Woodchester Villa as it looks today.

 


Woodchester Villa in 1978  before it was restored.

 


Volunteers restoring the informal parlour.

 


The kitchen before restoration

 


A volunteer works at restoring the kitchen.

A major restoration project like Woodchester Villa is possible only in a community with a lively interest in its own past.

At the beginning of 1978 only Bracebridge, of all the major towns of Muskoka, had no centre for the preservation and study of its history. Obviously, Bracebridge's history had been preserved in well maintained residences and public buildings as well as in private collections and in the books of local historians; but the town had not yet found the means to display and interpret the artifacts and documents in which the daily life of the past is found.

At the urging of Ken Black who recognized the historical importance and the potential in the site, the Bracebridge Rotary Club expressed an interest in restoring the property for public use.

Woodchester was, and is, a perfect setting for a museum. Not only was its builder an important and colourful figure in the town's history, but the house itself is one of the oldest residences in Bracebridge and one of the earliest examples in Ontario of poured concrete construction. 

Its unusual shape, pleasing proportions and curious features make it architecturally very interesting and its importance has been noted by John Rempel and other Ontario architectural historians. Its setting, close to the centre of town with its own park, on a hill overlooking the top of the falls, is superb. Furthermore, on the same property stood the shell of Bracebridge's first church building which might be restored. Inquires confirmed that substantial provincial grants were available for such a restoration project.

All these factors pointed to Woodchester Villa as a possible museum for Bracebridge. The question was whether there was sufficient community interest in such a project and whether a group could be formed strong enough to undertake the many tasks of design and operation. 

In 1977, the Rotary Club wrote a letter to the Bracebridge Town Council requesting that the former home of the late Henry J. Bird and his family be officially designated as a building of historical and architectural value. 

The Council of the day readily agreed and in due course passed a by-law to declare Woodchester Villa historic and the Bracebridge Rotary Club began the process of acquiring the property. By June of 1978, the Bracebridge Rotary Club made a conditional offer to purchase the house and property which included an old church built in 1886 that was the first church building in Bracebridge. Already familiar with the distinctive architecture of the house, the Ontario Heritage Foundation encouraged the restoration of Woodchester Villa largely to what it had been at an earlier period. 

While all factors pointed to Woodchester Villa as a possible museum, there was the question of whether enough community interest existed to support the project and whether a group could be formed to be responsible for the on-going task of administering the site. In the spring of 1978, organizational meetings were called and the response to them was sufficient to proceed. 

During these early stages of planning, generous moral support and practical assistance came from the community. Through many meetings, an authentic restoration plan was created to meet the rigorous standards necessary for grants. Architectural design and supervision was done and local firms and individuals were employed for the actual construction. Financial assistance came from all parts of the community and the Town of Bracebridge as well as grants from the Provincial Government of Ontario. 

On March 13, 1980, the Bracebridge Rotary Club of Bracebridge turned over the keys to Woodchester Villa to the Mayor of Bracebridge. Then, on June 22, 1980, Woodchester Villa was opened as a community-based public museum.

Bracebridge is indebted to the Bracebridge Rotary Club, the Bracebridge Town Council and the many people who had the foresight and initiative to transform Woodchester Villa into a community museum where the past meets the present.

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Woodchester Villa is located in Bracebridge, Ontario, Canada.