roof, pediment and columns, as well as the towering nature of the latter, contribute to the grand scale of the house. An architectural feature that sets it apart from other Classical Revival houses of the same period is the use of eight, paired wooden Ionic columns that provide support to the roof and projecting pediment. This eight-column arrangement stands in contrast to the more formal temple configuration of designs with four to six front portico columns.
Excavations have recovered evidence of prehistoric and historic occupations on this property. One cluster of prehistoric artifacts included an un-typed broad-point that has a probable Middle Archaic date (8000-4500 B.P.). Another cluster consisted of a bi-face chert cache which probably dates to the terminal Archaic period (3500-3000 B.P.). Both clusters represent a rare occurrence in the archaeological record in Ontario of ritual behaviour at this location. The historic artifacts date primarily to the 19th century and numerous musket balls found in one area suggest that a War of 1812 skirmish occurred near the property.
Source: Conservation Easement Files, Ontario Heritage Trust
Character defining elements that contribute to the heritage value of Willowbank include its:
- Classical Revival architectural style sited within a Picturesque landscape
- proportions and axial symmetry that recall Greek and Roman temple architecture
- large scale and cubic massing of the structure that contribute to the mansion's grandeur
- low-pitched hip roof that allows the pediment to dominate the roof line
- four large sidewall chimneys that originally served as flues for cast-iron stoves
- west dormer window with Classical pediment
- dentil trimmed pediment and broad eaves that surmount the home
- three-bay front elevation that has intricately detailed neo-classical windows
- five-bay rear façade that has simpler window designs
- wood windows (predominately six-over-six, ten-over-twelve and twelve-over-twelve, plus the larger windows on the east elevation)
- temple-like front portico with its four pairs of Ionic columns that support the projecting pediment on the east façade
- pair of curved staircases that surround the two-storey covered west porch
- grand central staircase that leads to the eastern porch and main entrance
- large east and west entrance doors that have sidelights on the first storey
- coursed rubble masonry
- piano nobile first level that increases the number of storeys by one-half
- prehistoric evidence which includes an un-typed broad-point that has a probable Middle Archaic date of 8000-4500 B.P.
- prehistoric evidence which includes a bi-face chert cache which likely date to the Terminal Archaic period of 3500-3000 B.P. This represents a rare occurrence in the archaeological record for ritual behaviour in this location
- historic artifacts which date primarily to the 19th century
- musket balls located in one area suggesting the possibility of a War of 1812 skirmish near the site
- location that commands views of the Niagara River, Queen Street, the village of Queenston and Brock's Monument
- prominent location on the brow of a hill overlooking an open and relatively flat lawn
- location immediately east of the gully 'Deep Hollow' with its surrounding forest cover
- slightly skewed location on the site (relative to Dee Road) that allows for picturesque and varied views of the house on approach
- historic property features that include the stone gate on Queen Street and vestiges of the original winding drive
- location that affords an impressive view of the structure from the sweeping drive and allée on the west (Niagara River Parkway)
- allée of non-native trees along the western approach that leads to the mansion
- varied and numerous trees and shrubs on the property that reflect the Picturesque and Victorian garden phases of landscaping