Cast the clock back to 1988. At Waterloo-Oxford District Secondary School in Baden, Ontario, just west of Kitchener-Waterloo where I teach, two students come to me with a problem to solve.
They need to do a research report on a historic building in their town. With the one-time “Flax King of Canada,” James Livingston’s Victorian mansion, Castle Kilbride, just down the road from the school, they’ve selected it as their study.
“Do you think there’s any way we could see inside it, Mrs. Silcox?” the kids ask me. A carpe diem type of educator, I answer: “we’ll see.” Then I pick up the phone and call Mr. Hap Veitch, the Castle’s current resident.
“I’d be delighted to give the kids a tour,” says the congenial Hap. “You come along too,” he invites. “But count on being here a couple of hours at least, to go through all the rooms. Three generations of ‘collectors’ lived here, and there’s a lot to see.”
Little could I imagine, at the time, how our adventure that day would open a new world to me—a world of history, art, architecture and fine furnishings. It opened my eyes also, to a compelling “Horatio Alger” story of ambition and power.
In 1854, James Livingston, only 16, late of East Kilbride, Scotland and his brother John crossed the ocean to make their fortune in Canada. Finding their way to Wilmot Township, west of the bustling town of Berlin (Kitchener), the brothers set their sights on the flax plant to make their mark.
Flax was a versatile commodity—not only used for cloth fibres, but the oil from the seed of the plant was a component of paint products. The Livingston boys were soon renting land and sewing flax seeds.
Within a couple of years, the Livingston-owned Dominion Linseed Company was formed. Both the brothers were well on their way to financial success. Eventually, their company would become the largest of its kind in North America.
Ambitions Beyond Business
But James Livingston’s ambition went far beyond business. In 1877, work began on his new home, situated prominently on Snyder’s Road, the main street of little Baden. It would be named “Castle Kilbride” after Livingston’s ancestral Scottish place of birth.
But no ordinary house would Kilbride be, either in size or composition. James and his German-speaking wife Louisa would go on to produce 10 living children. Fifteen rooms would do just fine for a large family and the requisite servants.
Kilbride was designed in the elegant Italianate style, adorned with ornate bay windows, cornices, gracious porches and a sweeping verandah. And like a tantalizing cherry sitting atop a tasty cupcake, Kilbride boasted a towering belvedere or cupola, atop its roofline.
Legend says that Livingston enjoyed his belvedere for more than aesthetic purposes. He used the vantage point to watch over his flax fields, staying alert to any malingering flax harvesters.
Riches for the Interior
“Glorious” best describes Kilbride’s interior. Livingston was a literate man, a great reader, with art, architecture and fine furnishings books high on his reading list. And so only the finest of interior design and workmanship were incorporated into Kilbride’s inner rooms.
Enter a mysterious itinerant painter named Henry Scharstein, who painted much of the elaborate artwork on Kilbride’s walls and ceilings. A master of the trompe l’oeil or “fools the eye” three-dimensional art, Schasstein was given full rein to create.
And what treasures unfolded under Scharstein’s practiced brush! Kilbride’s ceilings and walls are resplendent with classical scenes—musicians, cherubs, warriors and gods—in glorious gold, reds, greens and blues.
The most skilled of woodcarvers also found work at James Livingston’s Kilbride. Using only the finest of woods, they painstakingly carved rosettes, swirls and other intricate motifs in door trim and window valances.James imported from Italy several fine Carrera marble fireplaces, intricately carved like the wood trim. They were functional as well as decorative and would provide draughty warmth during the long Canadian winters.
Fine Art Too
Livingston travelled widely, collecting fine furnishings and art for his stately mansion. He was an early patron of acclaimed Victorian artist Homer Watson and added several of Watson’s landscapes to his home. One, “The Old Mill and Stream” was “twin” to Watson’s “The Pioneer Mill” which had been purchased for Queen Victoria’s art collection.
Yet not all of Livingston-watchers were complimentary of his efforts. An article in the Berlin Gazetteer of the day called Kilbride a “testament to opulence.”
James Livingston’s reign in his Castle ended with his death, from pneumonia in 1920. Despite his accomplishments as a businessman, builder and politician (he served as a Cabinet Minister in Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s government) James’ life had not been one without heartache.
Illness plays no favourites between ordinary mortals and the wealthy and powerful. Five of Livingston’s children predeceased him. Three daughters succumbed to the virulent Spanish Flu epidemic after the end of the First World War.
J.P. Takes Up Residence
James Livingston’s fortune and home was inherited by his eldest son, J.P. With money still flowing from the various Livingston industries, now spread across Canada and into the U.S., J.P. and his wife Laura pursued an extravagant lifestyle.
Parties were legend at the Baden home, with the “who’s who” of society in attendance. They often included whiskey king Joseph Seagram. Rumours had it that the interior shutters on the ground floor were installed to keep the local Constabulary’s prying eyes away. It was, after all, Prohibition times!
The 1929 Crash of the Stock Market and the resulting Great Depression did the Livingstone empire no flavours. Add to this, the development of synthetic fabrics and water-based paints to drastically cut the flax markets, and the Livingston fortune began to dwindle.
By the time J.P.’s only child, Laura Louise, and her husband Hap Veitch inherited Castle Kilbride in the early 50’s, the Livingston fortune was gone.
To make matters more financially perilous, Kilbride was a money-eating white elephant. Ever-present house repairs—leaking roof, peeling paint, or broken-down furnace stretched Hap and Laura Louise’s means to an extreme.
Years of Decline
And so began Kilbride’s years of decline. By 1988 when my students and I visited, Hap and Laura Louise, now in poor health, lived in only two downstairs rooms, at the back of the home. “We can’t afford to heat the whole house,” confided Hap.
The prized Scharstein paintings were flaking and peeling. The once-gleaming oak floors and carved wood trim had warped. The fine Persian carpets were threadbare.
It was time to sell. In June 1988, James Livingston’s showpiece ended up in the hands of developer. A massive four-day auction, one that brought serious antique collectors and art dealers from across North America, was held as Kilbride was stripped bare of its finery.
While the prices of most of the Livingston treasures were beyond my modest means, I was determined to acquire one memory from our pre-auction visit. A fine 1930’s era leather handbag came home with me on that memorable day.
After the deal to purchase the Castle fell through, Livingston’s testament to opulence remained empty for a number of years. Vagrants moved in and lit fires in the marble fireplaces to warm themselves. Vandals defaced the walls and a fire destroyed the home’s coach house.
Fearing for the Castle’s Survival
Wilmot residents feared for the Castle’s survival. In 1993, after five years of ruin, James Livingston’s mansion was purchased by the Township of Wilmot. It would be restored as a museum, with an addition on the back to house the Township’s civic offices.
In 1994, primarily on the strength of artist Henry Schasstein’s wondrous artwork, Castle Kilbride was designated a National Historic Site. It is called “one of the finest examples of such art in Canada.”
Today Castle Kilbride remains a glorious testament to the spirit of one of Canada’s nation makers, James Livingston.