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Nov 4 1959 [approximate date]

'Whitehern' Memorial To Gracious Age

'No house so worthy of preservation'

By Ray Blair

For years, people have walked along Jackson and MacNab Streets in downtown Hamilton and wondered about the stately stone home that stood at the corner. Surrounded by a high wall on two sides, a low wall on the front, and set amidst beautiful and ornamental gardens, it has intrigued many who wondered what it was like inside.

Soon, the citizens of Hamilton will be able to inspect the interior; the antique-filled room, its walls lined with steel engravings, painting and photographs, its outstanding collection of books and bric-a-brac -- all immensely valuable.

Whitehern -- the McQuesten residence -- has been given to the citizens of this city for public inspection as a period piece of the architecture of a century ago. More precisely, the McQuesten family has given it to the Hamilton Parks Board to control and maintain.

The offer was accepted last night by the board on receipt of a signed agreement by the last members of the McQuesten family; The Rev. Calvin McQuesten, 81, and the Misses Mary Baldwin McQuesten and Hilda Belle McQuesten.

It is a house about which Eric R. Arthur, dean of the University of Toronto, School of Architecture, writes: "...I know of no other house in Canada so worthy of preservation..."

In a letter to Mr. McQuesten, he wrote as follows:

I first saw the house when I was judging the 'Entrance Hamilton' competition more than a decade ago. Your brother, Mr. T.B. McQuesten, was very interested in that project and it was shortly after the competition that he invited me to 'Whitehern.

I immediately fell in love with it. It is not only a perfect example of an urban house of that period; it has something about it that speaks of Hamilton, and of nowhere else.

I have spoken often in lectures of 'Whitehern' as a unique example in a perfect state of preservation, of a gentleman's estate of the first half of the 19th century. House and buildings and garden -- are all there.

...The last few years of 'progress' have destroyed so many of our historic buildings, and the next decade may see even greater destruction. In the peace and quiet of Whitehern so close to the hurly burly of Main Street, future citizens and particularly, the children of the future, can have a vision of a vanished world of highly civilized, well mannered people -- a little world perhaps, in the 1840's, but nevertheless one that laid the foundation of the city of Hamilton today...1

The purpose of the McQuesten family in its gift was to forestall its destruction in the wake of downtown redevelopment and to keep it as a memorial to their grandfather, Dr. Calvin McQuesten, and their brother, Thomas Baker McQuesten, Ontario's great highway and park builder.

In making the gift of this fine home, just a block from the city's ultra-modern new city hall now under construction, Mr. McQuesten said he would not like to see it become a museum, but a 'period piece' which Hamilton could inspect at leisure to see how this city lived a century ago.

The agreement specifies that

this gift is made on the condition that the grounds be maintained as an ornamental garden and the house kept open to the public as a 'period piece' for at least 10 years. The stable is to be kept standing, and kept in repair.

And the furniture, carpets, rugs, pictures and bric-a-brac in the four rooms and hallway on the ground floor of the original house, the front hall and lounge in the basement, and the three principal bedrooms be arranged to the best possible advantage.

As a part of the pact, the three members of the McQuesten family are to retain a life tenancy of the 24-room stone building.

The Parks Board thus has taken under its wing for the enjoyment of all a house that has interested many passersby. Its stone walls and lovely gardens have often stirred the thoughts of many. Now, they will be able to go inside.

Mr. McQuesten calls his home and its acre lot "an oasis in a downtown desert." It is a secluded spot, almost isolated from the hurly-burly of commerce in the city's heart.

The house was erected by Richard Oliver Duggan shortly after he acquired the property in 1843. But he never lived in it and the house was sold in 1852 to Calvin McQuesten, M.D., for 800 pounds. It had been built for $10,000 at a time when labor was 50 cents a day.

Dr. McQuesten was a New Englander who came to Hamilton in 1835 to join his cousin, John Fisher -- who became the city's third mayor -- in the manufacture of a threshing machine which the latter had invented.

Their foundry stood at the corner of James and Merrick Streets. In it were cast the first cooking ranges made in Hamilton -- tall, highly-ornate, stately wood-burning affairs. The pair also cast the iron work for the first train in Canada.

Thus these young New Englanders became pioneers of the heavy industry which was to grow and grow, making Hamilton famous as a center of steel-making and industrial production.

A leader in the commercial and financial life of Hamilton, Dr. McQuesten became president of the growing city's first financial institution, the Gore Bank, which later was amalgamated with the Bank of Commerce.

He also took a leading part in church life and it was his notes on a tour of Canada and the United States that formed the basis for the fine acoustics built into Central Presbyterian Church when it was organized as a United Presbyterian congregation and erected its own building.

Later, after a falling out with the congregation, he was a prime mover in the establishment and building of MacNab Street Presbyterian Church. Its stately tower today casts its shadows over the house and gardens of Whitehern.

In Dr. McQuesten's time, the estate was known as 'Willowbank,' after its fine growth of willows. But, by the time that his son, Isaac, and family moved in, only a few rotting willow stumps remained.

So, in 1885, it was renamed 'Whitehern' (White House) after a historic residence in England by Mrs. Isaac McQuesten, mother of the present family.

Of Isaac McQuesten's family of two boys and four girls,2 only three remain, with T.B McQuesten, barrister, scholar and politician being the best remembered.

In the memory of the city's older generation, he will live long as the man who was a major factor in the establishment of the city's far-flung park system and the builder of highways in Ontario in the Hepburn government.

Hamilton's parks system continues to grow, as the gift of Whitehern itself proves, but the late T.B. McQuesten helped lay the groundwork.

While he was a Parks Board member, the city acquired King's Forest, the Mountain face lands, Mountain Park, the radial right-of-way to Ancaster, Chedoke Golf Club, Westdale and north-west entrance land, Gage Park, Crerar Park, Bruce Park and Inch Park among others.

He also played a prominent part in bringing McMaster University to this city from Toronto. He worked with the harbor commission to help bring the harbor to what it is today.

When he entered provincial politics in 1934, T.B. McQuesten never sat as a private member. He was immediately sworn in as Highways Minister, and became the driving power behind a $200,000,000 road building program over a nine-year period.

These included the Queen Elizabeth Way, its easterly extension to Oshawa, the opening up of Northern Ontario by highways, and the dual link between Gananoque and Brockville, opening up one of the most beautiful sections of the province.

Bridges built in his era included the Ivy Lea over the St. Lawrence, Niagara's Rainbow, and the Blue Water Bridge at Sarnia.

In 1934 he was appointed chairman of the Niagara Parks Commission, and led that group into developing the river frontier into a system of parks and roads that is the envy of the continent and the playground of the Peninsula. It was one of his most notable achievements.

He died on Jan. 13, 1948, at the age of 65.

It is for him and his grandfather that the McQuesten family is leaving their home to the citizens of Hamilton as a memorial.

To commemorate this, the family has requested that two tablets be placed in prominent positions at the residence to list the contributions of each to the city and province.

1 See W8697a for this letter. Calvin had enlisted the help of Professor Eric Arthur from the School of Architecture at the University of Toronto in order to help convince Mary and Hilda to give the house to the city after their deaths. At the time this particular letter was written, Mary's, Calvin's and Hilda's ages were (respectively) 84, 82 and 81. Neither they nor any of their siblings had any descendants to whom the property could be bequeathed. For the documents related to Calvin's scheme to convince his sisters, and the Hamilton Parks Board's acquisition of "Whitehern," in chronological order, see:
Box 04-111, 1958/09/29
W8697a, 1958/10/06
W8701a, 1958/10/06
W8273, 1958/11/06
Box 04-012, 1958/11/06
Box 04-113, 1958/11/07
Box 05-002, 1959/02/01
Box 08-140, 1959/11/03
Box 09-233, 1959/11/04
Box 14-090, 1960/06/18
Box 04-113a, 1971/05/04

2 A fifth daughter, Muriel, died in infancy.

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Copyright 2002 Whitehern Historic House and Garden
The development of this website was directed by Mary Anderson, Ph.D. and Janelle Baldwin, M.A.
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