William Lyon Mackenzie Ring laboured for nearly 50 years to transform his Kingsmere property into an English country estate landscape. Located about 24 kilometres north of Ottawa in the Gatineau Hills, Kingsmere was his true passion. Over the years, it became many things to him: a refuge, a status symbol, an experimental station, and above all an enormous canvas for him to fill with flowers, trees, picturesque roadways, and statuary. Kingsmere was also a focal point for King’s flights of romantic imagination and his profound emotional response to the landscape.
King developed his holdings from a modest lakeside lot into a magnificent country estate of nearly 500 acres (202 hectares), including five houses, outbuildings, cultivated fields, gardens, trails, and extensive woodlands. The estate was loosely organized into four sections that he named Kingswood, Moorside, Shady Hill, and The Farm.
King began by landscaping his small cottage property, Kingswood, in a rudimentary manner, planting vines around the outbuildings and flowering shrubs near the cottage, and underbrushing the wooded site. On the upper section he later installed a serpentine’ entrance road, a pergola, and flowerbeds. A rustic wooden stair led down the hill to grass terraces at the lake, where an arrangement of boathouse, small dock, and stone walls along the shore gave this section a more formal, less wild aspect.
In 1924, Mackenzie King purchased the Moorside property and began landscaping in earnest. During his adult years, he sustained a great admiration for British society and culture, especially for the gardens and landscapes on the country estates of his English friends. He never referred to a master plan for the estate, but seemingly carried a mental model of the ideal English landscape in his head. Although King had the acreage and the finances to indulge his landscaping enthusiasms at Moorside, he slowly produced a scaled-down version of an English country estate. As at Kingswood, the landscaping was not done all at once, but piecemeal.
Creating an English-style landscape on the rugged Canadian Shield was challenging. To develop the landscape of his dreams, King began by creating that necessary component of the large estate, an extensive lawn. This he accomplished with the advice of the Central Experimental Farm officials and the paid labour of Kingsmere-area farmers.
Around the Moorside cottage, he planted shrubs and laid out a terraced lawn at the side. The terrace, set off by a white, wooden balustrade of King’s own design, formed a transition from the house into the ornamental gardens. The two openings in the balustrade were carefully placed by King to align with the axis of the ornamental gardens. The first section was laid out as a square–the four corners of which were filled with a mixture of annuals and perennials and the centre with grass. In line with this formal quadrant garden, further down the slight slope leading to the forested edge, was a double row of perennial beds, planted in a looser, more exuberant manner. There he placed the focal point of the ornamental gardens, a four-pillared ruin he called “Window on the Forest”. To the right of the ruin were rock garden, flowerbeds, and lily pond in an area King named the “Hidden Garden”.
He altered the forest by building a number of woodland paths. One of the main trails, his “Waterfall Trail”, led to landscape features that King slowly acquired through land purchases and then enhanced by judicious clearing: various vistas, a cave protected by a cedar railing, a picturesque rockface, statuesque groves of birch and beech trees, and on down the steep hill to King’s favourite feature, the “Bridal Veil” falls. In the falls area, King diverted the small stream at several points so that it would meander along its course, and had five cedar-plank bridges built at various points. The forest and roadways near Moorside were all further enhanced by King’s planting of nearly 3,000 trees. He unified the landscape treatment by consistently using stacked stone walls, white-plank fencing, and stone entry pillars. As well, all buildings were painted in the same colour scheme: yellow with white trim and green roofing.
The estate’s most outstanding feature was its artificial ruins, a common feature of King’s beloved English landscape style. Ruins suggested antiquity, a sense of time irrevocably past, and a romanticism that greatly appealed to him. He built three main ruins. A towering arch rescued from a condemned Ottawa building, the “Arc de Triomphe” was sited near the “Window on the Forest”. He said the Arc was the doorway into a forest area he called “Diana’s Grove”. King’s largest ruin, a grouping of four unconnected walls that he called his “Abbey Ruin”, was built on a hilltop southeast of the Moorside cottage. In 1935 King had passed a stone house that was being demolished in his Ottawa neighbourhood and was struck by the picturesqueness of a stone window frame, thinking it looked like the ruins of a Greek temple. After re-erecting this window, King wanted to complete it, to create, he wrote in his diary, a cross between the Parthenon and Westminster Abbey. On reflection, however, he decided to only build an extensive ruin, on which he had Virginia Creeper planted. He often went there to read the Bible or favourite poems.
The third estate section, “Shady Hill” included a cottage (no longer standing), which King renovated for his close friends, Joan and Godfroy Patteson who helped King in various ways on the estate. Nearby was the fourth section, the Farm, a pastoral mixture of orchards, meadows, flowerbeds, tree-shaded roadways, picturesque outbuildings, and barns. In 1935 the farmhouse was transformed into a year-round house, which King used from 1943 until his death in 1950. He attempted to be a gentleman farmer–he loved the look of sheep on the landscape–but after several disasters, and the sickness and death of most of the livestock, King abandoned farming.
As the estate grew, King fretted over its future until he decided to will it to the people of Canada as a park. The National Capital Commission now oversees this historic site. The Commission has restored the ornamental gardens as well as the buildings at Kingswood and Moorside. The Farm is now the residence of the Speaker of the House of Commons.
Photo credit: “’Fireplace wall,’ Abbey Ruins, estate of Rt. Hon. W.L. Mackenzie King [ca. 1935]”, Library and Archives Canada, identification number: 3321997.
©Edwinna von Baeyer. If you quote from this short essay, a citation would be appreciated.