Parking the new Chevy Colorado pickup truck in front of the elegant Balfour House on Hamilton’s mountain brow is a shocking bit of grunge and glam. The $37,565 Colorado is my Bay Observer test-drive for May. I’m piloting it up the James Street hill to this secret stone house full of Hamilton history.
The rather affordable Colorado is a sharp contrast to the Balfour estate. The house sits on four acres of land on the Niagara Escarpment overlooking all of Hamilton, it is one of the very few 19th century estates that remain in such a grand location. On the open real estate market it would be worth millions, but it’s not for sale. Balfour house is owned by the Ontario Heritage Foundation and looked after by the City of Hamilton.
My pick up is meeting Dave Turner’s pick up. He’s the city man in charge of looking after Hamilton’s most significant buildings, including Dundurn Castle, Whitehern, and Nash House.
Had I been meeting Mr. Turner in such a utilitarian vehicle in say 1838 when the house was built, it would signal that we would both be using the servant’s entrance. Would such workers arrive by foot, horseback, carriage? Who knows?
I’m about to get a rare tour of the house. The public you see, have not been allowed in. Until 2013 it was in private hands, when the last descendent of the Balfour’s to live in the house died and the house became the property of the Trust.
William Scott Burn was the first owner and it was a fitting country estate for the grain merchant and accountant until a collapse in the economy forced him to sell it in 1870. From the beginning the house was known as Chedoke, reflecting its location at the site of an Iroqouis settlement.
The Regency style, limestone house passed through a series of hands until Ethel and St. Clair Balfour moved in 1910. The house was a gift from Ethel’s grandfather, William Southam, who owned the Hamilton Spectator.
Over the years many children were raised and married in the house, rooms were added, wings put on, a belvedere perched on the roof and a sunroom added to take in those beautiful views.
Dave Turner leads the way through the house that remains as it was when Mrs. Wilson Balfour Baxter was living there. We walk past the many fireplaces, the elegant smoking room, the bathrooms updated with their marble shower stalls, French inspired wallpaper, and everywhere the beautiful big windows with their fine interior shutters. Turner visited with Mrs. Baxter many times on his rounds and felt fortunate to hear her stories of the grand days of Hamilton.
On May 7th the public will get a rare chance to see inside Balfour House when it opens for the Hamilton/Burlington Society of Architects Architecture Crawl. The crawl is a significant part of the Ontario Association of Architects Conference in Hamilton that weekend, and a way to showcase some of Hamilton’s significant buildings.
The May 7th HBSA Architecture Crawl starts at 7pm, and includes visits via shuttle to Balfour House, The Staircase Cafe, 270 Sherman, Sarcoa Restaurant and ends at the top of Stelco Tower. In each location there will be food, drinks and live music. Tickets are $65, proceeds go to The Threshold School of Building. To buy tickets and get a detailed description of the tour and the music at each location go to www.hbsarchitects.com.
After the tour, I took a slow drive away from Balfour, past the lovely carriage house on the property, and back down the scenic twists of the James Street hill. The Colorado was a fine vehicle after all for such a visit. It’s the first mid-size pickup truck to be produced in ages, it’s quiet, handles with surprising agility, and is powerful enough even with a 4-cylinder engine producing 200 hp. In the cabin, all the important stuff, heat, radio and navigation work with admirable simplicity. I really liked it and aside from the flaming red paint, it’s subtle enough to poke around the hidden gems of Hamilton and pick up a lesson in heritage.