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The former Carnegie Library in Dundas, Ont. is now an art gallery.Dave LeBlanc/The Globe and Mail

It’s just a theory, but I think that in prehistoric times, one was either a hill person or a valley person. Hill people bragged about vantage points and clean air, while valley people boasted of shelter and better soil. And both were right.

I must’ve been a valley person in a previous life. Whether looking up at tall Toronto towers from King Street, in the Coachella Valley surrounded by the San Jacinto Mountains, or sheltered by the Niagara Escarpment, I get a sense of overwhelming calm like nowhere else.

And that intoxicating feeling, if you’ll pardon me, made me think that Dundas, Ont., must be the most beautiful heritage town in Ontario (to be clear, Dundas, which snuggles between two faces of the Niagara Escarpment, was made part of the City of Hamilton in 2001).

It helped that my guide, Shannon Kyles, a retired architectural history teacher at Mohawk College and creator of the website, is as much a cheerleader for the area – she lives in nearby Greensville – as I am for Toronto. And, further, that our moods were much improved by the sun finally showing its glorious, golden face after what seemed like three weeks of solid rain.

We began our tour at the Gothic revival house of John Cowper (1860) at 16 Sydenham St., which has been home to Quatrefoil Restaurant for more than a decade. Mr. Cowper, who emigrated from England, was a furniture maker who also ran an undertaking business in Dundas. Dr. A. C. Caldwell, who served as Dundas mayor from 1924 to 1927 and 1931 to 1935, later owned the house.

Ms. Kyles – her father and grandfather were both architects – next takes me to Melville Street. Here, we ooh and ahh at the G. S. Grafton residence’s porch/sunroom combo (No. 45), the limestone cottage at No. 36 (a bed and breakfast called The Homestead 1867; their website lists Scottish couple Thomas Wilson and Agnes Jardine as builders and first owners), and a similar-yet-stuccoed cottage at No. 31 with complex, pointed-arch windows.

“That was restored by Alan Stacey,” Ms. Kyles said of the façade. No. 24 caught Ms. Kyles’s eye – ”You’re not going to find a better bell-cast roof anywhere,” she offered – as did the drip-like trim falling from the gable of No. 7.

“It’s just one incredible [house] after another, street after street, that’s the thing about Dundas.”

  • Heritage tour of Dundas, Ont. Foxbar House.Dave LeBlanc/The Globe and Mail

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It’s true, whether on Cross Street or Park Street West or East (Ms. Kyles raved about the window surrounds at No. 12 Park St. E.), we marvelled at the quality of restoration and care, stopping frequently to read the heritage plaques on each house.

And it was no different as we wended our way towards the high street, King Street West, but stopped first at a kitchen supply store called “The Keeping Room,” which, as Ms. Kyles explained, “was where the wagons were kept” or as she pointed to the building across the street that houses The Thirsty Cactus restaurant (Dundas became the “Cactus Capital of Canada” after the success of greenhouse owners Ben and Marika Veldhuis) and the 148-year-old Masonic Lodge next door, which the Hamilton Spectator reported last year will become a “Cornish-style” pub.

Walking along King Street my eyes jumped from one building to the next, but stopped at the incredibly ornate window surrounds of Nos. 13-17, the heritage-designated Laing Apartment block, an Italianate beauty built by grocers Robert and Peter Laing in 1882. “Those are cast iron,” Ms. Kyles said of the surrounds. “Each one weighs more than two bathtubs, and the cornice is also cast iron, and it’s held in place by iron rods that are anchored to the back of the building.”

Next, we popped into the old Carnegie Library, now an art gallery, saved in the mid-70s and again in 2005 by Dundas Art and Craft Association (and passionate locals), and then the old buff brick, 1920s Majestic movie theatre, which has been a bulk food store for four decades.

Recently closed for a historical facelift, Picone’s Fine Food at No. 34 might be Ontario’s oldest “family run grocery store,” says Ms. Kyles. She might be right: as the Globe’s Tracy Hanes reported in 2015, Joseph Picone Sr. opened the store in 1915, and it’s still run by his granddaughters.

After we’d admired as few other things, such as the turret of the old Central Hotel, Megan Hobson, a heritage consultant based in Dundas, joined us for lunch. And our conversation was dominated, unfortunately, by two things: while a few retail/commercial buildings are protected individually, the heritage portions of King and Main streets, overall, are not protected by a Heritage Conservation District. “There’s only so much I can do if there’s no legislation or policies that have been established,” Ms. Hobson says.

“And by getting a heritage district, you’re also saying ‘here are the rules, you can’t mess with this,’” adds Ms. Kyles.

Which brings up the second topic: there are rumblings of major condo developments on King Street, (one at eight storeys) and without guidelines in place, these can take any shape or use any materials their developers desire.

To calm our nerves and end our walk, we toured the Dundas Driving Park (named because folks would drive their carriages around the park), drove by the large, grand homes on South Street West and, finally, to view Foxbar House on Overfield Street. We finished at Dundas’ oldest building at 2 Hatt St., built by Richard Hatt around 1804; in 2020 it was given “Red” status by the City of Hamilton, which means it’s in immediate danger of “demolition; neglect; vacancy; alterations, and/or, redevelopment.”

Sadly, that is true of many heritage buildings in many towns. Some on hills, some on valleys, and all equally important to the story of how we lived in Ontario.

If you’re a local historian and think your town is more beautiful than Dundas, Ont., I’m all ears. Email me at and I’ll come visit.