The Park House, one of Canada’s most interesting buildings
If the walls could talk, the Park House would be one of the most interesting buildings in Canada. Built about 1839, the Park House has survived fires, storms, the Aug. 21, 2011, F-3 tornado and has hosted some of the town’s most distinguished visitors. It is not only the town’s oldest building but one its most legendary.
It was constructed in the late 1830s for Canada Company Commissioner Thomas Mercer Jones for his wife Elizabeth Mary Strachan, the daughter of Bishop John Strachan of Toronto who was the most powerfulman in the province at the time. Built by the “somewhat notorious” Captain John Longworth, the elegant residence was the most substantial building in Goderich and served as the Canada Company’s headquarters. In an effort to replicate gentile English society in the wilderness, Mrs. Jones staged gala events at the residence.
In 1852, the Canada Company dismissed Jones and the residence became the Bank of Upper Canada’s agency. The bank moved about 1858, according to “Memories of Goderich.” By 1862, the Grand Trunk Railway owned the property and surrounding stables and converted it into an inn called the Maitland Hotel.
The proprietor, Edward Hosker, advertised the Maitland Hotel as “most pleasantly situated on an eminence 120 feet high, overlooking the Harbour and Lake Huron” surrounded by “good orchards, gardens and rural walks.” Bed and meals could be had for $1 per day. Although Hosker denied it, in 1865, The Huron Signal accused him of tying up his water pump to force guests into purchasing beer and other intoxicating spirits at the bar. The Maitland may also have been the hotel that U.S. Consul, Thomas Fitnam, in 1866, suspected of being involved in smuggling operations.
In the August 1872 election campaign, Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald spent three nights at the Maitland Hotel. On his first night, a torch light parade marched the Old Chieftain down West street to the Maitland where he dined with 60 invited guests and passed the evening in “conversation and song” until after midnight.
In 1873, J. J. Wright ran the hotel for a season while he rebuilt the Point Farm Hotel destroyed by fire the previous year. When Wright reopened the “new” Point Farm in 1874, the Maitland Hotel was abandoned. The town realized the need for a summer hotel to attract the growing American tourist trade.
In April 1875, Mayor John Davison called a public meeting to debate the merits of buying the property surrounding the Maitland for a summer hotel. Opponents of the scheme were concerned that the presence of Americans in Goderich might harm the town’s morals. Others would only support the park bylaw if itwas run on temperance principles. On April 25, the town held a referendum. A “small majority” supported assisting the investors in the summer hotel scheme by purchasing the property now knownas Lions’ Harbour Park.
A grand summer hotel was built on the park land beside the old Maitland Hotel under Captain Edward Marlton’s proprietorship. Little is known of the Summer Hotel but it was intended to accommodate 200 guests. It had at least two towers, marble fireplaces and fine furnishings to rival the Point Farm’s splendour. Marlton resided in the old Maitland Hotel on the property adjoining the park. In March 1879, the summer hotel was dubbed the Park House and advertised itself as “delightfully situated” and “most conveniently” located for steamboat travellers.
On Nov. 7, 1880, fire razed the Park House. The Signal called the fire “a scene of awesome grandeur” as “flames burning from the huge structure lit up the sky for miles for miles around” (the fire was seen in Exeter). The wooden structure was “laid in ashes” with “not a stick standing, only a heap of ashes.” It was only with difficulty that the fire brigade saved the old Maitland from the flames.
The fire’s cause was a mystery and rumours abounded. In Detroit, in April 1881, a notorious local scalawag, Charles Malton, made a deathbed confession claiming that someone had paid him $100 “to apply the brand” to the original Park House.
The financial loss of the fire was in excess of $10,000 and could not be replaced. The Sheriff seized the old hotel in February 1881. In May, Captain Gregor McGregor purchased the old hotel which became known as the Park House with the intention of operating it as a summer resort. Capt. McGregor promised that “although accommodation will not be so great as last year, every effort will be made to secure the comfort and ease of travellers.”
Even though McGregor hosted Sir Hector Langevin, the Minister of Public Works, mazy dances, and fraternal lodge functions, he could not make the Park House profitable. In May 1882, the Sheriff auctioned the building for $1,425. The Signal stated that “although the building is not a first class one” the sale was a “bargain” because “the site is one of the prettiest on the continent.”
The Park House’s fortunes improved greatly at the turn of the century. A fountain, pavilion, and other “amusements” were added to the park. In 1902, J. J. Wright returned as the Park House’s proprietor after the Point Farm was sold. Wright “made considerable improvements” at the Park House including the addition of the front portico in 1903 and a telephone in 1904. The Park House had accommodation for thirty roomers during the summer season. Wright could serve up to fifty guests which he hoped would come from as far as Detroit and Chicago.
Although it had long abandoned its “dry” principles, the Park House was considered moral enough to host the Methodist Conference’s Epworth League Summer School in August 1905. It also benefitted from Canadian Pacific Railway’s opening in 1907. A walkway and stairs to the beach were added for guests’ convenience. Wright, who was “known far and wide as a genial and capable host,” operated the Park House until shortly before his death in 1915.
Afterwards, the Park Housewent through a series of owners who ran it as a resort in the summer and boarding house in the winter. In 1928, the future of the Park House seemed grimas council debated tearing it down and selling the property. Fortunately, in May 1928, a “wise” council chose tomaintain the Park House “as one of the old landmarks in town.” The building was fixed up so that it could continue to operate as a summer resort. Although the arrival and departures of guests were printed in the local papers into the 1930s, the Depression hurt the American tourist trade. In 1932, the Signal reported that the old building had gone through ‘many vicissitudes.’
On Sunday, Dec. 9, 1945, one of the boarders’ children put ashes from a fire grate into a cardboard box. Theashes caught fire and nearly “gutted” the Park House. The fire severely damaged the upper floor but the Park House was a resilient old building. Its heavy beams were deemed structurally sound. The town council undertook amajor re-construction which significantly altered the Park House’s exterior but it was still the Park House nonetheless.
When it reopened on Sept. 15, 1947, under the management of Bert Brereton, the historic landmark was fully refurnished and modernized. “For comfort and service,” the Signal-Star claimed that “the Park House will rate high in Ontario.” Indeed, the legendary Park House continues to “rate high” in the esteem of all who know it as a tavern, dining roomand historic landmark.
The Park House, one of the most interesting building in Canada, still stands to this very day in Goderich.
The Park House c. 1900.