Party of the Century

Home of the Week: Titanic scandal woven into estate's history

Barrie, Ont. — The Globe and Mail
Published Wednesday, Apr. 11 2012, 2:49 PM EDT

The historic estate known as Woodlands is located just outside of Barrie, on the north shore of Lake Simcoe’s Kempenfelt Bay.

Local folklore suggests that the area provided refuge for escaped slaves from the United States. Land title records show that the first owner of the swathe of land now called Woodlands was an African-American named William Davenport, though researchers were not able to determine whether he was a fugitive slave.

The notable red-brick Victorian house that still stands today has been an area landmark since it was built in 1867 by timber baron Richard Power on 57 acres carved from Mr. Davenport’s holding.

An article published in the Saturday Globe on Dec. 14th, 1895 described Woodlands as “one of the most attractive pictures of a rural home to be found outside of the estates of Great Britain or the Continent.”

The third and most famous previous owner of Woodlands was Lt.-Col. Arthur Peuchen, who bought the property in 1907 and went on to survive the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. Lt.-Col. Peuchen, a military man and yachtsman, was rebuked afterwards for boarding a lifeboat full of women and children. The major defended his actions by saying that the lifeboat needed an experienced hand. Nevertheless, he suffered from the public condemnation throughout his life.

While the major owned a large house on Jarvis Street in Toronto, Woodlands was his summer home, says real estate broker Bernice Whelan.


Mark and Cathy Porter have been gradually restoring the property since they purchased the house in the late 1990s.

Refurbishing a remarkable 14,000 square feet of finished space has taken years, the couple says. The house had 18 bedrooms and 13 bathrooms when the Porters took over. They enlarged some bedrooms to reduce the number to 14.

“I lived here for two years before I found the thirteenth bathroom,” says Mr. Porter.

In the grand foyer, a wide staircase curves to the second floor. Mr. Porter says the sagging stairway needed to be dismantled and rebuilt with some added support from modern engineering hidden inside.

More recently the couple lifted the worn wool carpet in the foyer to discover an untouched hardwood floor.

“I found this inlaid floor underneath it and it had never been sanded, let alone finished,” says Mr. Porter.

In the principal rooms on the main floor, elaborate plaster mouldings and decorative elements adorn the walls and ceilings 12 feet high. When the couple moved in, old wallpaper was hanging from the ceiling in the living room. Gradually, the Porters had the plaster repaired and painted and the rooms.

“We really took our time renovating,” Ms. Porter says.

At one time the house had four galley kitchen and pantry areas. Today a large kitchen has updated cabinets, built-in appliances and a granite-topped island. A former pantry was fitted long ago with reclaimed wooden cabinets from Toronto’s Royal York Hotel. Today the space provides a bar and prep area beside the dining room.

A former greenhouse has been turned into a large summer room with walls of windows and French doors that lead to a terrace outside.

Outside, wraparound covered porches overlook the lawns and gardens which slope down to the water’s edge. Today the property has 900 feet of shoreline and a two-hole golf course beside the bay. A renovated two-storey boathouse has slips at water level with living space above.

At the rear of the house, a nursery wing once devoted to the children and their governesses has been preserved. Today the bedrooms still have bars on the windows and Dutch doors, which can remain closed on the bottom half while the top half swings open. In days past, the parents and staff could look in on the little ones without entering the room.

“We’ve kept it all in the original state because it was such a unique era – your kids didn’t live with you, they lived in the back of the house with their nannies,” Mr. Porter says.

Throughout the house, many pieces of furniture have stayed in place through the tenure of various owners. In one locked drawer, Mr. Porter found sepia-toned photographs of the grounds and former residents. He had the images framed and hung on the walls.

The Porters also began collecting Titanic memorabilia once they learned about the former occupant’s connection to the disaster. Over the years, friends and guests have added pieces to the collection as well.

Several years ago the Porters brought in some art students to render the Titanic and scenes from the estate’s history in paint on a domed ceiling above the staircase.


On Saturday night, the Porters will mark the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the famous White Star liner by holding a dinner and costume party for 125 guests.

“I think it’s going to be a celebration of all the people that lived,” Mr. Porter says.

Guests will dine on the same dishes served to the first class passengers on the night of April 14th, 1912. The menu includes poached salmon with mousseline sauce, sirloin of beef, roast duckling with apple sauce and Waldorf pudding.

The Porters have hired an orchestra to play the music that would have been heard aboard the Titanic that night. Actors will play the parts of crew members in a re-enactment of the events.

A little after 11 p.m., an actor will use a bull-horn to announce that the vessel has hit an iceberg.

“At 2:20 a.m. it will be lights out,” Mr. Porter says.

- The Globe and Mail