History – a moveable feast, or so it would seem…

Simcoe Point House, Ajax, Ontario; 1911
James-Rowe-House, Maple-Grove
James Rowe House at 1600 Charles Street, looking southwest from Victoria Street

Canadians have a curious tendency to move things to a new location when the fancy takes them. I’m not talking about furniture or fridge magnets here – that would be perfectly normal! I mean historical artifacts – buildings to be specific.

Here in Whitby there’s a handsome two-story frame house – all white clapboard and shutters – that we pass when we walk down to the harbor. It’s always caught my attention; set back from the road, right on the water’s edge. Fishermen frequent the peaceful green alcoves that fringe its lawns and the large sash windows oversee the comings and goings of the marina behind it. The porch spans the entire front aspect. It’s the kind of house I’d like to live in, full of character and simple beauty.

We’d been here almost two years before I discovered it was actually a museum.  Originally the home of James Rowe, the first Mayor of Whitby, it was built around 1856, when it was known as Maple Grove, and occupied a spot at the intersection of Charles Street and Victoria Street, shaded by numerous mature trees – maples perhaps.

James-Rowe-House (side), Maple-Grove
North-facing side aspect of James Rowe House at 1600 Charles Street

Condos stand there now, evidence, we’re told, of “where dreams are lived and memories are made” according to the developers. There’s a cruel irony in commercialism imitating life. Maple Grove was moved to its present location in 1999 and re-named James Rowe House to reflect “its civic and historical connotations.” I’ve yet to figure out it’s opening hours, I fear they’re by appointment only.

Cullen Gardens was once a popular tourist attraction. For 25 years, the model village, ornamental gardens and vintage buildings offering a glimpse of the past occupied a special place in the hearts of the townspeople. It even served as a filming location for an episode of The Littlest Hobo.  Sadly, it’s now abandoned. In January 2006 it closed following the death of its creator Len Cullen at the age of 81, and at the urging of thousands of residents, the Town of Whitby purchased it for $9.7million. It remains in the public domain as a municipal park, but the buildings from the model village were sold off to a neighboring town and the gardens stand overgrown and unloved, fallen into disrepair. Once meticulously tended, the paths are now cloaked in weeds as nature slowly reclaims it. It has an air of desolate beauty, and when people mention it a tone of regret creeps into their voices.

Lynde House in it’s original location on Concession Road 2

There are several historic buildings here, and one of them, Lynde House, has been relocated from it’s original site in much the same way that Maple Grove was. Built in 1812-1814 by Jabez Lynde, one of Whitby’s earliest settlers, at 960 Dundas Street West, it was considered the finest house between Toronto and Kingston. It’s the only known remaining balloon-frame structure in the area and a well-preserved example of late Georgian or Loyalist style. It was transplanted in August 1986 and its interior restored to circa 1856 to reflect life in Canada’s earlier days. The only glimpse you can get now is if you peer through the windows. Like the gardens, it’s been abandoned.

Is this readiness to shift and change things an indication of the attitude towards preservation of the past in Canada? How do people think history is made? It doesn’t arrive ready-aged and it isn’t always conveniently placed; it needs to be cherished and preserved in situ to develop that patina of authenticity, that weight of years. As soon as you start moving things of historical significance around you dilute the power of their origins and diminish their importance. Urban regeneration should encompass heritage, not alter it.

Canada may be a young country, but it has so much cultural heritage to be preserved and shared, if only people gave it more importance. Everywhere has it’s own story and Canada is no different. There are fascinating tales right on your doorstep. Do you know who Duffin Creek is named after or of his mysterious demise? Have you heard of the Peak family and how they wrought a life from the land in the early pioneer days similar to (perhaps more successfully than) the Plymouth pilgrims of the U.S.

While people hungrily absorb antiquity elsewhere, at home it seems they’re missing a trick. Whitby has a Historical Society that’s run and funded by a group of dedicated volunteers who treasure our past and recognise the importance of being able to look back in time, but they’re on the verge of closure thanks to waning public interest and lack of financial support.

Something needs to change before Canadian heritage becomes sold off, irrevocably lost or condemned to life in storage.

Related Links:

A Sunday stroll and a history lesson
Whitby Historical Society

Whitby Shores, Whitby, Ontario

By Aisha Ashraf

An autistic Irish immigrant in a cross-cultural marriage, Aisha Ashraf is the archetypal outlander, writing to root herself through place and perspective. Published in The Rumpus, The Maine Review, River Teeth, HuffPost and elsewhere, her work explores the legacy of trauma, the nature of being an outsider and the narrow confines of belonging. She currently lives in Canada.


  1. It’s interesting, the difference between the Canadian and British approach to old buildings. I moved into a neighbourhood of modest bungalows on large lots over 20 years ago and since then have gradually watched them being torn down and replaced with huge luxury homes. I understand the logic of this – the supply and demand for lots big enough to build large homes close to the downtown core – but it still saddens me to see those modest little post-war homes disappear. On a more positive note, there are some who have “got the message” with respect to areas of the downtown core. The revitalisation of the Brick Works and the Distillery District being good examples.

    1. Thanks for the comment Judy. It saddens me that conservation/preservation have to fight the transient wallet-wielding powers of developers at every turn. People are being unwisely short-sighted not to consider the long term. I hope places like the Distillery District inspire them to do more to preserve what’s left.

  2. It’s very sad… Jamaica is also a “young” country but here historic buildings are more likely to be torn down to make way for townhouses. This has happened on our street, over the years… Which is worse than moving buildings. We also don’t seem to understand the value of these historic locations. Perhaps it’s a “colonial” thing. What a shame about the Cullen Gardens…

  3. Having lived in a wonderful 100 year old home in an Arlington, VA historic neighborhood, I can appreciate the importance of keeping some of our architectural history alive and well. It’s unfortunate there aren’t more people interested in supporting the local historical society’s efforts, and willing to embrace living in such beautiful residences (even if they require tender care and perhaps gentle renovations). I guess the one good thing is that some of the buildings are being moved rather than destroyed. Loved the photos.

    1. The thing is, they’re being moved unnecessarily, for reasons of convenience. Imagine if you were born in a house and it was moved to a different location – where would you say your birthplace was? History loses it’s authenticity as it becomes muddled and addled by successive generations.
      Glad you liked the photos, i find them mesmerising, like looking through the lens of a time-machine. You feel kind of omnipotent, God-like – as though you can part the clouds and look down into a life from another time.

  4. How interesting that they actually move buildings. I love old buildings with stories and the old winding streets of England are one of the things I miss most. Here in the DR there are old buildings in the Colonial Zone in the capital from the time of Christopher Columbus which are fascinating.

    1. Ooooh! I would LOVE to see those! What sights they must have witnessed through the years – I bet you can feel the history emanating from them like fumes from a lush!

  5. Aisha, I’m wondering if you received my 2 tidbits of Whitby history this morning: moving historical buildings in Whitby, and off topic, the no less fascinating plan during WWII which we now know as “Intrepid” in which Whitby Ontario played a part. In fact this second topic does include the moving of buildings, as after Project Intrepid was completed, the small wooden cottages which housed the intelligence officers near our sheltered harbour were moved inland. I believe one became Whitby’s first library. Don’t quote me on that.

    I’m afraid I don’t do facebook as this would take up more time than I can invent during a busy day. I sent you this information using your “query” form. If you would be so good as to send me back the note I sent to you this morning, it would be much appreciated. I meant to keep this for my journal but forgot to save it there after written.

    Dave Fernandez

    1. Hello Dave (and Jane!) It’s lovely to “meet” you both and your note this morning made my day! Of course I will send your note back. I’m thrilled that, as local residents, you’re enjoying my writing and I’m extremely grateful for the time you took to send me that info. I actually researched a little on the Station Gallery when I wrote this post – I had the idea that perhaps Mr Rowe lived directly across from the railway and so I discovered how the station was moved from it’s original position. It’s definitely fodder for a future post so watch this space 🙂 The same can be said for Intrepid. There is so much of historical interest in Whitby, I find it heartbreaking that the Historical Society is foundering. As established residents in the area, do you think Whitby’s history is “accessible” enough – or does more need to be done to increase public awareness?

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