Neglected Mental Asylum to Student Dormitory?

It took me a while to think of something to write about for Hamilton Heritage. For one, I am not from Hamilton and also heritage can be hard to distinguish in places that you are familiar with. After some thinking, I remembered about learning about the old Hamilton Asylum for the Insane in a class on mental health. I remembered being interested at the time and so I thought I would look into the site. After some research, I found out that there is still a building left over which is classified as a Hamilton Heritage Site.

The old Hamilton Asylum for the Insane was initially created to be an asylum for alcoholics when it opened its doors in 1876 and later expanded to other mental illnesses. The asylum encompassed five hundred acres and was self-sufficient with its own farms, shops and services. In 1890 the asylum housed 915 patients and employed 119 and quickly became a big part of Hamilton’s community.   In 1884 the Century Manor, or at the time, it was known as the ‘East House’ was created. This three floor mansion which held hundreds of mentally ill over a century is the only building left from the massive asylum today.

Map Showing Century Manor
Screenshot taken from Google Maps

Over this weekend I visited what remains of the old Hamilton Asylum for the Insane. When I arrived I was in awe with the beautiful Victorian Gothic architecture and the sheer size of the mansion. The building certainly stands out in the community even with the large buildings that now surround it. Although I was in awe with the architecture, as I got closer I noticed that it has clearly been neglected. The windows have all been boarded up, there is rust all over, and areas are starting to rot out. The Century Manor is blocked off from community access and is a shame that such a nice building that plays an integral role in Hamilton’s history is both being neglected and not made accessible to the public.

Blocked off Century Manor
Source: Samantha Craggs/CBC
Example of Damages
Source: Samantha Craggs/CBC

For the most part, society has changed its perspective on mental illness since the opening of the Hamilton asylum. New insights into mental health have rightfully led to an overall less stigmatized view on mental illness. I do not think this makes the Hamilton Asylum for the Insane a piece of negative heritage. The asylum has adapted overtime with the views of Hamiltonians and therefore is a significant and valuable piece of Hamilton Heritage.

For over twenty years the Century Manor has been vacant and blocked off from public access. After the building was declared a heritage building it was put under the responsibility of Infrastructure Ontario (IO). Access by the public was taken away due to the building being ‘structurally unsafe,’ some concerned Hamiltonians have asked why the building was allowed to become structurally unsafe if the IO was put in charge of maintaining it.

Since then, there have been talks that the building may be sold to private investors. Among those interested is Steve Kulakowsky who has a track record of taking old buildings, preserving their heritage but at the same time changing them into something new. Kulakowsky, if given the chance, envisions the building to be fixed up and used as a dormitory for students studying at Mohawk College.

I think that if this piece of heritage is being left to rot by the province, and someone is offering a way to make use of it while taking over the responsibility of restoring and maintaining it, than I think why not? It is also relevant to housing students as in its later years was used to teach a forensic psychiatry program before it was closed in 1995 (the last time the building was occupied). St. Joseph’s has a museum of the items left inside the building and that will remain, all that is left is an empty building, but not if the building is left to rot. By using this space, the heritage of the architecture and the site will be preserved as well as the history in the museum. Now the building can continue to adapt with Hamilton and be used to house students of Mohawk College.

I think selling the Century Manor to fulfill Steve Kulakowsy’s vision of a preserved heritage building, adapted to a dormitory that will house Mohawk students, would be a good use of this old building while also maintaining the Victorian Gothic architecture and the history of the building along with it.

Here are some links to learn more about the history of Century Manor and other news about the old Hamilton Mental Asylum: Continue reading

Dundurn Castle: Accessing and Authenticating Heritage

Dundurn Castle

In Hamilton, Ontario, probably one of the most important and popular heritage sites for Hamiltonians and tourists alike is Dundurn Castle. However, do not let its name, fancy porticos and columns fool you! This is not actually a castle (*gasp*) and the tour guides are very upfront with this miscommunication.

Formerly the site of a fortified military escarpment during the War of 1812, Sir Allen Napier MacNab, a businessman and Premier of the United Canadas between 1854 and 1856, built the castle in 1835. It was designed by architect, Robert Wetherall, who combined classical and Italianate villa styles, and features French windows, two towers and a portico added in the 1850s. The castle has since been purchased by the City of Hamilton, and continues to be restored and renovated to 1855 when MacNab was at the height of his career.

As work continues to be done on Dundurn Castle, important issues such as accessibility and authenticity begin to emerge and conflict with future design plans. Having recently visited the castle myself, I’d like to address some of these challenges and open discussion on the authenticity versus accessibility debate.

Dundurn CastleDundurn Castle

First of all, it is important to note that this site appeals to a wide audience and makes it suitable for all ages. Particularly, the Hamilton Military Museum included in the castle’s admission price, offers a whole children’s section where they can pretend to be soldiers from 1812 and appeals to more hands on learning. The castle also offers activities for non-history buffs including historical cooking classes and gardening tours. So there is something for everyone! The castle is also open year round with tours every 20-30 minutes between 12 and 4pm, Tuesday to Sunday, making it very accessible to families and individuals with busy schedules.

Dundurn CastleDon’t feel you can make it during any of those times, or live far away and transportation costs are expensive? Fear not! There is a virtual tour of the grounds and the castle! The virtual tour is actually quite impressive as it takes you all over the property and through the rooms of the castle (it even goes through the military museum). It also lets you click on highlighted features within a room such as the many portraits or chandeliers to learn more information and get a better look. Each section/area/room also comes with a brief description similar to what you would hear on a guided tour. You can also listen to the description with the audio option. So though you might not be able to go in person, you can still enjoy the castle as if you were there on the tour. The only thing I would have liked to have seen is more language options for the audio and written descriptions in order to allow non-English speakers to be able to access the site.

The actual physical tour is quite good as well and you even get to try food made using historical cooking methods at the end. The shortbread is amazing! Additionally, the tour guides dress in period costumes and lead you through the house adding to its authentic feel. Overall, they were very good at answering any questions my group and I had including ones about broader historical themes. In an article by Jonathan Rix, Ticky Lowe and the Heritage Forum (2010) on increasing accessibility in heritage sites, they suggested that one of the ways to enhance site accessibility for individuals with various learning disabilities was to include guides who are engaging and build on their understandings. Costumes were also found to be helpful. Therefore, these tours could help provide access to many individuals with different disabilities.

Dundurn Castle

Nonetheless, the biggest challenge for accessibility at Dundurn Castle is probably its wheelchair accessibility. The website for the site is clear that the castle is only partially wheelchair accessible. This is evident with the narrow and uneven staircases leading to the basement and upper floors of the castle. In trying to make this more accessible to these individuals, issues of authenticity come into play. Do we potentially damage the original structure of the building in order to put in elevators or other accessibility options? Would these projects completely change the grounds? I believe with more research and consultation, Dundurn Castle could potentially find an effective solution and become more accessible to the public which should be a priority in future developments. Durdurn Castle is an important marker of Hamilton’s identity and heritage, should we not all be able to share it?

References Cited:

Rix, Jonathan, Ticky Lowe, and the Heritage Forum. (2010). Including people with learning difficulties in cultural and heritage sites. International Journal of Heritage Studies 16(3):207-224. DOI: 10.1080/13527251003620743.

For More Information Please Visit:

Virtual Museum Tour

A Visit to One of Hamilton’s Civic Museums: WHITEHERN

The city of Hamilton is known for many things, including being:

     With regard to heritage, Hamilton is known to possess a vast amount of historical sites and civic museums. By definition, heritage is known as the basic human need that connects a particular group of people, community, or culture to their past. As something that is handed down from the past to following generations, the management of heritage generates a sense of identity, tradition, and belonging. Perspectives of heritage may also differ depending on its context – I will be focussing on the local perspective of heritage. 

     One particular civic museum located at the heart of downtown Hamilton is known as the Whitehern Historic House and Garden. Originally the property of the McQuesten family (from 1852-1968), but bequeathed to the city of Hamilton after the remainder of their family members passed. 


     As per request, I rang the doorbell and waited for an attendant to let me into the house. To my surprise, a lady in a servant’s costume answered the door, gave me a warm welcome, and introduced herself. Her name was Katherine (Fig. 1). I had explained to her the purpose of my visit and so she offered to give me a guided tour. After giving a brief history of the house, she took me to each room and talked about what they were used for, when they were occupied, and who used them. I was impressed at how well-kept the place was, and even more so when I was told that everything in the house was original, except for the wallpaper in the parlour room (Fig. 2). The interior design and decorations were very telling of when this house was mainly occupied in – the eclectic Victorian period. 

    The second floor was where all five bedrooms were located and in the main hall was a family tree of the McQuestens (Fig. 3). Katherine gave a run-down of each family member, describing their occupations, hobbies, and even causes of death. Some interesting facts include:

  • Dr. Calvin McQuesten (1st generation) – moved to Hamilton from New York to get into the steel and iron industry. 
  • Thomas McQuesten (2nd generation) – received a degree in Law at the University of Toronto and was a member of the Hamilton Tigers.
  • Calvin McQuesten (3rd generation) – was part of the Ministry of Highway and opened up the QEW. He also helped with the construction of the Rainbow Bridge, along with other roads, parks, and recreations.

Following that, Katherine led me to the rest of the house even taking me to a mini exhibit found at the basement (Fig. 4). After the tour had ended, she had advised me to search online for more information about the Whitehern and the McQuestens. 

HERITAGE: Management, Community, and Accessibility 

    Establishing the Whitehern Historic House and Garden as a civic museum is a good example of contemporary archaeology through its involvement in heritage management, community stewardship, cultural tourism, and accessibility of knowledge and information.

Heritage Management.  It is evident that the city of Hamilton is taking the right measures in maintaining the Whitehern civic museum. Extra precaution is being taken to continuously maintain the artefacts and objects found within it. This includes making the rooms off-limits by having a fence placed on the doorways, only allowing employees in proper attire to enter the rooms (i.e. clean footwear and gloves on), as well as moving more fragile artefacts to a more secure warehouse to prevent damage due to time, weathering, and bad conditions. Essentially, heritage management is put into effect by actively preserving the tangible artefacts.

Community Stewardship.  Events and activities are held in the Whitehern house throughout the year, involving members of the local and surrounding communities. Such events include school field trips where children are taught how to scrub with a washboard, roll dough, or  mending/sewing (i.e. a good way to experience the daily activities that people took part in in the past). Other activities also include “Wednesdays at Whitehern” where live music is set up on the lawn, for local musicians to perform, and where tea and lemonade are provided. This active engagement with the community embellishes the importance of this site, especially since the original residents, the McQuestens, were key members of the development of history in Hamilton. 

Cultural Tourism.   This civic museum gets especially busy during the holidays, with local residents and other tourists visiting. It seems that the Whitehern Historic House and Garden is involved with the Ministry of Tourism in some way as it has its own page on Tourism Hamilton

Accessibility. Although the hours of operation seem to be limited (12PM-4PM; closed on Mondays), admission costs are fairly reasonable. Being a McMaster student, one benefit was that admission was FREE. The one thing that this building lacked was a ramp to provide access for those who are in wheelchairs. This however is understandable since adding a ramp would require reconstruction at the site which could potentially damage important artefacts. To compensate for this, a virtual tour is available online. However, this could bring up issues and concerns as to why admission is required from those who visit the site whereas the same tour online is provided for free. It could be argued that the full experience is not received through the virtual tour, especially since the exhibit is not included. Also, the virtual tour does not provide the same sensations one would get on the actual tour at the house, with a tour guide dressed as a servant and music from the earlier time periods playing in the background (Fig. 5).

All-in-all, the Whitehern is a fine-example of a historic home. It is a perfect place to discover and explore the heritage of Victorian ideas and possessions as well as the heritage of the city of Hamilton. 


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Atalay, S. (2012). Chapter 2: Origins of Community-Based Participatory Research. In Community-Based Archaeology: Research with, by, and for Indigenous and Local Communities, pp. 33-52. University of California Press.
Cultural heritage: a basic human need – Sada Mire at TEDxEuston. (2016). YouTube. Retrieved 6 March 2016, from
Rix, J., Lowe, T. and the Heritage Forum (2010). Including people with learning diffficulties in cultural and heritage sites. International Journal of Heritage Studies 16(3): 207-224. DOI: 10.1080/13527251003620743.

How does Accessibilty Fit into Heritage?


There are a lot of expectations that tourists have while visiting heritage sites. While it is common for those who manage the sites to invest hundreds into creating engaging and accurate representations for their visitors, they often forget about creating a space accessible to all of its visitors. While I believe that many spaces are capable of managing an accessible space, there are some cases which make it difficult. After a recent visit to Dundurn Castle, I would like to use it as a case study to highlight the challenges of accessibility in heritage.

Dundurn castle, located in Hamilton, Ontario, and has had a key impact on the identity of the city. The castle has stood at its current size since 1835, when Sir Allan McNab owned the estate with his family. Its impressive size continues to stun people who pass through, as it still holds the elegant charm it once did in the past. After a guided tour of the site, visitors are able to gain an appreciation for not only local history, but also the work which cultural historians have put into maintaining the site to its highest point of preservation, from hand painting the marbled walls, to the small toys of the children who grew up there.

While visiting Dundurn castle proved to be an extravagant guided tour of history, its unfortunate downfalls as a historic site lie within its accessibility issues for the public. While maintaining the heritage left on site, the ability to access the building has become an issue. The set-up of tour uses steep and uneven steps, poor lighting, and extremely small passages that even able-bodied individuals struggle to move through. Those with poor vision, or any form of disability which may require assistance to mobility will most likely be unable to access the site. Although many of the visitors whom tour may not recognize this, it becomes almost ironic considering Sir Allan McNab ended up suffering from Gout, and was confined to a wheelchair for part of his life.


The debate lies within how much of history should be changed for accommodation. Over the years, 3 million dollars have been spent on maintenance and preservation of the original assets within the home. In staying true to the authenticity of the site they have presented a pure and realistic image of life in the castle. It calls to question if it is truly ethical to alter the representation with modern ideas of accessibility? As an advocate for equal accessibility, this question proves a challenge to answer. In some cases, the ability to make accessible additions does not drastically change historic grounds, and can be quite easy to build into the makeup of the site. In this case, the building would have to be heavily renovated to become completely accessible to those with some types of physical limitation. There would need to be the addition of elevators, wider halls, and ramps throughout the building. This means high construction costs, maintenance precautions, and threat to the original structure of the building, the latter being the most difficult seeing the age of the building.

In the case of Dundurn castle, I believe that it is possible to find solutions to the problem. In order to bypass any undue hardship, the site needs to provide some form of compensation for fair participation. This means that those who run the site may be able to create accessible tours, where tours could be made accessible to those with physical limitations by allowing wheelchair ramps to the main floor, or with portable lighting for those with visual limitations. This could mean creating a secondary tour route that would be on an accommodating path, but could still be strategic in highlighting the history of the site. While it may not completely address all of the accessibility problems on site, it presents a simple solution to give everyone an opportunity to participate in the history of the building.

Examining Burlington Heights: The Public Visibility of a War of 1812 Heritage Site

The question of public access to, and visibility of heritage knowledge gained by archaeological and historical research have become very prevalent issues of examination and debate among academics and popular writers alike. From public news writers like J. Mulholland (2015) who argued that academics should avoid public engagement, to actual archaeologists like Myles Mitchell (2013) and his fellow Australian archaeologists who have gone to great lengths to try and integrate the community both in the process of managing and conserving their own archaeological heritage. In the hopes of contributing to this discussion, I intend to tackle a much more simple issue of visibility and the access related to visibility of heritage sites on a local scale. To this end, I visited the heritage site of Burlington Heights, to specifically its monuments to its role in the War of 1812 with the intent of examining various aspects of how the site, any artifacts from the site, and its history were presented to the public. Since the War of 1812 is one of the more fondly remembered military conflicts in terms of Canadian success here in Canada, I approached this topic curious to see how a site related to this conflict was preserved and displayed.

When visiting this site, I analyzed two different but connected constructs that both dealt with trying to show off Burlington Heights and its history during the war of 1812 to the public: the monuments, and the nearby Hamilton Military Museum and its exhibit on the site. The monument of Burlington Heights itself is a very basic stone tablet/marker, and was built in 1935 by the Federal Government, commemorating the active dates of the site (1813-1814) as a reserve and assembly point for troops and a depot during the War of 1812. Besides that, there are two more tablets that I found, one which was placed even earlier in 1814 where the first line of ramparts stood by the Wentworth Historical Society, and a stone tablet marking the actual ramparts of Fort Burlington Heights. The latter tablet also includes a recounting of Lieutenant Colonel Harvey’s surprise attack on June 5th, 1813, though the date when the tablet was placed was not included.


Official Burlington Heights, War of 1812 Memorial Tablet


Earthworks Line Marker (Several steps to the left of the official Monument)


Ramparts Monument (has since had its lettering fixed and bushes trimmed), Hamilton Cemetery

     Meanwhile, the Hamilton Military Museum held a small but fairly extensive exhibit on Burlington Heights. The exhibit included archaeological artifacts from the various decades of occupation of the site, including during the time the British used it in the War of 1812. They also have various maps from the time period detailing the fortifications, a brochure telling the history of Burlington Heights, and several detailed placards of information on various aspects of Burlington Heights before and during the War of 1812, First Nations allies in the war, and Black Loyalist Soldiers who fought and are buried in the nearby Hamilton Cemetery.


Burlington Heights Map, 1813. Featured in the Hamilton Military Museum

     Having spent several hours examining Burlington Heights as a War of 1812 memorial and how it has been presented to the public, I do not believe that it is a badly presented site in terms of the information it is trying to show to the public, but it is very badly presented in terms of actually advertising the site as a place for people to access and examine.

The monuments themselves are quite divided, with the official monument and earthwork marker standing right overlooking the bay several hundred yards away from the nearest parking lot, and the other tablet sitting in the middle of Hamilton Cemetery right across a busy and fast-moving street. There are no signs directing visitors to either of the actual monuments and maps were not immediately forthcoming, though they may have been provided upon buying a ticket for Dundurn Castle, which is the main attraction of the area, but I did not go through that route. Regardless, there were no publicly available maps of the area within sight despite the area having several heritage monuments and buildings.


Dundurn Castle, the main heritage attraction and site near the Burlington Heights Monument. The Hamilton Military Museum is off to the right of this picture.

     The nearby Hamilton Military Museum, though fairly extensive in its presentation of the artifacts and history as I said, is also not very well advertised as a place to view heritage on the area, with the small building it is placed in having no actual signage or images advertising it as a museum other than one placed by the door, which when I had entered had actually fallen over due to high winds. A brief discussion with one of the employees there informed me that even though the people who buy tickets to nearby Dundurn Castle are informed about the museum, only roughly 50-60% of people who visit the castle take the time to also visit the museum.


Road-facing Side of the Hamilton Military Museum


Entrance to the Hamilton Military Museum, Hamilton Ontario

     This is not a problem unique to Burlington Heights, many different sites and projects in archaeology and heritage studies have grappled with the task of trying to make themselves more accessible to the public, and to engage the public in various ways with their heritage. In this case I do not believe the issue lies in the presentation of the information, so much as the ability to make people aware of the fact that the sites and these artifacts exist. That, as well as making the archaeology and history interesting or enticing enough in its presentation that people want to see it should also a major factor in making this site and its separate pieces become more active as a heritage site in Hamilton.

To find out more about Burlington Heights, and other Historical and Heritage Sites related to the War of 1812 in Hamilton, Ontario check this links:

Canada’s Historic Places: Burlington Heights

Toursim Hamilton: 1812 Sites in Hamilton


Mitchell, Myles, David R. Guilfoyle, Ron Doc Reynolds, and Catherine Morgan (2013). Towards Sustainable Community Heritage Management and the Role of Archaeology: A Case Study from Western Australia. Heritage & Society 6(1): 24-45. DOI: 10.1179/2159032X13Z.0000000005

Mulholland, J. (2015). Academics: forget about public engagement, stay in your ivory towers. The Guardian: Higher Education Network. URL: