Written by: Rachel Hamilton
How do you solve a problem like Canadian history? Bellevue House has endeavored to provide an answer.
History is created by people – complex, complicated people who attain incredible achievements and make horrific mistakes. Sir John A Macdonald, Canada’s first Prime Minister, lived at Bellevue House for thirteen months between 1848 and 1849. In 2018, Bellevue House began to update its interpretations and information to tell a more inclusive version of Macdonald’s and Canada’s history. During a visit to the 1840s Italianate-style house, visitors will have the opportunity to learn not only about Macdonald’s multi-faceted legacy, but to reflect on the many voices and perspectives on confederation and Canada’s evolution as a country.
But Bellevue House is so much more than just a history of Macdonald. The site covers an impressive variety of subjects and will appeal to those interested in architecture, dress and fashion, games, gardening, and the history of Kingston, to name a few.
While Bellevue House tackles serious, difficult, and controversial topics, it does not adopt an information-heavy approach, and there are plenty of opportunities for visitors of all ages to have fun. Although groups can arrange for guided tours, the site allows visitors to proceed at their own pace and have as much or as little structure as they would like.
Visitors enter through the visitor information centre, which includes an interpretive area with a brief and accessible overview of Bellevue House, Macdonald, confederation, the creation of the Canadian Pacific Railway, the Indian Act, and Canada in the twentieth century. The interpretive centre features a grey timeline with a more traditional narrative of Canada’s history. Meanwhile, a purple ribbon weaves across the timeline, providing other perspectives which historically have been undermined and distorted, if not ignored. This widening of the narrative incorporates female, Indigenous, and Chinese voices. The interpretive centre achieves an ideal balance of image and text, providing visitors with just enough context to understand the greater significance of the themes their tour of the site will highlight. Before venturing outside, visitors can write messages of their hopes for Canada’s future and pose at the “Imagine a Country” photobooth.
While in the visitor centre, families with children can pick up Parka (ages 3-5) or Xplorer (ages 6-12) packs. These booklets are filled with a variety of activities to keep younger visitors occupied, and an enticing treasure chest holds prizes for “Xplorers” who complete their activity books. Additionally, young visitors can collect the Bellevue House dog tag to add to their Parks Canada collection. (Teens and adults will likely feel some envy – these dog tags are a fun and colourful souvenir!) The visitor centre also features a gift shop which sells books, t-shirts, and a variety of other items.
Next, visitors walk down a pathway and, turning a corner, are met with a picturesque view of Bellevue House. Built in the early 1840s, the house was originally owned by Charles Hales, a tea merchant who designed his home to mimic the architectural styles he saw in Italy during his travels abroad. Bellevue House is considered North America’s finest surviving example of the Italianate façade, and the interpretive guides working onsite will inform visitors about the house’s unique structure and features. The house is set back from the road and the peaceful atmosphere almost makes you feel as though you have stepped back in time to the 1840s, when Bellevue House was still considered to be “in the country.”
Although visitors can ordinarily venture inside the house, it is currently closed for renovations, and is expected to reopen in 2023. In the meantime, a virtual tour of the home, pre-renovation, is available online and in the visitor centre. However, the interpretive team have ensured that the closure does not in any way lessen a visitor’s experience on-site. A heritage station to the left of the house allows visitors to learn more about the house’s architecture, Victorian fashion and dress, and 1840s children’s games. Visitors are encouraged to partake in these games and, during my visit, the guides demonstrated the game of graces (and I was very impressed with their gracefulness).
Visitors can also stroll through the garden at the foot of the property and learn about Victorian gardening and composting techniques. Visitors might also like to explore the grounds, before stopping by the privy and the carriage house.
Reflecting the site’s broader objective of presenting many voices from the past, visitors learn about the lived experiences of the privileged, the elite, and the working-class individuals who lived and worked at Bellevue House in the 1840s.
Although visitors can download the Parks Canada app for a virtual guided tour of the site (available for Apple and Android devices), I strongly recommend that visitors talk to the guides. In addition to providing excellent and detailed interpretations, Bellevue House’s staff are enthusiastic, incredibly knowledgeable, and eager to answer questions and engage in conversations.
During my visit, I asked the staff what they wanted visitors to know about Bellevue House. Several were keen to highlight the fact that the site offers something for everyone and appeals to a huge variety of interests. But what really stood out to me was one interpreter who said they wanted to allay any concerns or misconceptions that the site is attempting to “change” or “erase” history. On the contrary, the site merely seeks to present the many perspectives on Macdonald’s legacy and Canada’s past and present in a factual and neutral manner.
Bellevue House truly does offer something for everyone, and visitors of all ages with a wide variety of interests will surely find some reason to visit this beautiful site. And, perhaps more importantly, the site is refreshingly honest and real, encouraging visitors to reflect on Canada’s history – its full history. Bellevue House combines the best aspects of heritage interpretation by being informative, educational, and fun.
From July 1st until Labour Day, Bellevue House is open seven days a week from 10 am – 4 pm. After Labour Day, the site is open Thursday to Monday from 10 am – 4 pm. Fees apply to group and school tours, but admission is free for all other visitors for the duration of the renovations.