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In 1894 Carbide Willson made his wish come true when he bought a plot of land for his dream home in Woodstock, Ontario, a small town just a few kilometers away from his birthplace. For much of the next year he rented a room at the Oxford Hotel in town so that he could oversee the construction of his home at 210 Vansittart Avenue. In those days the house would have been situated just outside the city limits, but subsequent expansion has meant that today the house stands on a handsome corner of the tree-lined street, in the heart of town.

Thomas spared no expense in building his mansion. He wanted his mother, who had sacrificed so much for him, to enjoy the life of a Victorian Lady. He hired an architect from New York (H. Hudson Holly & Jeliff), which was extravagant indeed, for in those days most buildings were designed by engineers or contractors. Just down the street at 190 Vansittart Avenue, lived Thomas’s sister Bessie and it was probably that she wanted to live near her daughter that Mrs. Willson asked that the home be built in Woodstock.

This brick and stone mansion, with its impressive front entrance and circular veranda, is almost as splendid today as it was when it was built just over a century ago. Passers-by still slow down when they see it. The four-story house is equipped with a solarium that runs across the back of the building offering a full view of the gardens, for Mrs. Willson loved flowers and sunshine and Bessie loved to sketch the flowers in the afternoons. The beautifully kept grounds had three little buildings on them, each of a different design. Thomas imagined that in these pagodas and gazebos his mother would entertain friends on fine afternoons. Thomas must have spent quiet hours in the garden gazebo, catching up on business correspondence, which he always took care of personally. There was also a spacious coach house: Today it has been moved to another street in Woodstock, where it serves as a family home. The mansion itself was decorated in a typically ornate Richardsonian Romanesque Style.

On the first floor, the drawing room and music room are both equipped with fireplaces, and the dining room must once have been filled with the clinking of sounds of fine china and imported silver and crystal. On the second floor the four bedrooms are spaciously designed with hardwood floors and fancy fireplaces. The third floor is equipped with a billiards room, two more bedrooms and two ceramic baths. Finally the fourth floor consisted of unfinished rooms. Each room in the house was decorated with a different kind of wood. The maids could tell which room they were being summoned to serve at by the callbox in the basement, which had the buzzers for the rooms coded according to the kinds of wood. This touch of personal flamboyance was typical of Carbide. He had to do everything in his own slightly curious way.

The servants lived in comfortable quarters in the basement where they had a butler’s pantry, a servants’ lounge and a fruit cellar. Perhaps they were not always relaxed in their quarters, however, for Carbide had a chemistry laboratory built in the basement as well. More than one of their peaceful evenings must have been interrupted by the curious sounds coming from the lab, where he experimented until all hours of the night. The chemistry lab was equipped with cupboards, a sink, chemical jars and the apparatus Willson required for his experiments. Ever since his days as a youth in Hamilton he had dreamed of having a private laboratory.

Meanwhile, in the rest of the house. Mrs. Willson surely delighted in showing off the handsome stained glass window which her son arranged to be made exclusively for her by the Tiffany Glass and Decorating Company of New York: the same company that made the Tiffany lamps so popular. Passers-by admired the large window entitled Truth: Master and Pupil. It depicts Alcuin, one of the great educators of the eight century, and his pupil Charlemagne, Emperor of the Western Roman Empire from 800 to 814 AD The citizens of Woodstock had never seen such a creation. The window is hand-painted with crystals embedded around the outer edge.

People loved to be invited to the Willson home because it housed so many beautiful and expensive works of art. (the Tiffany window was recently sold for $ 15,000). The local people declared that this was the most beautiful house in all of the land. All of the doors on the first floor are fitted with leaded and beveled windows, which create fantastic rainbow effects as the sunshine falls on them in the daytime. Even the doorknobs and fixtures are gold-plated and the decorator was enough of a perfectionist to be sure that a gold-plated key be made for each door. No expense was spared. Willson’s house gave the locals plenty to talk about. It had cost him $ 90,000 to build!

When "Leo", as his mother and sister fondly called him, had managed to establish his mother in more than comfortable surroundings, he sold her the property for $ 1.00 and presented her the house " with love and devotion". Now he was ready to seek out a little happiness for himself.

Located in the rolling farmlands West of Kitchener, Woodstock can be counted as one of Ontario's better preserved historic communities. But it is on the aptly named Vansittart Street where Woodstock boasts one of Ontario's best collections of grand historic homes. Several claim high gables and towers, but it is the house built by Thomas "Carbide" Willson in 1895 that many claim to be the most castle-like in appearance. The cost, $ 90,000, was the most any house had cost in Woodstock up to that time. Ron Brown, Castles & Kings Ontario Mansions and the People Who Lived in them, 2001


Building a Castle