BACKGROUNDER - WILLOWBANK NATIONAL HISTORIC SITE OF CANADA
May 25, 2006
Named after the willow trees gracing the bottom of its property, Willowbank is a grand three-and-a-half storey Classical Revival mansion set within a 12.5 acre estate overlooking the village of Queenston and the Niagara River. Constructed between 1834 and 1836 for local businessman Alexander Hamilton, whose father is the namesake of the City of Hamilton, Willowbank’s exterior architecture and landscape reflect the qualities of the Romantic fusion of Classical Revival architecture and the Picturesque ideas of landscape that characterized stately country estates in Upper Canada (now Ontario) during the early 19th century.
The house, which is largely unchanged in its exterior form, was built when interest in the ideals of neoclassicism was at its height in British North America. It possesses a sophisticated exterior design for its era, featuring a modified Ionic order for its front portico. It reflects the values of the Upper Canadian elite in the first half of the 19th century, who regarded the Classical Revival style as an ideal architectural expression of their aspirations to see a British agrarian landscape emerge within this newly-settled frontier.
Of equal importance to this vision was the placement of these temple-like mansions within naturalistic settings, based on English Picturesque landscape theory. Willowbank’s landscape displays the key elements of this theory, which strived to convey the impression of an untouched natural landscape. At estates such as Willowbank, the native forest and natural contours were exploited to convey a Romantic sense of controlled nature. The mansion stands at the edge of a plateau flanked by open lawns interspersed with clusters of mature trees. Vestiges of the original carriageway weave in and out of the trees from the original gated entrance on Queenston Street, offering strategic glimpses of the mansion en route to the top. The outer edge of the property is surrounded by dense foliage which frames a composed view of the mansion. True to the Picturesque, formal ornamental gardens and symmetrical borders are not to be found at Willowbank.
Early 19th-century estates have become extreme rarities in the face of urban growth and redevelopment. At Willowbank, the combination of intact mansion and landscape offers a comprehensive expression of the aesthetic values that shaped the dreams and ambitions of Upper Canada’s financial elite during the pre-industrial age.