Julian Smith

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The idea for a School of restoration Arts at Willowbank came to Laura Dodson,
a Heritage Canada Board Member, during the time she was president of the Niagara-on-the-Lake Conservancy. She happened to visit a church in Toronto and saw young people learning to gild under the guidance of a master gilder, as part of the restoration of a late 19th-century interior. She thought to herself—what a wonderful model for education, the apprenticeship tradition of learning by doing, with the benefit of seeing a beautiful historic interior come back to life.

Although Laura herself died only a few months after the first students arrived at Willowbank, the school itself lives on. There are now close to forty students, and the school also offers short courses and a hree-week summer school in northern Italy.


The aim of the Willowbank School of Restoration Arts is to introduce people to the wide range of skills and perspectives that are needed to deal with significant cultural places—historic urban and rural landscapes, heritage districts, individual historic buildings and gardens, and historic artifacts. The students also study contemporary design and the introduction of contemporary layers into historic settings. The idea is to explore ways of re-imagining historic places as living cultural landscapes, that can be sustained as part of a larger framework of natural and cultural resource conservation paired with sensitive contemporary design and development.

The decorative arts play a significant role in the Willowbank curriculum, because they so often contribute to the cultural value of historic places. The Diploma Program has more than sixty faculty associates, and these include artists, craftspeople, art conservators, and material scientists.

The Willowbank estate in the village of Queenston, near Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, is home to Willowbank. A 13-acre National Historic Site, it serves as a living laboratory and includes a Greek Revival mansion from the 1830s, considered one of the finest Classical Revival homes in North America, and a 19th-century barn complex that houses workshops. The school has recently purchased an adjacent historic elementary school property in order to expand its program.

A three-year Diploma in Heritage Conservation, based on a balance between working with both mind and hand, makes it distinct in Canada as a post-secondary institution in the heritage field. Half the time is spent in the classroom, studying conservation theory and practice, including research and documentation methods, assessments of cultural value, and options for design and development. The other half is hands-on time in the workshops, working with wood, stone, metals, glass, etc. The curriculum involves the students every weekday, all day, for the first two years of the Diploma Program. The third year is a career transition year, with students spending September and January at Willowbank and the other time on individual internships across Canada and farther afield. Modeled more on apprenticeship than academia, the program is rigorous and its intent is as much intellectual as physical, that is, to reclaim the tradition of the master builder, the philosopher stone mason, the design carpenter or glassworker.

Willowbank is also unusual in the heritage field because it emphasizes the importance of creative new design, as well as careful conservation work. Students study contemporary design, and use these skills in courses such as stone carving, leaded-glass window construction, blacksmithing, and graining and marbling. This brings them to understand and appreciate the work of traditional masters.

One recent afternoon, a group of Willowbank students was having an animated discussion with John Laundry about whether to repair or replace two original hand-tooled sills of Queenston limestone. The sills were part of the south wall of the Willowbank estate house, and John was the lead mason in working with the students on a major restoration program for the south and west walls. In the end it was decided to repair one sill and replace the other. Such decisions are particularly important when confronting the decorative arts that enliven these structures and help give them their cultural significance.

Willowbank graduates are finding immediate success in the conservation field. They are working as masons, carpenters, window restorers, project managers, architectural and landscape designers, and planners. Their mentors from the Diploma Program provide an immediate network of senior colleagues in the field, and increasingly they use each other’s special skills to cooperate on conservation and adaptive reuse projects.

Many of our great urban and rural landscapes were created by community-based master builders, artisans who both repaired the old and designed and built the new. This tradition has been undermined by 20th-century specialization, and the hierarchies of certified design professionals. This has resulted in a gradual drifting apart of designers and fabricators and a tension between the designer and the builder, between the theoretician and the practitioner. We like to remind people that Andrea Palladio was a stone mason, that John Latshaw, architect responsible for the design of Willowbank’s Greek Revival mansion, was a carpenter.

Every June, Willowbank runs a three-week field school in northern Italy in partnership with the Canova Association, a local community-based group dedicated to rescuing abandoned medieval buildings and villages. Rebuilding these abandoned stone structures and heavy timber frames becomes a microcosm of the Willowbank program of conservation theory and practice, measured drawings and design, with the hands-on work of rebuilding these richly layered historic sites.

More information about Willowbank is available at www.willowbank.ca.

Julian Smith is a restoration architect and the Executive Director of Willowbank.

Willowbank