Whitehern Museum and Its Secret Garden. Detailed Review with Photos. This beautiful historic mansion was once the home of the famous McQuesten family.
Time capsules set into building foundations usually contain only a handful of items from an era. Their purpose is to provide a sense of daily life at the time of construction through what academics call “material culture” or in layperson’s terms “stuff”. Whitehern Historic House and Garden in downtown Hamilton is a time capsule on a grand scale. It is a giant collection of more than 30,000 pieces of “stuff” from three generations of one family who lived here for more than a century, from 1852 to 1968.
The McQuestens changed the landscape of Ontario through their commercial and professional exploits. Although private and reserved while alive, the family showed no shyness about opening up their home and private letters to strangers after their death, and when the last member passed away in 1968, the house passed into the hands of the Hamilton Parks Board. After careful renovation, it opened as a museum in 1971. Today, you’re welcome to pay a visit and snoop through the McQuesten’s former home for the modest price of a guided tour.
The house was originally built for Richard O. Duggan, an attorney. Whitehern gained official National Historic status in 1962 (while members of the family were still occupying it) because of the survival of so many of its original architectural features. These include its limestone walls (quarried from the nearby Hamilton Mountain), its classic symmetrical Georgian frame, many fine neoclassical details like the white-pillared portico, and its landscaped grounds and garden surrounded by an original stone wall on three sides. All of these may be enjoyed from the street but if you want to see the interior details you must make your way through the pineapple-topped iron gate, walk around the path surrounding the heart-shaped garden, mount the steps and ring the doorbell, then wait for a butler or a house maid to answer.
Notice when the door opens that your friendly “servant” (the guide) is dressed in an outfit that someone in his or her role would have worn in the thirties. This is because Whitehern Museum is restored to the year 1939 or as close as it is possible to replicate. At this time, four surviving unmarried siblings, the Rev. Calvin, Tom, Mary and Hilda, were all living here.
Looking around the entrance hall, it’s hard to imagine this as a home of the 1930’s, though, or even the 20’s. The heavy wood furniture, the Persian carpets, the wall coverings, the darkly framed antique prints, the creaky-looking winding staircase straight ahead … all of these look like something from the Victorian age. In fact, most of the furnishings are from an earlier period. Victorian and Edwardian family heirlooms dominate. While it may be stretching it a bit to claim that “they never threw anything out”, the McQuestens did keep more than the average family. Part of this is because the first generation to live in the house led an opulent life, and bought fine things, but the second and third generation struggled through a long period of more than 20 years of financial problems. Today, when almost everything is seen as disposable, this preservation instinct makes the McQuestens and their home unique and worth examining.
The Whitehern library, a small room on the right hand side of the hallway, is jammed floor to ceiling with antiquarian books. During Christmas, the family’s greeting cards (treasured originals) jut from between the books. In addition to a fine literary collection, the museum’s archive contains a huge stash of documents and letters from the 1820s right up to the 1960s. Many of the family letters have been transcribed and are available online and in book form (“The Life Writings of Mary Baker McQuesten: Victorian Matriarch” by Mary J. Anderson).
The dining room next door is flamboyantly decorated and spacious enough to hold a table capable of seating ten guests, a full sofa, two sprawling side boards and a large fireplace painted to look like marble. A spectacular Victorian chandelier casts a warm glow over the table, which is usually set with the family’s dishes monogrammed in gold. While most of the house is equipped with electric lighting, as it would have been in 1939, this chandelier is gas.
Across the hallway is the formal parlour with its piano, oil paintings, gigantic gilt-framed mirror, gold-leaf wallpaper, and rather uncomfortable-looking sofa and chairs. Still, the room has a cozy feeling, cluttered with paintings and prints and photographs, and it’s easy to imagine an afternoon tea party taking place here, with ladies in silk dresses daintily perched on the edges of those seats.
For real comfort, though, you need to visit the breakfast room at the back of Whitehern. This smaller space evokes the intimacy of private life, as opposed to the public life of the front of the house. At Christmas time this room is jammed full of the original toys of the McQuesten children, and of course a Christmas tree. The dolls, games, cards, skates, buggies, books and other childish delights are surprisingly well-preserved, considering how several of them were probably used by more than one child and possibly even more than one generation. At other times of the year, a table in the middle of the room is spread with playing cards, as if the four siblings have just stepped away from a game.
Just beyond the breakfast room is a corridor that leads into the 1937 addition. It looks strikingly different from the rest of the house – it’s modern. The family was by this time doing well financially again and could afford to build on to the house. They added a kitchen (the old one was in the basement) and a small suite of rooms for a live-in servant (a bedroom, a sewing room and an art deco washroom). A fire in the 1990s destroyed part of this space and its furnishings, so it has been redecorated with items that didn’t belong to the McQuestens but that resembled ones that did – for example, the refrigerator, stove and period cooking utensils, including Depression glass fridge boxes and a Dionne Quintuplets calendar. The telephone on the wall is a curiosity for schoolchildren, many of whom have never heard the sound of a dial and don’t recognize it when the museum guides tell them to close their eyes and guess what’s making the noise.
The winding staircase and brilliant stained glass window at the first landing is the focal point of the hallway. Make your way up its carpeted treads to the second floor.
Here you find the family bedrooms. One belongs to Tom, the youngest son of the last generation, who was the golden boy of the last generation. He’s credited with restoring the family’s financial and social position in the community through his 35-year career in law and politics and public service. The wallpaper is a replica of a pattern from the 1920s that was uncovered when the walls were stripped during a recent restoration phase. The chaise longue is from the 1930s, as is the illustrated Quebec hooked rug, a lovely piece of Canadiana. Tom was an athlete in his day and there are a range of sports memorabilia including a signed Hamilton Tigercats football.
Isaac, the oldest son, loved the outdoors, as is evident from the scenic pictures in his room and the sporting goods. The girls’ bedroom is a large space with huge, heavy armoires, a lady-like writing desk and a wall covered with paintings by Ruby, the artist in the family. (In 2011, the Art Gallery of Hamilton hosted an exhibit featuring her paintings.) The family’s love of nature, and botany in particular, shows up here as well.
The basement of the house was originally the kitchen but when the family added the first floor kitchen in 1937 the basement became Tom’s den or “man cave”. It’s a knotty pine-panelled bachelor pad decorated in the colonial revival style, and unlike the trendier art deco bathroom upstairs, it reflects the more conservative middle class tastes of the same era. With its huge stone fireplace and chunky easy chairs covered in chenille resembling oriental carpets, this room has a strongly masculine feel to it -- a retreat from the feminine Victorian space upstairs.
The regal-looking chairs against the wall were used by the Queen and King when they opened the Queen Elizabeth Way in 1939 during their tour of the province. Tom was at that time Minister of Highways and it was under his leadership that the Queen Elizabeth Way (or the QEW) was built. Oh, and that hooked rug depicting what appears to be a rural road? That is the QEW, c. 1937. The rug was designed by Quebec artist and textile artisan Georges-Édouard Tremblay (the same artist who did the one in Tom’s bedroom). What a far cry from the multi-lane expressway we know today!
Before you leave Whitehern, a visit to the back garden is a must. It’s surrounded by stone walls, and you might not notice it, especially if you enter the property from Jackson Street. There were gardens here from the earliest days of the house, and each generation of inhabitants tended them and left their mark.
This lovely space at the back of Whitehern was re-designed in the late 1920s by the
husband-and-wife team landscape firm of Dunington-Grubb, a famous team who also
worked on the Royal Botanical Gardens, Gage Park in Hamilton, Oakes Garden Theatre in Niagara Falls, and the
elaborate private gardens at the Parkwood Estate in Oshawa. They were pioneers
in the garden design industry in the early years of the 20th
century. During spring and summer, it’s common to see wedding photo shoots
here, the occasional string quartet or garden party, or just people from the
neighbourhood sitting and enjoying the beauty of nature, as they’ve been doing
for more than a century in this spot. Like the house, the “Secret Garden” is a
Special events & for more information
The house is located at 41 Jackson Street West, Hamilton. Throughout the year, they host special events.
To learn more about the family, check out my story about the McQuestens.