by David Fleischer - The Liberal
A generous, one-of-a-kind donation has given Thornhill's heritage a shot in the arm.
The Robert West house on Old Yonge Street will become a heritage centre for the community, having been donated by its owner, Katherine Louisa Keith.
Mrs. Keith wanted the home to remain a living entity within the community, said Thornhill Heritage Foundation chairperson Nigel Connell during Tuesday's announcement.
It was two years ago that Mrs. Keith, now approaching 100 years old, told members of the Society for the Preservation of Historic Thornhill (SPOHT) she wanted to leave the house to them.
Since then, community members worked on setting up the foundation to administer the donation. It was a process requiring a lot of paperwork, secrecy and legal separation from the Society's board.
It was a relief to members to finally let the cat out of the bag with Mr. Connell saying "I'm so excited about this, I don't know where to start."
"This is absolutely astonishing, what you're doing and we are so grateful," he said to Mrs. Keith.
Thornhill MP Peter Shurman also thanked Mrs. Keith, presenting her with a certificate and saying that while many think of Thornhill as little more than a postal address, the community's roots run very deep.
Also on hand for the announcement in Thornhill Park were former MP Susan Kadis, who helped get the ball rolling, and local councillor Alan Shefman.
Although it has undergone additions over the years, the house was completed in 1849.
Located on Yonge Street, just north of Centre Street, the house was built by Robert West, whose general store was (and remains) just across the street. For the grand sum of $100 he also purchased the lot to the south in 1869.
Mrs. Keith is the daughter of Albert Charles Fawcett West who inherited the property from his mother, who in turn inherited it from Mrs. Keith's great grandmother.
Mrs. Keith has lived in the house since 1949 and not only kept it in good shape, but remained actively involved and concerned with the surrounding community.
Society board member Robb Stitt spoke of Mrs. Keith's strong connection to Thornhill and said "Her donation is a fitting legacy for the whole Robert West family."
He and other society members suspect it would be difficult to find another heritage home that has remained in a single family for so long, particularly on Yonge Street.
Mrs. Keith will continue to live in the house for the time being but foundation members are already thinking about the long term potential of the newly-christened Robert West Heritage Centre.
"Life will be much the same for Lou, except she won't have to worry about the future of the house anymore," foundation executive director Dr. Ed Pamenter said.
A museum and permanent home for the society's archives are under consideration, Mr. Connell said.
The adjacent empty lot also provides opportunities, such as a possible home for a threatened heritage house, he said.
Beyond the upkeep and preservation of the house, the foundation's endowment could fund other local heritage efforts, including the annual Thornhill Village Festival.
Approaching corporate sponsors for donations has been troubleseome over the years but Mr. Stitt and Mr. Connell expect that process to be easier with a foundation now in place.
The house was designated under the Ontario Heritage Act in 1982 and now has four layers of protection, including a provincial heritage easement ensuring it will remain intact in perpetuity.
The building is one of several heritage structures in the enclave near Thornhill Park to gain a new life in recent years.
The City of Vaughan renovated the William Armstrong House down the street and the old Presbyterian Church and Seager Cottage, both fronting onto Yonge Street, have seen extensive preservation efforts by private owners.