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Saving Castle Kilbride

By Paul Knowles (First published in Metroland Community Newspapers)

Twenty five years later, was it worth the effort? Absolutely! 

 

Dining room at Kilbride

It's probably quite easy for Wilmot township residents to take Castle Kilbride for granted. After all, it's always been there, this unusual building set back in spacious gardens, and today, locals are more likely to visit the addition on the back to pay taxes or attend a council meeting than we are to visit the Castle itself.

That's understandable, but it's a shame. Because not only is the Castle, and its decor, unique, but its stories are also fascinating — the story of its origins, but also the story of saving the Castle, 25 years ago.

Castle Kilbride was never really a castle, of course, but was named as such by its builder and first occupant, James Livingston. Livingston had come to Canada from his native Scotland, where he grew up in East Kilbride, now part of Glasgow. He found success in the flax, linen and linseed oil business, and in 1877-1878, he built his lavish mansion, naming it for his birthplace.

 
It's probably appropriate that Livingston's home was so different from anything around it — because Livingston was so different from the other residents of Baden. Baden — the name is the hint — was thoroughly German, in the centre of an area known as "The German Tract." But this Scotsman arrived, settled, and prospered mightily, and did everything he could to feel at home — including funding the construction of the Presbyterian church which bears his name.

 A Livingston company calling card. — Castle Kilbride/Photo

Castle Kilbride remained in the Livingston family for more than a century and for three and a half generations (the fourth generation lived in the home as children). But by 1988, it was time for the family to sell the Castle and its contents. The Kilbride auction of June, 1988, was an event that drew spectators from far and wide, many coming just for the chance to see this famous but mysterious home.

The goods and chattels were sold, and the property sold to what turned into a series of developers. The house was rented out. Such situations usually mean the end for iconic, heritage homes.

But not this time.

Some Wilmot residents were aware of the threat of losing what I called a "jewel" in the title of my book about Kilbride. As editor and publisher of the New Hamburg Independent, I assigned stories about the threat of losing the Castle; then-reporter Jana Miller did a great job of covering the issue, and at one point was threatened with a lawsuit for trespassing, as she captured photos of the state of the building, and the graffiti that was disfiguring it.

One man who clearly saw the danger, and the opportunity, was township mayor Lynn Myers, who concocted a scheme that led to the township buying the Castle, in February 1993, with the intention of moving the township office from New Hamburg to part of Kilbride and an addition on the back of the home.

Myers recruited a group of us to found The Friends of Castle Kilbride, a fundraising effort to make restoration of the home possible. He asked me to chair the group, and I — perhaps underestimating the challenge — agreed. The time was right — when the fundraising campaign kicked off, in October of 1993, local residents and businesses kicked in $127,000 in one day.

That was great — a good start to a huge project. The province and the federal government also got involved. More money was raised through events like a celebrity auction, an art and quilt auction. A corporate fundraising committee was struck, headed by Don Wagler. (Don and I managed to accidentally smash several bottles of champagne in the township office during a corporate fundraising event — but that's another story).

The Friends of Castle Kilbride raised over half a million dollars in nine months. The provincial government contributed a million bucks, and a hockey team of MPPs, including Premier Bob Rae, came to play in a benefit game. They were cleverly dubbed "The Legiskaters."

It was clear that the ambitious project was actually going to be possible. And the Castle was given its full due when it officially became a National Historic Site — the plaque sits near the entrance to this day.

But the devil is in the details, and there were a lot of details. The original plan — that the township office would occupy the back half of the house — was changed when it was discovered that it was not only the front rooms — library, parlour, front bedrooms upstairs, toy room — that had elaborate wall and ceiling murals (the most special thing about the historic home). In fact, all the rooms had murals or hand-painted ceilings, some hidden under wall or ceiling paper.

 

A trompe L'oeil painting in the hallway. — Castle Kilbride/Photo

The idea that township offices would occupy some of the Castle was quashed; with some exceptions (the kitchen and some outbuildings were lost), the Castle would be restored to its original glory, front to back, and opened as a museum, with a township museum and archives in the basement.

Restoration of the building, and of its decorative elements, was a painstaking and time-consuming task, but brilliantly accomplished by the top experts in Canada. The question then arose, "what about furnishings?"

That brought Baden antique dealer and all-round visionary Jim Miller to the fore. Miller had worked closely with the Veitch family — Laura Louise Veitch was James Livingston's granddaughter — and knew the furnishings well. At the request of Lynn Myers, Miller had kept track of the key furnishings at the time of the 1988 auction, and had acquired some of them himself, in hope that someday, somehow, they could go back to the Castle.

And now, they could. The complete set of Krug library furniture came back; so it the bed and dresser from Livingston's own bedroom; so did a wonderful painting by Homer Watson; and more. Many other items have come back over the quarter century since restoration, a process that still continues.

The Kilbride volunteers sought out as much period furniture as possible; I personally assembled an authentic, period collection of books with which to stock the Krug bookcases.

The opening gala was a party for the ages. It was a grand celebration of one of the most successful community projects you could imagine.

Saving the castle was a gargantuan effort. I suspect it would not even be possible, today, given the challenges of fundraising and the diminishing interest in local history, a trend we must fight. But the people of Wilmot — and in fact, of this country — are the ongoing beneficiaries of the vision and the effort of all of us who gave time, skills, and dollars to save a very significant, historic building, a building that is important for its architecture, for its decor, and perhaps even more important, for its story.

Today, as Castle Kilbride celebrates 25 years since that restoration effort, I have to say that playing a part in saving the Castle is one of the most satisfying things I have done in my life. As you visit the Castle on this silver anniversary of its creation as a museum, take a moment to feel gratitude for the army of volunteers who made your visit possible.

And then another moment to be grateful that such a beautiful building is here, right in the heart of our community.