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Remember This?: Lilac Villa

And the man who built it

The smell of wood smoke was still quite strong when I stopped in front of 87 Owen St. today.

The yellow caution tape is gone now, replaced by sturdy wire fencing. Every window, door and exterior stairway is barred by sheets of particle board. The front is quite soot-damaged, but the worst of the fire’s frenzy was obviously concentrated in the back of the house where everything is charred black.

A half-melted car, discarded doors, sections of fallen gingerbread accents, and the badly warped siding of the neighbouring home testify to the ferocity of the flames that may have sealed the fate of this 135-year-old beauty. Can she be saved after all of this? 

The grand home just below Sophia St. was dreamed, designed, and constructed by one man, Thomas Kennedy. He built it in 1882 and called it Lilac Villa.

Thomas was born in 1849 near Newmarket, Ontario. By the time he was 21, he was fast becoming an excellent carpenter, through learning his craft the old way, by working with the masters in the building trade. Before he was 30, Thomas Kennedy was confident enough in his skills to advertise his services as an architect and open an office in Barrie.

In 1873, Thomas married a local girl, Miss Alice Hinds, who came from a well-known merchant family. Her father was Bernard Hinds, one of the owners of the London House Hotel which stood on the northeast corner of Owen St. and Dunlop St. E. 

Naturally, it was their bright son-in-law that the Hinds turned to when London House burned in 1879. The hotel had been one of the last of the old style roughcast and wood structures in the Downtown business district, in a strip known to locals as The Rookery. Most folks expected it to be taken out by fire at any time.

Thomas set to work designing an impressive brick structure for his in-laws and engaged builder George Ball, as well as T. Marshall for the stonework and Robert Orr for the brickwork. In 1880, before it was completed — it burned!

The solid brick building did not burn down entirely, but The Rookery finally succumbed. That fire ran east from Owen St. until it was stopped by the wisely-installed firewall of the McConkey Building just before the (now) Queen’s Hotel. Thomas now had quite a bit more designing to do!

He saw the Hinds building completed and then turned his hand to planning three new brick blocks – Mann’s Book Store, Leander Sanders’ Block and the Bothwell Block.  You can find the latter two still standing today, with the words Sanders Block spelled out on one, in two tones of brick, forever advertising the long-gone business man.

Thomas Kennedy must have been a very busy man with all these shops to rebuild. You don’t know the half of it! In just over 30 years, Thomas was involved in some 100 building projects in Barrie and surrounding area. His creative mind is responsible for the Post Office that stood on Memorial Square, St. Patrick’s Church, in Phelpston, the house that became the Doctor’s In, in Elmvale, Winchester Arms Hotel in Toronto and numerous other Ontario landmarks.

So successful was he that Kennedy was one of the earliest architects in Ontario to create partnerships with others of his profession, and open branch offices in other towns. Over the years, he did business with Archibald McVittie, Maurice Gaviller, William Holland and Neil Beggs. Kennedy & Co. offices opened in Collingwood, Toronto and Owen Sound.

In 1881, Thomas Kennedy decided to relocate his family to Toronto, in order to better oversee his branch office there.  At the end of that year, Alice Kennedy gave up her position in the family shop and prepared for their new venture, however the move never took place. 

Rather than leave Barrie, the Kennedys dug their roots in the community even deeper by creating a beautiful and lasting home for themselves. On a lot that Thomas had owned since about the time of his marriage to Alice, he set to work on creating a house that was large, comfortable and a showpiece. The pre-existing one-storey house on the land was enlarged and became two storeys.

Drawing on his years of experience, and utilizing the best of the craftsmen he had encountered in his profession, Thomas had a most unique house built. His finished product, Lilac Villa, was built in an American style and said to be a working sample of the creative designs he could offer customers. It was finished by the end of 1882.

Thomas continued his work in Barrie throughout the 1890s, and for five of those years was the only architect in town until young Eustace Bird, son of Shearman Bird and Amoi Chun, took up his late father’s architectural profession in 1895.

In the early days of the 20th century, long years of hard work began to catch up on Thomas. His back was bad. He again took a partner to shoulder some of the work load, and Thomas’ son, J. Sarsfield Kennedy, came up from his New York office to assist his father at times. Like young Mr. Bird, young Mr. Kennedy was also following his father’s career path.

Thomas sought some relief from the sciatica that plagued him at the healing mineral waters of the Preston Springs Hotel in Cambridge, Ontario. In 1908, his condition was so poor that he fell down the stairs leading to his Barrie office and spent several days in Royal Victoria Hospital recovering.

Thomas Kennedy retired and let the next generation of fine architects take over. So many monuments to his craft already stood all over southern Ontario, in Italianate and Romanesque styles, also High Victorian Gothic, Queen Anne and Second Empire. 

The province was a more beautiful place when he departed this life on June 13, 1916. It is to be hoped that his Owen St. creation can be restored.

Each week, the Barrie Historical Archive provides BarrieToday readers with a glimpse of the city’s past. This unique column features photos and stories from years gone by and is sure to appeal to the historian in each of us.