There’s a certain charm about the heritage of Aurora. You see it when you walk along Aurora’s historic downtown on Yonge Street, or while driving past the historic homes that have been converted into businesses along Wellington Street.
The architecture and former residents of these buildings have no shortage of tales to tell, either. Take Hillary House for example, which was built in 1862 and stands today as one of Canada’s best examples of Gothic Revival architecture. The wooden arches and trellises contribute to the building’s unique appeal.
“The Hillary House is important because it was originally used as a doctor’s office and residence,” says Jeff Healey, planner with the Town of Aurora. Three generations of doctors worked and lived in the Hillary House from 1862 through to around 1920. It was the only medical facility of its kind at the time, as there were no hospitals or walk-in clinics nearby. “They would use various 19th century medicine practices, such as leeches,” Healey explains. The Hillary House now serves as a museum, where people can learn about its medical history and discover a collection of medical artifacts.
Located just two doors down from Hillary House is the Horton Place, a two-story Italianate-style residence that has been relatively untouched since the early 1900s. Its square shape gives the house a symmetrical facade, decorated with louvered shutters and wide overhanging eaves featuring heavy, ornamental brackets.
“The house was originally used as a dentistry, which ran from 1875 to 1896,” Healey says. The property was then sold in 1901 to Charles Webster, manager at the local Fleury Agricultural Implement Works, which was recognized as the most important industry in early Aurora due to its contribution to the town’s business and growth.
Another noteworthy building in town is the Aurora Readiness Centre, also called “The Parteger House” after its original owner, Thomas Parteger. Originally a farmhouse built in 1875, the building’s historic relevance dates back to 1962, when it was purchased by Metropolitan Toronto at the height of the Cold War. “Even though we might think of historical buildings as only having significance over 100 years ago, we’re finding that’s not necessarily the case,” says Healey. “Heritage is always evolving. Some recent developments in our history can become very important at a local and national level.”
After Metro Toronto purchased the home, they built a 10- by 18-foot concrete bunker beneath. “If there was ever a nuclear attack between the US and the Soviet Union, that was supposed to be a headquarters for the mayor of Toronto and the Toronto emergency task force,” Healey says. It was meant to act as a command centre for any sort of evacuation route if people were forced to escape the city of Toronto.
Thankfully, there was never a need for the building to serve this purpose. But it continued to function as an emergency services facility for the city up until around 1991. The house is currently under private ownership, although former owners have made it accessible every few years as a part of “Doors Open Aurora” – a community event that opens doors to places of architectural, cultural, historical or natural significance once a year for free.
It’s not just the buildings, but the people and events that make Aurora a place of great historical bearing. On October 3rd, 1874, the event known nationally as the “Aurora Speech” took place at the Aurora Armory, located on the northeast corner of the town park. Former premier of Ontario, Edward Blake, spoke about changes to the liberal party at the time, as well as senate reform, compulsory voting and proportional representation.
Also of national significance, Lester B. Pearson was once a resident of Aurora, spending his childhood in a home on Catherine Avenue, which used to serve as a residency for the Methodist Church. Mr. Pearson went to school at the former Church Street School in the early 1900s, another building that contributes to the heritage fabric of Aurora.
“There are a number of great stories, and clear connections to the development of Canadian identity and Canadian heritage, right within Aurora,” says Healey. “You can touch it, you can see it, and Aurora has taken great pride in preserving a lot of the town’s heritage.”
by CHARLOTTE OTTAWAY
Aurora Historical Society
Doors Open Aurora
Aurora Cultural Centre