The John T. Williston House: Another Strike For Heritage Preservation

(J. K. R. Walls photo)

On Water Street in Chatham, there is a wonderful stone house dating from the early 1820's. It has the distinction of being the town's oldest residence.

Three years ago, after having played many different roles in the life of the town, this historic house was an abandoned derelict, destined for the wrecker's hammer.

It didn't happen. A group of determined local people refused to let it happen. Convinced that the building's architecture and history made it well worth preserving, this small but dedicated group of people began a struggle that was to encompass a couple of years.

People like Rev. C. J. Mersereau, a local historian; Chuck Dewey, Jerry Donahue and David Cadogan who own businesses nearby; present mayor Michael Bowes and deputy mayor Rupert Bernard were involved. These people saw the house's rehabilitation not only as an important preservation project but as something more. Downtown Chatham was and is undergoing a revitalization; the Williston stone house would be the focal point.

Much time was spent with officials from Heritage Canada and the provincial Historical Resources Administration. The project was termed viable and an option was taken by Heritage Canada to purchase the property from owner Ralph Mizuik.

At the eleventh hour, Heritage Canada officials decided they could not swing it. Undaunted, the Town of Chatham and the provincial government each contributed $15,000 to purchase the building which they turned over to a non-profit group. The federal government, with the urging of M.P. Maurice Dionne, provided a Canada Community Development grant for restoration and the project was underway.

Roger Nason of the Historical Resources Administration, worked very closely with the local enthusiasts, providing much needed moral support. In concrete assistance, Historical Resources Administration also paid approximately $10,000 for initial architectural work provided by Basic Design Associates of Sussex.

The provincial government agreed to rent the 2000 square feet for office space upon completion of the building. The non-profit group called Chatham Historical Properties Inc., consisted of eight people whose job it was to administer the project. In the spring of 1983 the rehabilitation got underway.

It was a mammoth undertaking. The interior had to be completely gutted with forty truck loads of old wood, plaster and debris being removed. Under the able management of project manager David Russell and the watchful supervision of committee chairman Jerry Donahue, the project went from tearing down to rebuilding. The original ceiling molding was unearthed upstairs; refinisher George Hickey was able to repair and replace this moulding as well as design the decorative mantels for the original fireplaces.

Local woodworker Charles Spray designed and made fifteen windows and John McDermott of Balla Philip made all the doors, three of the windows and all the wood mouldings. All restoration work was kept as close to the original as possible.

The federal grant was supplemented by a generous donation from the Samuel and Saidye Bronfman Family Foundation of Montreal. Wallpaper for the upstairs rooms was supplied courtesy of Sunworthy Wallcoverings.

Finally, in March 1984, the restoration was completed. The Official Opening was held on St. Patrick's Day and the tenants, (the department of Social Services) moved in shortly afterwards.

(Members of Chatham Historical Properties, Inc., administrators of the restoration project of the John T. Williston house. From left to right, seated: Jack Ullock, Jerry Donahue and Lois Martin; standing: Chatham Town Councillors Charles Savoy, Michael O'Reilley and John Barry, Mayor Michael Bowes and Karl Williston.)

If The Walls Could Talk

Within the walls of the John T. Williston house, we have in 1984 unique and elegant offices. What other activity has been sheltered by these great stone walls?

The original owner was John T. Williston, who was born in Bay Du Vin in 1791. Before 1824 he commissioned stone mason Andrew Currie to construct this house which was to be the family home for over forty years.

Williston was a prominent businessman and lawyer and appeared to be involved in most community activities, along with Francis Peabody, Joseph Cunard, Richard Blackstock and William Letson. However, his greatest claim to fame was his involvement in the "fighting elections" of 1843 in which one man was killed and about forty persons injured. His election in January, 1843 was overturned in July, 1843 but he ran again in 1850 and served in the House of Assembly until 1854. Following his defeat he was appointed deputy treasurer of Customs. He died in 1865.

Following Williston's death, the house was purchased by Senator William Muirhead who sold it to the Dominion government in 1873. After $12,000 worth of remodelling, the building became the Post Office, Customs and Inland Revenue Office and the Dominion Savings Bank.

When a fire next door damaged the Williston house in 1891, the government decided to construct a new Post Office which still stands and is dated 1893.

In 1900 the building was used by the Miramichi Natural History Association and in 1908 it was purchased by the Miramichi Lumber Company.

In this century many different businesses were located on the ground floor. These included Christie's Tailoring, Anthony Veniot's laundry and tailor shop, a liquor store, the Legion rooms, Pat Keoughan's electrical store and the Peep Hole which sold second hand goods. The upstairs was used for apartments.

Improvements to the property are continuing; the latest was the construction of a courtyard under the supervision of the Chatham Downtown Development Corporation.

The wheel has turned full circle. The John T. Williston house is once again a source of pride to the Town of Chatham and a feather in the cap of heritage preservation. And there is little doubt that it will be the cornerstone of a revitalized downtown.

(The Atlantic Advocate)

Copyright © Lois F. Martin, 1985. All rights reserved.