Behind the scenes in the preservation of Belle Vue

 

(Editor’s Note: This is the tenth in a series of articles regarding the Belle Vue house and its history. Historian/genealogist Debra Honor is a member of the Belle Vue Conservancy.)

 

By Debra Honor UE, PLCGS

 

Over the years, in the history of Amherstburg, certain names keep popping up as the movers and shakers who pushed to preserve our heritage.

Names like Perry Leighton and George F. MacDonald who collected and preserved articles of the past for others to enjoy. Others like David Botsford, John Marsh, Richard Thrasher and Eugene Whelan who worked behind the scenes to influence government decisions in the preservation of our historical properties such as Fort Malden National Historic Site, the Commissariat and Belle Vue. These kinds of projects take time, sometimes years before the public knows what is even happening.

The Bellevue Veterans’ Home closed in 1954. Mr. and Mrs. Paul Tetzlaff bought the property around 1956 to run it as a nursing home but because of their own ill health, they had to sell the property. In the meantime, the house stood empty and just like in present times, vandals got in and did damage.

One way to preserve the house was to have a heritage designation placed on the property. This takes years and much research to give the building the provenance it needs. Much research was done by David Botsford and George F. MacDonald on the Reynolds family and their connections to other eminent families in the area.

On May 25, 1959, the Federal Government designated it a National Historic Site under the Historic Sites and Monuments Act.

That same year in April, Mrs. Tetzlaff wrote a letter to the Department of Northern Affairs and National Resources, which oversaw the Canadian parks, asking that Belle Vue become a part of Fort Malden because of its historical value. A letter from the department to David Botsford asked about “the price and the relative location to Fort Malden National Historic Park.

Another possible buyer for the Belle Vue property was the Browning Ship Lines of Ohio who at the time owned Bob-lo Island. Michael Zin of the Ukrainian Church remembered, “They wanted the property, so they could tear down the house, put in a parking lot, and then put in a dock for the Amherstburg ferries to the park.”

The third possible buyer was the Ukrainian Catholic Church which shared St. John the Baptist Church facilities for their services. In need of a place of their own, the Ukrainians bid included a strong sense of preserving the past of Belle Vue as well as the future of their church within the Belle Vue property.

Since the government had recently designated the Belle Vue property as a heritage site, the offer from the Browning Ship Lines to tear down the building did not make sense.

The town already had Fort Malden as a National Park and there was a bit of a distance between the fort and Belle Vue. This could have been a deterrent for the government to purchase the property.

Having the bid from the Ukrainian Church that recognised the historic value of the building as well as making it their religious home, protected the recent designation and gave the property a purpose that was acceptable. It solved two problems: preserving the property and giving the Ukrainian Church a place of worship.

It is interesting to note, that the Honourable Walter Dinsdale, Minister of Northern Affairs visited Fort Malden for the first time at the end of May 1961 accompanied by Richard D. Thrasher, M.P. Essex South. They possibly talked about the Belle Vue purchase. On June 6th, 1961, Richard Thrasher wrote a letter to John Marsh at the Amherstburg Echo, “I am now advised by Crown Assets Disposal Corporation that the offer of the Ukrainian Catholic Episcopal Corporation of Eastern Canada has been forwarded to the Governor-in-Council for approval. …

As for myself, I am very happy that this sale is to take place as I was very anxious to see that this property fell into the hands of some organization who would be in the position to restore it to some of its former beauty and maintain it in this manner for many years to come.”

In September of 1961, the Ukrainian community came together to restore the grandeur of Belle Vue through their support both financially and their labour. A section of the building was converted into a chapel and the remainder was renovated. It was named “The Ukrainian Village” and “in addition to providing a place of worship, provides an environment in which the tradition of “Bellevue” and the traditions of the Ukrainian heritage can co-mingle.”

A year later, on June 3, 1962, came the opening of the Ukrainian Village and the Blessing of the Chapel, under the Patronage of St. Nicholas. The whole day was filled with celebrations including a mass in the morning to bless the Chapel and the Ukrainian Village. In the afternoon, was the unveiling and dedication of the Provincial Historical Plaque by the Archaeological and Historic Sites Board of Ontario.

Those who took part in the programme were: R. Alan Douglas, President of the Essex County Historical Association; Ashley Martin, Reeve of Malden Township; G. F. G. Stanley, Member of the Archaeological and Historic Sites Board of Ontario; Richard Thrasher, M.P., Essex South; Eugene Whelan, Warden of Essex County; Mayor E. T. LaFramboise, Mayor of Amherstburg; David Botsford, Custodian of Fort Malden National Historic Park; The Honourable William Murdoch, M.P.P, Speaker of the Legislature; and the Most Reverend Isidore Borecky, Bishop of the Ukrainian Catholic Church of Eastern Canada.

By 1983, the St. Nicholas Ukrainian Chapel needed major repairs to the roof and some structural parts of the building. The cost of the repairs was too much for the congregation to complete on their own. Through the help of M.P. Eugene Whelan, a project grant of $156,000 was given for the renovation. The Canada Ontario Employment Development (COED) project grant constituted $78,000 a piece from the federal and provincial governments. COED was aimed at providing work for persons on welfare or whose Unemployment Insurance benefits were about to expire, and to get some worthwhile projects accomplished.

Earlier that same year, the Belle Vue property was officially designated by the

Amherstburg town council under the provincial heritage legislation as an historic structure. The designation would give the congregation a chance to apply for other grants in restoration or renovations of the building on a 50/50 share cost. The congregation was willing to fundraise to meet the requirements.

On October 21, 1984, The St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Church celebrated the completion of the renovations by having a plaque unveiling. The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada finally laid the federal plaque that was designated in 1959 near the front porch of the Belle Vue. The church had completed the new copper roof with wooden shingles on the side parts. They had a ramp put on the front porch for accessibility and other major repairs on the inside.

Those who presented at the program were Dr. George F. MacDonald, member of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada; Mayor Garnet Fox of Amherstburg; John Pylypiw, Parish Committee President, St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Church; Peter Stokes, Restoration Architect; Jim Caldwell M.P. and the Very Rev. Eugene Halitsky, Dean and Pastor of St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Church.

In a “Letter to the Editor” on December 19, 1984, Michael Zin publicly commended those who helped the Ukrainian community in the more recent past to save Belle Vue. Notably, he said, “It was the foresight and persistence of Alex Taskey and the effort of Dick Thrasher, who in 1961, saved the property from those developers all too ready to tear down the building for commercial use.” He thanked the Amherstburg Echo for keeping the project in the limelight and the men and women who worked on the project under the severest weather conditions.

“It is unfortunate that individuals such as Dick Thrasher and Eugene Whelan were not invited to participate and enrich the occasion. Without their help Bellevue, as we know it today would not be there.

As an individual associated with the Bellevue project from the summer of 1961 to the completion of the NEEDS program in March of this year (1984), I felt compelled to at least partially undo the injustice that was accorded, especially to Mr. Richard Thrasher and the Honourable Eugene Whelan,” stated Zin.

The protection of heritage is not an easy task. There are many hours, even years, spent behind the scenes by dedicated people to preserve our community’s heritage without always receiving the appreciation they deserve. Thank you to those in the past, whose foresight preserved Belle Vue.

And thank you to those in the present, who also deserve our gratitude in preserving Belle Vue for the future.

 

Please support our fundraising campaign. One hundred per cent of your contribution will be used for restoration of the Belle Vue House. You will receive a full tax receipt and a Belle Vue gift. Visit amherstburg.ca/donate to help us open up Belle Vue once again!

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