The stately building which dominates the cliff above the Dufferin Islands Nature Area is today the administrative headquarters of The Niagara Parks Commission.
The history of Oak Hall dates back to the days of the pioneers. Three of the most famous families of original settlers in the area once resided on this property.
The story of the building can be divided into several periods that are separated and distinct. From 1798 when the land was granted by the crown to James Skinner, U.E.L. until 1898, one hundred years later, it was the home of the Clarks, Streets and Macklems, the families that controlled the mills of Bridgewater. This was the pioneer industrial village on the present site of Dufferin Islands. It was then known as Clark Hill.
The earliest known occupant of the home on the hill was Colonel Thomas Clark. Clark was commander of the Second Lincoln Militia in the War of 1812-1814. Although details are sketchy, it seems the British government granted this land to Clark in 1816. A home on this site was built soon after. No reference to the date that this first home was built can be found.
Colonel Clark died in 1837 and his home went to Thomas Clark Street, the son of the late Colonel’s partner. About 1850, Mr. Street rebuilt “Clark Hill” and probably part of the old house was incorporated in the new one.
Mr. Street never married and his sister Caroline, the widow of Dr. T. C. Macklem, managed his household and was hostess to his guests. Mrs. Macklem had two sons, one of whom was drowned at the age of eight in the Niagara; the younger son, Sutherland, became his uncle’s heir.
When Mr. Sutherland Macklem inherited the Street estate, he continued his uncle’s interest in what was then called “Cynthia Islands”. He decided to open them to the public, so had roads built to reach them and walks cut through the woods. Two graceful suspension bridges connected them with the mainland and, as all these improvements cost a good deal, small tolls were charged on the bridges. In 1887 Cynthia Island and Cedar were both deeded to the Crown and became part of the Queen Victoria Niagara Falls Park.
The name “Cynthia” was changed to “Dufferin” in honour of Lord Dufferin who had been active in encouraging the establishment of national parks.
On August 5, 1898, after Sutherland Macklem died, his heirs sold the Clark Hill property to James R. Smith, a wealthy lumber merchant from Tonawanda, New York. Smith’s daughter, Grace, inherited the property from her father in 1904. She was the wife of Dr. Harry Y. Grant, a Buffalo oculist and they took up residence in the old house. In 1916 the Grants sold the house and the adjoining land to Walter H. Shoellkopf, a member of the prominent Niagara Falls, New York family so long associated with the development of hydro electric power.
The Oakes Years
Harry Oakes, a mining millionaire, bought the estate from Schoellkopf on July 15, 1924. He hired the architectural firm of Findlay and Foulis, the same architects who designed the then new Table Rock House, to design the 37 room Tudor style baronial edifice that is present day Oak Hall. The reconstruction took four years and in 1928 the Oakes family moved in.
The Oakes family lived there for six years, until Harry Oakes, annoyed by the inroads that taxes were making on his income, wound up his affairs in Canada and moved his family to England. He left his properties in the Niagara area in the care of a holding company, Welland Securities.
In 1935 he moved to Nassau in the Bahamas and it was while he was living there in 1939, that he was created a baronet by King George VI and became Sir Harry Oakes. He died tragically there on July 8, 1943.
During World War II in 1943, Lady Eunice Oakes, Sir Harry’s widow, deeded Oak Hall to the Government of Canada to be used as a convalescent hospital for the Royal Canadian Air Force. When there was no longer a need for convalescent facilities, the Federal Government deeded it back to Lady Oakes in 1952.
Soon after, Sir Sidney Oakes, the eldest son and heir to his father’s baronetcy, moved into the Hall with his wife, Lady Greta, and lived there for five years before returning to the Bahamas.
Sir Harry Oakes
The name Oakes is perpetuated in Niagara Falls in many ways. Familiar to tourist and local citizens alike are the names Oakes Garden Theatre, Oakes Park Athletic Field, Oakes Drive and Oak Hall, all reminders of this noted family, and particularly of Sir Harry Oakes, its most prominent member.
Harry Oakes, an American by birth, came to Canada in 1911 as a prospector and mining engineer. In 1912 he struck it rich, his discovery of gold resulting in the Lakeshore Mine near Kirkland Lake.
In the 1920’s he and his family located in Niagara Falls and for the six years they resided here, they were very much a part of the local scene.
The times were very difficult then in Niagara Falls because of the Depression and the philanthropy of the family is remembered by the community at large. Sir Harry’s constant negotiation with the councils of Niagara Falls and Stamford Township and his financing of many local projects, provided considerable employment.
Sir Harry, or Mr. Oakes as he then was, deliberately created jobs. No man, regardless of age or capability, was turned away – each was given a shovel and put to work under supervision of Ed McClement. Each man was paid two dollars for a half day’s work and on Mr. Oakes’ insistence the pay was in two-dollar bills. Often Ed McClement had to search all over town for these bills.
Sir Harry Oakes was a keen supporter of athletics and gave many awards to young people for sports competitions. In September 1930, he deeded sixteen acres of farm land at the corner of Morrison Street and Stanley Avenue to the City of Niagara Falls for an athletic field. At a cost of $20,000, this land was made by the City into a football field, baseball field and other athletic areas and was formally named Oakes Park in Sir Harry’s honour. It was opened to public use in the summer of 1931.
The younger generation were not overlooked by Mr. Oakes, for in conveying Oakes Park to the City he imposed a condition – that if any part of the City-owned Popular Park ceased to be used as a public playground, then the lands of Oakes Park would revert to him or his heirs. When it became apparent in 1954 that Popular Park was the most suitable site for a new Greater Niagara General Hospital, the Oakes family released the City from the condition on being satisfied that other suitable playgrounds were being provided.
Oakes Drive at Fallsview was another pet project of Sir Harry’s, to restore Portage Road to its original route, in front of Loretto Academy instead of behind. The historic road had been changed in 1883 when the Canada Southern Railway was constructed. Considerable “red tape” had to be cut to permit construction of this bridge and drive as many departments were involved, but work on construction began in the fall of 1934 and continued in the spring of 1935 under a public works program to help the unemployed of Stamford Township.
During construction there was no interruption to the service of the New York Central Railway, nor the Canadian Niagara Power Company. The new bridge, named Stamford Bridge, bears a bronze plaque with Sir Harry’s name and a second plaque nearby shows the names of the 1934-35 Stamford Council.
Perhaps Sir Harry’s best known contribution to this area relates to celebrated Oakes Garden Theatre adjacent to Queen Victoria Park.
December 31, 1932 saw the destruction by fire of the famous hostelry, the Clifton Hotel. When the adjacent Lafayette Hotel was demolished soon after the ruins of the Clifton were cleared away, Sir Harry purchased the two sites and presented them to The Niagara Parks Commission, of which he was a member, in exchange for a small piece of property on the hill above Queen Victoria Park.
The Niagara Parks Commissioners made plans for a beautiful amphitheater and floral gardens to be built on the site. Work started in October 1935 and Oakes Garden Theatre was opened on September 18, 1937 by the Chairman of The Niagara Parks Commission, the honourable T.B. McQuesten.
Other areas and institutions benefited from Sir Harry’s generosity. Sir Harry and Lady Oakes presented the Niagara Peninsula Sanatorium with the original X-ray equipment in 1929 and replaced it in 1945.
The land of Oakes Park in Fort Erie was conveyed to the Town by Sir Harry who also contributed towards the completion of the Park in 1936.
The Greater Niagara General Hospital has benefited from many contribution by Sir Harry and Lady Oakes over the years, as have the Boy Scouts Association and many other worthy organizations.
The local interests of the Oakes family are administered by the family-owned Welland Securities (1964) Limited, one of the largest owners of real estate in the area.
It was with regret that the citizens of Niagara Falls saw the Oakes family move away from Niagara Falls and hundreds retain the memories of colourful, dynamic Sir Harry.
* Excerpt from Niagara Falls CANADA . . . a history published by the Kiwanis Club of Stamford.
The Niagara Parks Become Owners
The Niagara Parks Commission purchased the estate on May 25, 1959. For the next few years the building was used only for public displays put on by the Niagara District Art Association.
In 1964 the Commission furnished several rooms on the ground floor, with furniture Sir Harry Oakes had purchased from the estate of Dr. Harry Y. Grant.
Oak Hall Estate
The terrace was covered with a colourful canvas canopy and furnished with tables and chairs and “Tea on the Terrace” was instituted in 1964. Oak Hall was “open to view” and visitors were shown through the building for an admission fee of 50 cents.
A feature of the tour was the display of art, oils, watercolours, lithographs and sketches on the subject of Niagara Falls. In 1966 to encourage larger attendance on the guided tours, the price of admission was reduced to 25 cents.
The number of visitors to Oak Hall did not come up to expectations and a study was undertaken by the Commission to look into the reason for limited popularity of the Oak Hall tour.
It was found that while small sightseeing buses and cars toured through the grounds, the percentage of visitors actually visiting the building was small. The visitors came into the grounds, looked around without getting out of their vehicles, and left.
A Par Three Golf Course was chosen as a suitable use for the Oak Hall property adjoining the house. On June 17, 1966 a 9-hole golf course was opened. The combined rental shop and ticket office was located in the former three car garage that made up the west end of the building.
Oak Hall itself continued to be open to the public.
Oak Hall Administration Offices
One of the recommendations of the Richard Strong Report presented to The Niagara Parks Commission in December 1968, was that Oak Hall be remodeled for use as an Administration Headquarters.
No action was taken until the fall of 1980 when the Commissioners allotted money for an architectural study to consider the feasibility of converting Oak Hall to Administrative Offices. The feasibility report was presented to the Commissioners and it was decided to proceed. By October 1981 tenders had been received and a contractor chosen.
The architects for the project were Chapman Murray Associates. The renovations took a year to complete.
The golf rentals shop and ticket office for the Par Three Golf Course were relocated to the gate house at the entrance to the grounds and the former three car garage used by the shop was converted into offices.
On Oct. 24, 1982, the Administrative Offices were moved from the Administration building in Queen Victoria Park to Oak Hall. The Niagara Parks Police now occupy the former administration building.
The mansion had been remodelled into offices, meeting rooms and storage rooms, while still retaining the Great Hall reception area, the dining room and the living room in their original state.
The living room is presently used for The Niagara Parks Commission’s board meetings. The Commissioners usually meet on a monthly basis.
The living room is furnished with 12 historic chairs used at a luncheon hosted by Dr. Harry Y. Grant at Victoria Place, on October 19, 1919, at which the guest of honour was H.R H. Edward, then Prince of Wales, later to become King of England and the Duke of Windsor.
The names of the guests were hand carved personally by Dr. Grant on the back of each chair. The carvings are:
His Royal Highness Edward, Prince of Wales, at lunch Oct. 19, 1919, Victoria Place, Niagara Falls, Ontario
The Honourable Martin Burrell, MP., Secretary of State
Major General Sir Henry Burstall, KCB
Col. Godwin Gibson
H.Y. Grant, Esq., Host October 19, 1919
Lt. Col. E. M. Grigg
Rear Admiral, Sir Lionel Halsey, KCMG
Capt. Lord Claud Hamilton
Capt., the Hon. W. P. Legh
Commander Dudley North C.M.G.
Sir Godfrey Thomas, BT
Commander Newport – the name of this 12th attendee – is not carved on a chair. One chair is blank and the assumption is that the chair was damaged over the years and the panel replaced.
Of special interest in the living room is the panelling, which tradition says Mr. Schoellkopf acquired from Hampton Court, Henry VII’s Royal Palace on the Thames River in England.
Magnificent hand carved teakwood chairs are located in the “Great Hall” area. The chairs were used by the signatories to the Boxer Rebellion Treaty in August 1901, when the documents bringing peace in China were officially signed.
The Niagara Parks collection of “Niagara Falls” art is also on display at Oak Hall.
This attractive building will be preserved and it will continue to be a familiar landmark in Niagara Falls for many years to come.
Open to the Public
Three rooms on the first floor at Oak Hall Administration Building contain the NPC Art Collection and are open to the public Monday to Friday from 8:45 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.. Public access may be closed when meetings are taking place.