Description of Historic Place
The building at 15 King Street, known as Woodchester Villa, overlooks the Muskoka River in the Town of Bracebridge. The two-storey, concrete and masonry building is designed in the Octagonal Style and was constructed in 1882.
The exterior, select areas of the interior and scenic character of the 2.2 hectare property are protected by an Ontario Heritage Trust conservation easement. The property is also designated by the Town of Bracebridge under Part IV of the Ontario Heritage Act (Bylaw 78-53). Since 1980 Woodchester Villa has been a municipally owned house museum.
Located at 15 King Street, Woodchester Villa is set upon an elevated site with a commanding view of the Muskoka River. Corresponding to its intention as a health-enhancing design, this elevated, 2.2-hectare site serves to catch the breezes, and offers excellent ventilation and light to the villa. Hugging the side of the hill from Muskoka Road to the villa, the original driveway survives as a dramatic and picturesque approach.
Woodchester Villa is historically significant for its association with Henry J. Bird (1842-1936), who was an important woollen manufacturer and civic leader in Bracebridge. In 1872, Bird relocated his woollen mill to Bracebridge from Peel Township due to the persistent flooding there and because of the ample water power resources of the Muskoka River. In addition, Bracebridge was a favourable location for raising sheep. Bird's mill became one of the town's most prominent industrial facilities. In operation until 1953, the Bird Woolen Mill became well-known for its water resistant, mackinaw cloth, popular with lumberjacks. The mill also produced great quantities of blankets for the Muskoka tourist trade, and was a major supplier of wool cloth for military purposes in the First World War. Apart from his successful business, Bird was prominent in civic affairs, serving as a town councillor six times between 1878 and 1907. He was also a leading advocate for the development of water and electrical utilities in Bracebridge. Bird was deeply interested in technological and scientific advancements which may have influenced his design of Woodchester Villa. The octagonal design was said to offer health-enhancing benefits; his son's death from tuberculosis, may have contributed to his preference for an octagonal form. Named after the English village in Gloucestershire where Bird was born, Woodchester Villa survives as the oldest recognized heritage building in the Muskoka region and was occupied by the Bird family until 1978.
Woodchester Villa is architecturally significant as one of a small number of octagonal houses to be constructed in Ontario during the 19th century. Based upon the principles advocated by American phrenologist Orson Squires Fowler in his book 'A House for All' (1849), extolling the health-enhancing benefits and efficiency of octagonal construction, Woodchester Villa incorporated not only the eight sided plan, but a large number of Fowler's other innovative ideas. Included in the 1882 design of Woodchester Villa were Fowler's suggestions for the installation of a central heating system, fresh air ventilation shafts, 'speaking tubes' between floors, attic cisterns, indoor plumbing and water closet, vertical transportation (dumbwaiter) and a plan for cross-ventilation in the sleeping quarters using interior transom lights. Most significant was the adoption of Fowler's idea to use 'gravel wall' construction - an early form of poured concrete - as the construction material for the exterior walls above the foundation and for those in the basement's interior. Woodchester Villa is one of Ontario's earliest surviving examples of concrete construction without reinforcement. The octagonal motif extends to the detailing of Woodchester Villa, as seen in the perimeter verandahs, rooftop lookout, central chimney, flag pole and staircase newel posts and hand rails. True to Fowler's recommendations, the exterior of the house is finished in stucco with the interior featuring simple mouldings, but with half-octagonal beading. No interior space is wasted in the design with corners utilized as built-in closets. A fireplace, dormer windows, and enclosed front porch contribute to the evolution of the house.
Source: OHT Easement Files
Character defining elements that contribute to the heritage value of Woodchester Villa include its:
- location overlooking the Muskoka River
- frontage on Muskoka Road which forms its original approach
- original driveway extending from Muskoka Road to the villa
- two-storey, octagonal plan on a partially exposed basement
- hipped roof with gable roof dormers
- exposed, coursed, Muskoka granite foundation
- 'gravel wall' construction of the exterior walls comprising gravel, stones and large rocks
- stucco clad exterior above the foundation
- segmented arched windows with 1/1, wooden sashes and four-pane storm windows
- French windows to the verandah above the front entrance
- array of eight-sided features including central chimney; rooftop flagpole; rooftop lookout with open balustrade; open, first and second storey, encircling verandahs with bracketed supports; verandah post bases, bellies and capitals
- main entrance with half-glass door, and coloured sidelights and transom lights
- modified central hall plan
- open, turned staircase with geometric patterned, cut-out balusters, octagonal newel posts, brass newel lamp with octagonal globe, the octagonal stair rail, and tongue-and-groove wainscoting with half-octagonal rail
- painted graining of the wood mouldings
- wood mouldings including the broad baseboards, angled window casings, panelled doors, plain crown mouldings and stair hall door casing with half octagonal beading
- two-toned hardwood, strip flooring on the first floor
- white pine, painted grained flooring of the second storey
- numerous built-in corner closets and library bookcase with desk
- second storey ventilation transom lights
- central heating and fresh air ventilation shafts with decorative iron covers
- basement to attic dumbwaiter with counterweight shaft
- original water closet beneath the main staircase
- basement kitchen with elaborate tin ceiling, large enamel sink, white pine flooring and battened doors
- basement larder with white pine flooring
- basement's internal walls of 'gravel wall' construction
- finished attic with tongue-and-groove wall and ceiling cladding
- fireplace with iron grate and glazed tile surround and hearth