A Prohibition-era bootlegger’s mansion that heritage buffs feared would be demolished has regained its Roaring Twenties dazzle thanks to the owner of a kitchen cabinet company.
Devonshire Lodge was built in 1928 by Harry Low, a toolmaker who struck it rich catering to the thirst of booze-deprived Americans. With his wallet fattened by the cross-border smuggling of whisky and beer, Mr. Low spent the then-massive sum of $130,000 to construct one of Windsor’s grandest mansions, a sprawling Cotswold cottage where the likes of gangster Al Capone would come for business and stay for a drink.
Mr. Low’s high-flying career as a whisky merchant proved to be short-lived, however. During the 1930s, under constant watch for tax evasion, suspected of having had an employee murdered and having made several high-risk investments that went south, he lost the 4,800-square-foot house and adjacent 1,700-square-foot coach house.
Devonshire went through several owners before federal Liberal party power broker Paul Martin Sr. and wife Nell bought it in 1961. The family sold it in 1995 after Mr. Martin’s death.
Thanks to this lineage, Devonshire Lodge is likely the only house anywhere that can lay claim to having hosted America’s most notorious gangster as well as two sitting Canadian prime ministers – Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau – plus a young man who would grow up to become another prime minister.
That former young man, Paul Martin Jr., chuckles at the thought of finding himself in such company. “That’s quite a rogue’s gallery,” he says as he reminisces about the house his parents bought while he attended university.
“When I came home from university, that’s where I came home to. I spent a lot of time in that house. My sister spent a lot of time growing up in the house."
Mr. Martin recalls how proud his father was of the home’s rumrunner history. “My dad used to tell everybody this was Harry Low’s house, and my mother would say, ‘stop telling everyone!’”
Mr. Martin’s wife, Sheila, who grew up nearby, recalls how the rumrunner days were not spoken of in polite company when she lived in the home’s upscale Walkerville neighbourhood a generation or so later. “You wonder how the story of the house went over with the neighbourhood, because Walkerville was so very staid,” she says.
Her husband says he retains fond memories of the place and is delighted and grateful it’s being restored. “I’ll never forget the picture of my father in the library. To this day I can see him sitting in his chair and working away on his memoirs."
After the Martins, the house endured several more owners and descended into the depths of disrepair. Heritage buffs feared it was at serious risk of being demolished. Windsor cabinet-maker Vern Myslichuk first laid eyes on Devonshire Lodge 16 years ago in its darkest days. The house, set amid Windsor’s finest mansions in the Walkerville neighbourhood, stood out as a sad wisp of its former glory and had come to be known as “Walkerville’s shame.”
When the opportunity came to buy the house in April, 2012, Mr. Myslichuk grabbed the once-grand residence. He saw that the interior had suffered extensive water damage, but that the house had been solidly constructed and remained structurally sound. He immediately began to restore it to its 1928 bling-filled past, a splendid creation of the flapper era, a place where one could imagine Jay Gatsby strolling through a garden party.
“It had been such an eyesore for years,” Mr. Myslichuk said. “The day I was able to stand at the street and say, ‘Yeah, now it’s a house again.’ That was the proudest moment for me.”
Walkerville began as a 19th-century company town under whisky baron Hiram Walker. Today, it is part of Windsor, a courtly neighbourhood in a city where manufacturing is still important, a place of immaculate terrace homes, stately manors, leafy streets and pristine gardens.
Inside, guests entering through the ornate arched wooden door are ushered in to a two-storey entranceway highlighted by a spiral oak staircase. The dark wall panelling is walnut and there is a cloister with 20-foot ceiling and 16 feet of bevelled leaded glass windows.
Friends warned Mr. Myslichuk against taking on the decaying property but, reasoned the owner of BetterMade Cabinets, most of the required work involved wood and “that’s what I do for a living.”
He set a budget and prepared to see it double, then went through the house saving as many original features and finishings as he could, while replicating those he couldn’t. “I wanted it to look the way it did in Harry Low’s day,” he says.
Devonshire Lodge was custom-built in an era when things were built to last. All four second-storey bedrooms were designed with their own full bath and most of the bathroom fixtures – including two body showers – and tile work were saved. Most of the fixtures in the home’s three more bathrooms were preserved as well.
Mr. Myslichuk was intent on authenticity so when the downstairs entranceway tile needed to be replaced, he tracked down the original manufacturer who, he was delighted to discover, was still in business.
The old boiler and piping were rusted out but Mr. Myslichuk liked the look of the original brass-fronted radiators so he kept them as decorative features when he installed two forced-air gas furnaces. He didn’t want to spoil the home’s look by adding modern thermal-pane glass windows and admits there are bound to be drafts this winter. Won’t that make it expensive to heat? “If you can’t buy gas for the sports car,” he reasons, “don’t buy the sports car.”
For the sake of comfort, however, he had insulation blown into the walls of a sunroom that once served as the library. It is this room he plans to turn into a sort of tribute to the house’s various owners. Currently researching all of the owners it has had over the years, Mr. Myslichuk will eventually incorporate into the panelled walls a subtle wooden plaque honouring each. Water destroyed the ceiling so Mr. Myslchuk had it rebuilt in cherry panelling.
Throughout the house, original doors were kept, as were the glass and brass doorknobs. Original cabinetry, built of maple, poplar and yellow pine, was refinished. Central to the kitchen is an immense icebox and while Mr. Myslichuk bowed to modern tastes by adding the latest refrigeration units, he repurposed the icebox for storage.
Mr. Myslichuk recalls walking in to the parlour that first day and cringing when he set eyes on the awful blue that a huge limestone fireplace had been painted. He set to work applying a gentle soda blasting technique to strip the stone, then repointed and reglazed it, returning the limestone to its glorious past.
Occasionally, the house gave up wonderful hints of its earlier life. In a pile of rubble in the basement, he found an original brass fireplace poker that had been discarded years ago. “I grabbed it and held it and I was afraid somebody was going to take it out of my hands. I was so excited,” he recalls. Now it has been shined up and returned to its rightful spot next to the fireplace.
Some time in the past, some of the strip hardwood floors had been replaced with parquet hardwood. Mr. Myslichuk considered tearing it out and putting in modern hardwood, but opted instead to strip and refinish the parquet which, he says, is perfectly good.
Meanwhile, much of the wood panelling, coving and flooring are original. Even the entranceway coat closet is wood panelled. While much of the woodwork had been given a gloss finish in what Mr. Myslichuk believes was an attempt to lend it new life, he has stripped all the wood and applied a matte finish he considers more authentic to the home’s era.
In the dining room, Mr. Myslichuk found a wire sticking out of the floor and learned it was part of a buzzer system installed throughout the house to summon servants. The one in the dining room fed through the tabletop and the buzzers sounded in the kitchen and pantry area.
What was his biggest reno challenge? “Everything,” laughs Mr. Myslichuk. “It really didn’t matter whether it was the porch, the plumbing, the electrical, the heating, the painting. Everything has taken more effort. Scraping the fireplace took four weeks and we worked on the electrical for three months. I’d figured 10 days.”
Incredibly, much of the 85-year-old wiring was in good condition, with most of the BX-style, metallic sheathed cable wiring winning his electrician’s seal of approval. “He told me it was better than most of what goes into houses today,” Mr. Myslichuk said.
“The neighbours are very happy,” Mr. Myslichuk says. Occasionally, one will drop by and share a fact or two about the home’s history. Many were astounded to see the years of dirt scrubbed from the panels over the principal windows and discover they were copper. Soiled with age and neglect, the panels looked like wood.
Once the visitors started arriving, the stories began to flow. An elderly woman dropped by and told Mr. Myslichuk she recalled playing in the “old Low house” as a youngster. Another man said he remembered a photo of Harry Low, looking over stacks of $100 bills sitting on his dining room table. And Mr. Low’s grandson, Bruce Low, told Mr. Myslichuk his grandmother recounted the story of Al Capone’s visits, during which he would share a drink at the bar Mr. Low built in the cellar.
Paul Martin recalls that bar. “That was pretty neat,” he says. But what he remembers most about the basement is the hours he and his sister and friends spent searching for the legendary tunnel Mr. Low was rumoured to have built to connect his house to the Detroit River for the transport of liquor, a distance of eight or nine blocks.
“We used to tell everybody about the tunnel,” says Mr. Martin. “My sister and I spent a lot of time searching for that tunnel. Two-thirds of Windsor under the age of 20 went through the house looking for it,” Mr. Martin laughs. “We never found any sign of it. My kid sister was convinced [it was there]. But we never found the proof.”
Mr. Myslichuk smiles at the stories of the tunnel and says he “went exploring” after tips offered by some visitors. All he’ll say is: “There’s a few things that require more exploring. There are some things that are blocked up I’ll investigate when I have more time.”
Mr. Myslichuk will move in to Devonshire Lodge this month June with his 20-year-old daughter, Corey, a University of Windsor student. He is finishing it a little at a time, saying he’s letting the house itself dictate style and colour palette.
He’s also slowly collecting pieces from Harry Low’s era to lend authenticity. While the reconstruction work is finished, he considers the house a work in progress and next plans to take on the coach house, part of which will be turned back into the original three-car garage.
What was his greatest pleasure from the experience? “All along I was driven by thoughts of bringing the house back to life, making it a place again where there’s laughter, there’s a piano and furniture and the warmth of somebody living here again. The house just needed a good hug,” Mr. Myslichuk said.
During the renovations, he has occasionally opened his doors to allow members of the public to visit and follow the progress, with funds from their visits donated to charity. It was at the end of one of those visits that Mr. Myslichuk says he was moved to tears.
Members of a local club had asked for a tour and as they stood at the bottom of the staircase, one of the women stepped forward and presented Mr. Myslichuk with a black-and-white photograph.
“It was these stairs,” he says, “and there were two gentlemen standing to the side. You could see the stairs were being assembled. There was no ceiling, just rafters.
This was a photograph of the actual fabricating of the stairs. I literally cried. It was so incredible. The lady who gave me the photo, her father had owned Walker Lumber and he had been part of the build of this house.”
The moment was typical of how the community has embraced Mr. Myslichuk’s project to bring Devonshire Lodge back to life. One of Windsor’s grandest homes has been saved from demolition and raised from decay, bringing back with it a colourful piece of local and Canadian history.
Devonshire Lodge will celebrate its reopening with public tours on June 7, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and June 8, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. It sits at the corner of Ontario Street and Devonshire Road in Windsor’s Walkerville neighbourhood. Admission is $10 for adults; children are free. Proceeds go to the Canadian Cancer Society.
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