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.
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.
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.