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Mrs. Anna Jameson by H.P. Briggs, RA
(Niagara Historical Society)

Robert Jameson's villa:
An early house in the Wellington Place neighbourhood

Stephen Otto

Like the Australian bower bird that prepares a cosy nest to attract his mate, Robert Sympson Jameson put up an urbane little villa on Front Street, Toronto, in 1836-37 in anticipation of his wife's joining him in Canada.

He had arrived here in 1833 to take up an appointment as attorney-general for the Province of Upper Canada following a four-year term in the West Indies as chief justice for Dominica. His cultured but headstrong wife, Anna Brownell Murphy, stayed behind in England when he went to the tropics. To his dismay, she hung back again from coming with him to Canada. Building a house for her was a last ditch bid to save his marriage

Jameson bought land for the house for £534 in November, 1833, when the Crown auctioned off a number of lots on the Garrison Common. Today The Globe and Mail occupies much of the site bounded by Front Street, Spadina and Wellington.

His letters to his wife in 1834 and 1835 tell of landscaping and planting the ground. They also explained he had been forced to delay building by a shortage of money. However, construction was well under way by Fall, 1836, when a labourer was reported to have been hurt after scaffolding broke during work on the building.

Mrs. Jameson arrived in late December, 1836, and found little to like in either Toronto or the house, which was a few months short of completion.

She moved into her new home in March, 1837. In a letter to friends back in England she offered an opinion on the house that turned into a biting criticism of her husband:

The new house which he is building from plans I have seen must be a nice, comfortable place. I remarked that there was no arrangement for... any friend who might stray this way, but I thought the omission characteristic.

Little about how the house appeared and was laid out internally was known until recently, when plans and specifications for alterations to the residence made in the 1850s for Frederick Widder were found to include much information.

South elevation c.1854 showing proposed addition on left (Ontario Archives 4816, C11-106

Plan of Jameson house and stable yard. In this image, Wellington Place is at the bottom, Lake Ontario at the top.
(Ontario Archives 4816, C11-106)

A drawing of the front elevation made circa 1854 shows the original building as a two storey brick structure, four bays wide, with a flat roof. On the left of the drawing is the proposed addition. The two centre bays are recessed slightly, while above the eaves of the flanking bays run decorative, panelled parapets. On the ground floor, four pairs of French doors open on a covered verandah with its bow-roofed canopy carried on decorative wooden posts or pilasters.

A site plan shows that the verandah looked south over the lake. The main entrance was on the east side. Other plans give the disposition of rooms: a kitchen in the basement; a drawing room, dining room, breakfast room and entry hall on the ground floor; two large and two small bedrooms on the second floor; and two servant's bedrooms in the attic. The specifications show the house was clad in stucco scored to resemble stone.

Architecturally, the buildingís style is unusual enough to mark it as the work of an experienced designer, prompting interest in the now-anonymous hand that drew the plans.

Toronto's leading architect at the time, John G. Howard, is ruled out by his own account: his detailed journals for 1836 make no mention of the project. The only other qualified candidate, Thomas Young, taught ornamental drawing at Upper Canada College, but had not yet begun to practice architecture. For reasons that follow, however, Robert Wetherell of Hamilton is suspected of being Jameson's architect.

Clearly, he and Jameson were acquainted and shared an interest in architecture. In a letter to the lieutenant governor's private secretary in July, 1835, seeking the commission for a vice-regal residence rumoured to be in the works for a site near Clarence Square, Wetherell wrote :

....For testimonials as to my competence to take charge of the work I beg leave to refer to Robert S. Jameson Esquire, Attorney General, and to Allan N. MacNab Esquire, M.P.P. That I possess abundant matèriel for design, in the most elaborate and costly Architectural engravings, books and published designs, treatises etc. is well known to the former gentleman, whose intimate knowledge of the Fine Arts is the more surprising, that it is accompanied by the most profound legal research.

A second reason is the evidence found in the architectural style of the house. Though Yorkshire-born, Wetherell trained in London where came to greatly admire the designs of Sir John Soane. While he is not known to have worked in Soane's office, he did own copies of his books and incorporated Soanian motifs in his work. Jane Flatt has drawn attention to similarities between two of Soane's country houses and Dundurn, Hamilton, built to Wetherell's plans for Allan MacNab in 1834.

Harold Kalman also noted the tower Wetherell designed for Christ's Church, Hamilton, included elements that appear to have been taken from Soane's Holy Trinity Church, Marylebone. Typical of Soane's work too is the pair of panelled parapets on Jameson's house.

A third reason for recognizing Wetherell's hand in Jameson's house is the architect's fondness for stucco. While Dundurn is brick and Christ's Church was frame, both were rendered in stucco, then a surface treatment seldom found in Canada. The stucco on both Dundurn and Jameson's villa was scored to resemble stone.

Mrs. Jameson remained in Canada for barely eight months before separating from her husband permanently and returning to England. During much of that time she was travelling and gathering materials for her well known work, Winter Studies and Summer Rambles. Jameson himself stayed on in the house only four more years until the seat of government was moved to Kingston and he was required to follow. He then advertised the property for sale:

Valuable Property for Sale

To be sold - entire or in Lots to suit Purchasers -THAT highly improved and Valuable Property consisting of the Dwelling House, Grounds and Premises situated on ONTARIO TERRACE, Garrison Reserve, lately in the occupation of His HONOR THE VICE CHANCELLOR.

The Dwelling House is of solid Brick - handsomely and most substantially built. It is in complete order and suitable in every respect to a gentleman's family. It commands a fine view of the Lake, and in point of beauty and salubrity of situation cannot be surpassed by any residence in or about the City. The Grounds contain about FIVE ACRES and are enclosed by a handsome, solid fence. They have been laid down and planted with the utmost care and at a very heavy expense. These plantations are in very fine order. There is a large Garden well filled, Outhouses, Wells, &c. &c. &c.

This Property only requires to be seen to be fully appreciated. The above will be disposed of entire or in Lots to suit Purchasers. On the Bay Shore Seven or Eight Building Lots of about one-third of an acre can be obtained, and on Brock Street and Wellington Place, several others, leaving the Dwelling House with a large Garden and space around, unimpaired.

The above property is well worth the attention either of a Gentleman desiring a handsome residence or of a Capitalist wishing to build.

Terms exceedingly liberal and long Credit (secured on the Property) will be given. Title in fee direct from the Crown to present owner.

For particulars apply to the Proprietor, Kingston, or to MR. HAGARTY, Solicitor, 12 Wellington Buildings, King Street, Toronto.
Nov. 29, 1841.

The estate was sold in 1844 to Frederick Widder, chief Commissioner of the Canada Company, who had been renting it at the time. It was the Widders who named it Lyndhurst, and Mrs. Widder who nurtured its reputation for legendary hospitality. In March, 1844, she held a Soirée Musicale, perhaps as a housewarming, that has been the subject of scholarly study.

Map from Boulton Atlas, 1858. The Jameson estate was bounded by Front, Brock (now Spadina) and Wellington (Toronto Reference

Beginning in the mid-1850s they made a series of alterations and additions to the house. Perhaps to finance this work, the frontage on Brock [Spadina] Avenue was sold to Alfred Brunel, superintendent of the Northern Railway Company, who built a house at the corner of Wellington Place and subdivided the land south of it into twenty or so small lots for workers' houses. But when the subdivision attracted little interest, he sold some of the land instead to his employers who in 1862 erected an office building at the Front Street corner.

Not long after the Widders, both of whom were in poor health, moved out.

Lyndhurst was rented again until February 1867, when it was sold to the Sisters of Loretto, who needed more room for their Toronto girls' school. Renamed Loretto Abbey, Lyndhurst echoed to the sounds of young voices until 1928, when the school moved to Armour Heights.

During this sixty-year interval several additions were made, notably a magnificent chapel in a coffered Italianate style designed in 1897 by architect Beaumont Jarvis. Following the Sisters' departure, the Abbey became a Jesuit seminary until 1961, when it was demolished to make way for Peter Dickenson's modern printing house for The Telegram, now the home of The Globe and Mail.