Description of Historic Place
Situated high above a bend in the Muskoka River, Woodchester Villa was built in 1882 for Henry James Bird. This three-storey octagonal house features stuccoed walls, a verandah and balcony which encircle the building plus an observation gallery or widow's walk.
It is recognised for its heritage significance by Town of Bracebridge By-law 78-53.
Woodchester Villa is associated with Henry James Bird, an English immigrant from Gloucestershire. Bird moved to Bracebridge opening a woollen mill on the Muskoka River and making his home in the upper storey of the building. An increase in business made it necessary for Bird to build a separate family home. Keen on scientific innovation and philosophy, Bird followed Orson Squire Fowler's octagonal plan of construction, which was designed for healthier living. Naming it Woodchester, the house was completed in 1882 and became affectionately known as the Bird House.
A prominent figure in Bracebridge, Henry Bird was captain of the first fire company, a local councillor, a school trustee and a library board member. His accomplishments have included installing a pumping system for fire fighting purposes; inaugurating a municipal electric system and installing wired communication between the mill and Woodchester Villa. Woodchester was the Bird family home until 1978, when it was sold to the Bracebridge Rotary Club.
After two years of restoration work, the building was given to the Town of Bracebridge as a community-based public museum. The museum also devotes space to commemorating Rene Caisse, a local nurse who became famous for her work in dealing with cancer patients.
As one of a few remaining examples of octagonal residences in Ontario, Woodchester Villa is the largest in the province. With few structural changes, it remains true to its original design, sitting on a sloping lot overlooking the Muskoka River. The walls are 16 inches thick and an unusual piece is the two-foot wide passage which provides direct access from the hall to the living room. A stairway leads from the attic to the widow's walk, which is encircled by a wooden railing with seats. The verandah and balcony run the perimeter of the house.
The interior had "modern" features such as a dumb-waiter with two separate compartments for the mechanisms; ventilation shafts to convey air outwards and a speaking tube (forerunner of today's intercom system) that connected the kitchen, dining room and master bedroom. Two amenities that were uncommon for that period were the indoor lavatories and the presence of water pressure, provided by tanks on each floor. Fenestration is prevalent throughout the house; narrower walls contain single two-over-two double-hung sash windows, while wider walls have double versions. A dormer window provides light to the attic.
Sources: Town of Bracebridge By-law 78-53; Heritage file - Woodchester Villa.
Character defining elements that embody its heritage value include the:
- three-storey octagonal design which follows Orson Squire Fowler designs (well-known advocate and designer for octagonal structures)
- 16-inch thick field-stone walls
- two-over-two double-hung sash windows
- encircling verandah and balcony
- siting on the banks of the Muskoka River, providing a view to the town and the mill
- widow's walk with balustrade and seating
- interior features of the dumb-waiter, speaking tube, indoor lavatories and water tanks