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Tuesday, January 03, 2006

The Prospect from Bellevue House

Several years ago, my wife and I took a bicycle trip around Ontario Canada which included a stop in Kingston, Ontario. There we visited Bellevue House, a lovely mansion on the hill overlooking Kingston harbor. This story, newly re-edited, resulted.

The Prospect from Bellevue House
Gary Lehmann

John A. Macdonald, the future first prime minister of the Dominion of Canada, knew immediately that he wanted to rent Bellevue House as soon as he saw the advertisement in the Kingston Herald in August, 1848. The well-known land developer, Charles Hales, was down on his luck. The recent rebellions had sent some amongst the merchant community back to London in a panic, leaving Hales exposed to extended vacancies and over-development. He had to consolidate and trim back in order to go on.

Bellevue, Hales' personal residence, had been an extravagance from the first. It was a show piece, an example of all that could be done if money were no object. The house was situated so as to embrace the land. The house sat back on the lot and was built in an "L" shape with an imposing square tower in the middle, where Hales had a unique two-story study with a full view of the world around the house and yard. The pagoda-like roofs prompted the townsfolk down below to call Bellevue the "tea caddy castle." It was exuberant, Italianate, and perched on a rise of land overlooking Kingston harbor, vaguely Carribean in mood. Modest as it was in pure square footage, Bellevue possessed an undeniably baronial feel.

Beneath the flamboyant skin of the villa, lay the solid core of all the sedate Georgian houses Hales had built for others along the waterfront. Made of limestone blocks, locally quarried, the basement was deep and solid to withstand the thrust of repeated frosts. The body of the house was carefully crafted out of Canadian pine, dovetailed and lapped for strength enough to endure winter winds. Inside, painters and grainers covered every inch of the pine doors and window frames to make them look like oak. Such an accommodation was considered clever, not cheap, at the time. The trick was not to make pine look like oak, but rather to make the viewer look twice. It forced attention to detail.

Outside there was a large vegetable garden, an orchard, and some beautiful flower gardens, more for viewing than cutting. When Macdonald arrived in his handsome carriage, Hales was admiring his hollyhocks by the gate. The big blooms flashed all shades of purple and white in their fullness. Their exuberant gaudiness depressed Hales somewhat.

Hales was a smallish man with a large shock of curly red hair. The cane forced him to stoop over some, though most people in society still remembered him as straight and erect, if not over-tall. He exuded confidence and prosperty in his heyday, but just looking at him now convinced even the most casual observer that hard times were not a stranger to this man.

He carried a cane, more as a symbol of his down-trodden status than an actual medical necessity. Mr. Charles Hale, though a developer by trade and therefore an optimist by constitution, wore his deepest apprehensions on his sleeve, if you knew how to read him. His cane was his acknowledgment of weakness.

"Good day to you, sir," he called out in a forced, cheerful voice. To have had to move out of Bellevue was a recognized fall in a business world that depended upon the look of prosperity for half of its commerce.

The man who descended from the carriage was strong and large framed, a lawyer by trade and politician by preference. John A. Macdonald was an outspoken royalist who had recently been cast out of his seat in government into a party of hopeless opposition. Yet, stepping out of his carriage, he looked about himself with the aire of a conquorer. Though the two men had much in common, which they would never acknowledge to one another, the contrast in their physical features could not have been greater.

Macdonald and Hales did not know each other well. Kingston society was small in the 1840's, and so they had naturally met many times before and socialized at a variety of gatherings, but they had had no earlier occasion to become personally acquainted. They met as nominal equals and friends, although in their current circumstances neither of these descriptions was very apt.

While Hales was struggling to regain his position, Macdonald's star was on the rise, though the Draper government of which he had become a major feature, had been rejected at the poles. The people of the province were beset by British laws and taxes and tired of being loyal to a king who used them badly. There was no easy answer. The future was murky.

Macdonald was particularly attracted to Bellevue by the view of the harbor and the fact that the house was both large and roomy, quiet and secluded. The house had a morning room on the ground floor that could be converted into a bedroom for his ailing wife, Isabella. Her debilitating bouts with both hysteria and lethargy made her physical condition unpredictable. Sometimes MacDonald secretly wished she would die so he could marry a more lustrous and useful wife.

"Isa might soon need a wheelchair to get around," he thought to himself as he rode out to meet Hales to discuss terms, "and this design might make a graceful environment for her to enjoy life on a single floor, regardless of her condition."

"A garden, Mr. Macdonald," Hales observed feigning affablity as they shook hands at the gate, "is like a business. You can exert whatever philosophy you wish upon it, but nature shall take it wherever it wills." Macdonald was embarrassed by this opening remark, and walked in silence along the gravel pathway beside Hales toward the main entrance to the house.

"One requires, of course, a good gardner," he replied uncomfortably aware of the dual level of their conversation. Macdonald's awkwardness suggested to Hales that his comment might have revealed more about himself than it did about gardening. He sought to recover himself.

"At my age," he said, "I seek only to keep the day and the night separate. I want my nights uncluttered by the alarums and excursions of the days, and my days unfogged by the need for sleep." Hales' life had been uncluttered by philosophy heretofore, but global reversals in fortune have a way of creating philosophers of the least amongst us. "Well, here is the house," he said waving his hand at the lovely villa, trying to signal to his guest that it was time to move on.

The two men ascended the front steps, surrounded by wisteria, and swiftly reviewed the drawing room, dining room, morning room, and maid's room. They were each wainscoted in fine pine and trimmed out to the finest specifications. The kitchen and wash rooms were small, but would suffice for a home not intended for large format entertaining, and the bedrooms were more than adequate. Only Macdonald himself would sleep above stairs.

"You get good air up here for an invalid," Hales observed as he opened the drawing room windows to demonstrate. A chill, but gentle, breeze enlivened the room. The house was empty now except for these few pieces in the drawing room which had been left for this exact conversation. "One of the reasons I built this house with so many windows was to capture the breezes which waft up the hill from the water and provide natural cooling during the summer."

MacDonald unbuttoned his coat to quietly admire his new gold brocade vest in the peer mirror on the wall. Hales pointed to a pair of heavily carved chairs on either side of the marble fireplace. "Sherry?" Hales offered, trying to maneuver Macdonald into a position from which he could broach the delicate subject of price and terms.

Macdonald nodded but remained standing at the window looking out over the large garden. Perhaps, he thought, this pleasant garden will off-set my political gloom. Hales placed the sherry on the table behind Macdonald, and then turned back to the fireplace. Picking up a large poker, he stirred the fire in the grate to generate a little warmth in the room, but he did not move to close the windows. Even August can have its chilly days.

"I suppose death itself is no more than the completion of nature's way," observed Hales, suddenly fearing the prospect that he never would recover from this slump, "like a garden in winter, I suppose, or the embers of a fire in the grate."

Macdonald turned decidedly from the window, took his assigned seat by the fire and raised his sherry glass for a taste of its sweet liquid. "And what will you require for rent, sir?"


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