Posted in the London Free Press, March 30, 2017
The most romantic house in London is having a birthday and everyone is invited.
The Elsie Perrin Williams Estate is owned by the city of London and operated by the Heritage London Foundation.
Named for its owner, the property was donated to the city. “She wanted people to see it and enjoy it,” said Maggie Whalley of the heritage foundation.
“And it’s theirs,” said foundation member Susan Bentley. “The grounds are beautiful,” added Louanne Henderson, another foundation member. “It’s a wonderful location. It looks west into the canyon,” said Whalley. “Any history buff can time travel and imagine they were here then — the whole story as it was with dogs, horses, the barn, golf course — her country life,” Henderson said.
Elsie grew up on the property, enjoying winter toboggan parties and summers at the “cottage.” At that time, it included a Victorian house and barn on 27 hectares her father Daniel bought from the Samuel Glass family. “The first mention of the name Windermere is on the gates,” Bentley said. “The road took its name from the property.”
When Elsie married Dr. Hadley Williams, her father gave her the estate in north London as a wedding present. Daniel Perrin was London’s biscuit king, owner of D.S. Perrin & Company.
On the Williams’ trips to California, Elsie was smitten by the Spanish Colonial style architecture and began dreaming of building such a home in London. “She liked designing houses and she knew what she wanted,” Whalley said. Lore attributes the gatehouse design to Elsie.
She had the Victorian farmhouse razed and while she and Hadley were in England during the First World War, her vision of California/Spain was built. Being built during the war makes the house rare.
Architect John Moore, who had designed Daniel’s factory on Dundas Street, drew the plans for the white stucco house. The exterior also features Romanesque arch porticoes, a low, sloping red-tiled roof, and a balcony across the front. Inside, the beamed ceilings, ceramic tile fireplace surrounds and leaded diamond-paned windows are more Arts and Crafts style than Spanish Colonial.
On either side of the central front hall is a formal sitting room and dining room. Upstairs are three bedrooms, two with fireplaces and ensuites, a sitting room and the housekeeper’s wing of three small rooms. The master bath has a wall of built-in cupboards with crystal knobs matching the door knobs in the rest of the house. Details include a curtain rod for the doorway between the bed and bath; brass door stops and door knockers of horses. Each room is of modest dimensions and comfortable.
“I think that’s one of the nice things,” Bentley said. “People can imagine living here more than some grand places.”
Elsie’s touches are evident throughout, especially in several hand-stitched needlepoint chair and stool covers.
Like many young women of her status at the time, Elsie painted watercolours and oils, some of which hang in her rooms. Portraits of Elsie, Hadley and Daniel also hang in various rooms, along with some of dogs and horses. Visitors can see the walking cane Hadley brandishes in his portrait.
“Hadley loved to entertain; Elsie not so much,” Bentley said. “She was shy and retiring.” Sometime in the 1920s he expanded the conservatory, a tiled and glass-walled room, into a great hall for entertaining. Today it is the scene of many weddings, parties and meetings.
“They were more about the outdoors,” Henderson said. Elsie and Hadley loved their dogs, horses and golf. A nine-hole course ran around the grounds, where they played frequently. A switch by the baronial fireplace in the great hall rang an old train bell atop the garage for the housekeeper to call the couple in for meals. There is a photo that appeared in a magazine spread on the house in the 1920s that looks almost identical to today, except Hadley’s golf clubs are standing in the corner, at the ready. The clubs will return for the open house display in the fall.
To celebrate its 100th anniversary, the Heritage London Foundation is holding a series of events. The first, being held this weekend, focuses on the battle of Vimy Ridge and Dr. Hadley Williams’ service. He went to England, accompanied by Elsie, as a doctor.
Thames Valley District school board students in Grade 10 were invited to prepare projects on one of four topics: the battle; the role of women in the Great War; medical advances in the First World War; and local involvement in the war. The projects will be displayed in the Great Hall. Jonathan Vance, J.B. Smallman chair in history at Western University, will speak Monday when prizes are awarded. The RCR Museum is also contributing a display.
Throughout the year, a photograph and art contest is being held. “We’re encouraging people to go around and paint or take photos of buildings more than 150 years old,” Bentley said. The foundation has a list of about 150.
The estate at 101 Windermere Rd. will be part of Doors Open this year. The Centennial Open House Nov. 8 to 22 will create the house as close as possible to its state when the Williams lived there. Moore’s hand-drawn architectural plans will be displayed. Furniture now at Museum London will be returned to the house for display. Because the house is rented for events, some original furnishings are kept at the museum. Members of heritage foundation have also pulled out vintage bedspreads, cushions and accessories. A Murano vase was likely a souvenir of the Williams’ trip to Venice. A watercolour also brought home from the trip hangs in the sitting room. There are photos of the pair on a ship from Southampton, England, and of Elsie in a gondola.
A secret drawer was revealed in the master bedroom and a safe in the wall behind the towel rack in the bathroom probably kept objects while the couple were off on their travels.
For more stories, come for the guided tours during the open house.
“It gets more valuable every year,” Whalley said. “It doesn’t look like a 100-year-old house. The longer you can keep buildings in good condition, the more valuable they become. The estate is open to everyone. Come and admire it and think about having an event here to keep the property viable. It’s alive — it’s still being used. That’s what I like about it.”
Bentley agreed. “It’s a treasure. Anyone can use it — it’s theirs for a day.”