The house at 35 Centre Street in Kingston has always been something of a beautiful oddity. With a short square tower topped by a finial, several small balconies and a roofline that sticks out some distance from the walls, Bellevue House looks more like a country house in Tuscany than anything usually found in the Limestone City.
When it was built in the early 1840s, most locals didn’t care for its strangeness, thinking it pretentious and calling it Tea Caddy Castle, Pekoe Pagoda and Molasses Hall—joking allusions to the owner, successful grocer Charles Hales. Sir John A. Macdonald disagreed, however, and said it was “the most fantastic concern imaginable.” So fantastic, in fact, he hoped “the complete quiet and seclusion of the house, which is completely surrounded by trees and has a fresh breeze ever blowing on it from Lake Ontario” would help his wife recover from a prolonged illness.
The Story Inside
Who would you side with—Macdonald or the locals? The only way to find out, of course, is to get up close to the National Historic Site, which you can do every day from 10 am to 5 pm this summer until Labour Day. I bet you’ll be agreeing with Macdonald and so does Bellevue House rep Scott Davidson. “It’s a beautifully restored Italiante villa,” he says, “and it is one of the few places in the country where Macdonald’s life and achievements are presented to the public.”
A few examples from inside that bring the man, his wife and the home to life: a collection of The Waverly novels, a trunk that would have contained Macdonald’s personal papers, and the family cradle, brought when the Macdonalds emigrated from Scotland. Sadly, the cradle was barely used at Bellevue; the Macdonalds’ baby died a month after they moved in.
As tragic as that death was and as sick as Isabella could be, there were happy times at the house. After a long day downtown, John would return to Bellevue and set up a table in Isabella’s bedroom, where they’d have dinner together by the fireplace. In the summer, part of that dinner would often come from the extensive garden on the property, the key feature that made the home such a calming influence on them both and must have been a good memory long after they moved out in 1849.
Take a Tour
The best way to learn more about these stories and others is by taking an interactive guided tour, which happen at 1:30 pm every Saturday and Sunday until the end of August. “The experience enables visitors to spend one-on-one time chatting with our fun and knowledgeable costumed interpreters,” says Davidson. “An interpreter truly enhances your experience as you stroll the hallways where Macdonald lived.” A one-hour tour focuses on the house and the stories within its walls while the two-hour option includes a visit to the heritage gardens (you may even get your hands dirty).
You should know Bellevue’s story well after a tour, but as most good historians know, there’s always more to learn. Next year, you’ll get that chance at Bellevue during our first Prime Minister’s 200th birthday celebrations. Parks Canada is staying tight lipped about the special events and programs Bellevue House will offer, but rest assured they are actively planning.
Stay tuned to pc.gc.ca/bellevue for details about next year’s celebrations and more information about Bellevue House.
Entry: Adults, $3.90. Seniors 65+, $3.40. Youth 6-16, $1.90.
Tours: Adults, $ 7.80. Seniors 65+, $ 7.30. Youth 6-16, $ 5.80.
Bellevue House National Historic Site
35 Centre Street