Walking Belleville: Strolling historic streets that showcase masonry perfection 

By Shelley Wildgen

 This view captures the original Belleville High School, which has since been demolished. Photo courtesy Jim Kammer.

This view captures the original Belleville High School, which has since been demolished. Photo courtesy Jim Kammer.

About 147 years ago when my friend Carissa and I were squeezing out our last year of trick or treating on the streets of Belleville, we nervously stopped on the sidewalk to one particular house. We were 12 years-old, a little long in the tooth for candy hopping … and we knew it. The longish walkway up to this house was a bit daunting. But walked it we did, and there we stood, at the doorstop, sporting our tracksuits and matching cat eye-masks only to be greeted by a predictable ‘Aren’t you a bit old for Hallowe’en?’

And yet today, I now live in that very same house! It’s not a grand dame of a house, but it still has a rather long, daunting walkway. And that’s just how it goes in Belleville. Those of us who never left, or have since returned to this city often know the houses either by the stories that go with them, or the urban legends surrounding some of their former owners. There are stories about houses that we’ve lived in, or have longed to live in, or stories from someone who knew someone, who knew someone else who had lived there. The city is splendid with many magnificent Victorians, Edwardians, Georgians … all the ‘ians’ possible, that dot along heavily treed streets in most of the oldest parts of town. And without a doubt, it’s these mature neighbourhoods that are my favourite parts of town.

Fast forward to winter 2017-18 when I found myself boasting that I’ve seen each and every one of those parts of town in a whole new light. The kind of light that dapples the lawns, brightens the snow and warms your face. The kind of light you only get to see when you’re walking. Many people don’t realize that once we get our driver’s licences, we rarely take the time to walk along our favourite streets anymore. Sure, we see them often enough while driving through and we make a special effort to pass by our favourites whenever we can, but actually taking a walk along these streets often gets left behind along with our desert boots.

 Pedestrians strolling along the Belleville Footbridge walk out to an example of a beautiful historical renovation that combines modern retail spaces with residential units. Photo by Shelley Wildgen.

Pedestrians strolling along the Belleville Footbridge walk out to an example of a beautiful historical renovation that combines modern retail spaces with residential units. Photo by Shelley Wildgen.

In the early fall of 2017, my friend, Hilary, invited me to do regular weekly walks in Belleville. And walk we did … through rain, sleet and eventually the winter’s snow. (Lots and lots of snow. …) In the beginning we enjoyed autumn’s colouring of the trees and usually our walks lead us to the Bayshore Trail. Eventually, as winter set in, we found ourselves wandering all over town. Belleville is known as a city of formidable churches and, at one time schools, but joining the fabric of these illustrious places of worship and learning are streets that are dotted with intriguing, historical homes. During our roughly two hour, three times a week walk, we often passed by the glamourous divas of Queen Street — the street that is easily our personal favourite and the one that is connected to each of our current home streets. Queen Street is host to a rare collection of homes of varying sizes and stature. One of the most impressive is the house with seven attics, located just off of Queen on Charles Street. It is a standout to anyone who sees it, not only for the Olympian seasonal decorating efforts of its current owners, but for the architectural splendour of all those dormers that are second to none.

 Turn of the century elegance is enhanced with the application of paint from this centuries’ colour palatte. Photo by Shelley Wildgen.

Turn of the century elegance is enhanced with the application of paint from this centuries’ colour palatte. Photo by Shelley Wildgen.

Then there are the named houses that dot the east hill. Steeped in history, elegantly rooted … and named! Okehampton and Queen Ann Villa frankly ooze with formal entitlement but ‘Ilcombe’ is perhaps the most fancy pants house on Queen Street. The origins of its mysterious moniker was never known to those of us who admired it, and research only shows the name ‘Ilcombe’ as that of an English ‘Sir’ and coroner from the 1300s. What I do know for sure is that Ilcombe has always retained its regal stature and command of the street with rose lights in the windows and an impeccably kept exterior. No one in my social stratosphere of the 1970s ever saw the inside of this beautiful home, but occasionally we would see a perfectly coiffed woman in a pencil skirt and pumps wearing gardening gloves and trimming the edges of her lawn with kitchen scissors. She smiled like the Queen mum and even gave out bags of chips on Hallowe’en, but none of my friends or family knew her.

 This document offers a glimpse into the history of 228 Charles Street. Photo by Shelley Wildgen.

This document offers a glimpse into the history of 228 Charles Street. Photo by Shelley Wildgen.

Having grown up on Queen Street amidst all of its grandeur, but certainly not part of it, our small family fit inside our upper storey apartment just fine. I have fond memories of a cozy snug with plenty of love stuffed into it. It was important to my mom that we lived in a small space in a good area. No stigma. Certainly not … in fact, quite the opposite … I never felt deprived. With absolutely no idea what our financial situation was, I’d strut down Queen Street wearing hand-me-down jumpers, coats and not so fluffy fake fur hats with a large sense of belonging. After all, it’s what you see outside your windows that really makes up your neighbourhood memories. Our humble clapboard abode still stands and I pay homage to it on every walk.

When you take on middle (late?) age streetwalking as we have, you can’t limit yourself to one tree-lined street filled with Ilcombes and Queen Ann Villas and such. No, Hilary and I spent our winter months visiting each hill in Belleville. Having lived on both the east and the west hill, I would say that the east hill is my personal favourite, but the west hill is not without its charms. The west hill has the fairgrounds, and The Belleville Fair was an annual event just as big as Christmas to we wee Bellevillians.

The Susannah Moodie house, located at the corner of West Bridge and Sinclair, is just down from the fairgrounds, but Mrs. Moodie’s mid-1800s book ‘Roughing It In the Bush’ tells rugged tales of her life settling in ‘the clearing’ after thrashing about in wild, uncleared land that had little in common with the Quinte area we see today. A gentle lady from England, Susannah Moodie, wrote her book for the folks back home, so they would understand what really lay before them if they opted for a new life in the land of rocks ‘n brambles. Standing before the pretty, limestone home this past winter we admired its sturdy stature and went on our way down the west hill to downtown Belleville. So many more miles to go and houses to see before we sleep.

As we walked about town, my jacketed puppies in tow, I found myself regaling Hilary with bits and bobs of personal stories along the way. ‘Our minister lived there. A car dealer lives there now. A kindergarten teacher who kept the pelt of her much loved cat on the wall lived on the east side of that huge place. Two doctors lived at opposite sides of that park and they eventually switched wives. Oh yes! My English teacher lived with her beagle in that Lady and the Tramp house. My mom’s English teacher lived in the cute brick place on Ann Street with her two corgis, ‘Mini’ and ‘Go Go’. The order of the streets is also important … Ann lies between Charles and William. Oh my! And did I tell you that we lived in the upstairs apartment in the small, clapboard home on Queen Street? Did you know that that converted house used to be Marner’s Grocery? There were five corner stores on my east hill newspaper route. Fresh donuts at each one on collection day.’

Hilary, who hails from Montreal, began calling me ‘Local Girl’. “So, Local Girl, where do we turn now to get down to the bay?” Soon Hilary came to realize that I didn’t always know my way as well she thought I should. We found that walking is an entirely different experience than driving, and since I only had my specific, repetitive journeys as a kid to guide us, I was often stuck on how to get from point A to point B on foot. And that’s how hometown hiking became an adventure. It really mattered not because we were never lost for long and, after all, the scintillating conversation made each trek as enjoyable as the last. 

I’d often ask Hilary if I had already told her a certain story and she’d assure me that I had, but it was okay because she had forgotten it. This freed me to ramble on streams of consciousness style for many of our walks, forging into previously unknown territories. My sense of direction only failed the one time when I did navigate us to some woods without streets somewhere near the Station Street beer store. Just the one time. More often than not, there was an intuitive sense of where we were, but often it was vague. 

 Built in 1856 by John Bell, a lawyer with the Grand Trunk Railroad. The slightly off centre tower is reflective of Italian architecture. Photo by Shelley Wildgen.

Built in 1856 by John Bell, a lawyer with the Grand Trunk Railroad. The slightly off centre tower is reflective of Italian architecture. Photo by Shelley Wildgen.

Frequently, on our two hour hikes even I would be gob-smacked and have to stand back to admire something I had not noticed before. On one of our morning walks, we merged from the footbridge linking west to east hills and were met by the most architecturally pleasing building looming before us. The detail, the colours! The era? Unknown. As a self-conscious teenager travelling this very footbridge, perhaps I never had occasion to look up or perhaps it didn’t look as beautiful then. One of the nicest surprises when re-walking your hometown is to notice how many buildings have been restored and look even nicer now. Some folks have come along over the past decades and used their money and attention to detail while recreating houses, factories and storefronts so they look as awesome (and sometimes even more so) than they originally did.

That’s the uplifting part of our walks, but as much as I tried to avoid it, the empty lot where the Belleville Collegiate Institute & Vocational School once stood cannot be ignored. As a former BCI student, as was my husband, my mother, brother, aunt and uncle, the empty field breaks my heart a tiny bit each time I pass it. That said, it is a large part of both my life and that of Belleville’s history, so it’s important to check in with it from time to time. A while back, a captivating picture was posted to the BCI&VS Friends Facebook page. It’s a view of the school as it looked taken from the Bridge Street United Church and includes the original Belleville High School as well as the area around it as it looked in the 1800s. As clear as anything, you can see a home on the corner of John and Alexander Streets. This mammoth brick structure still stands and dominates its landscape with its original brickwork and pretty gardens. What struck me most about the photograph is while that we walk by this home regularly, (it’s next to the Belleville water tower, and for a time I lived on Alexander Street) I never, ever have noticed this home. Yet, there it looms, like a ramrod straight old sentry keeping watch over the city as it has for well over a century.

And that’s what happens when you take to walking the streets of your youth. You realize that the seen and unseen portions of town have been imprinted on your soul as tidily as your family heritage. Some parts are recognized as visual reminders of parties past, routes to school, downtown, or maybe a favourite babysitter’s house, but there are also buildings that hold the seams together but never make it into our consciousness … until they do. 

Some houses survive as single family dwellings with steep staircases that lead to the servants’ quarters at the back section of the house, while shallow staircases dominate the front entrances where they accommodated m’lady’s hooped skirts of the era. Other homes have succumbed to their survival expenses and have been divided into many homes … some have renovated the coach house in their backyard into an apartment rental. And because my hometown isn’t perfect, it also sports uber-modern structures right beside historical masterpieces.

As lovely as it is to see picture perfection in places like Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario or Lunenberg, Nova Scotia, where historically deemed homes are by-lawed into retaining their originality, it’s somewhat comforting to feel at home in a hometown-city that still offers a little something for everyone. While some of the mainstays have either been torn or burnt down, and many of the well-worn legends are forgotten or have disappeared along with their storytellers voices — if you step out onto the streets of Belleville, you’re sure to be amazed by the stories that linger.

Still standing … and still talking.