Willistead Welcomes You Back

The Crown Jewel Of Walkerville
Reopens Its Doors Just In Time For The Holidays! 

Story by Karen Tinsley
Photography by John Liviero 

One of many lavishly decorated 12-ft holiday trees.

Stately, storied Willistead Manor, surrounded by 15 acres of heritage parkland, tree-lined streets and historic homes in the heart of Walkerville, is all decked out in seasonal splendor.  

One of Windsor’s most iconic attractions, the magnificent manor is often referred to as “the crown jewel of Walkerville”. The renowned Albert Kahn (one of the most prolific architects of the 20th century) designed Willistead, the Hiram Walker offices on Riverside Drive, Detroit’s General Motors building and the Belle Isle Aquarium and Conservatory, among many other epic projects. 

Steeped in significance, the 16th-century Tudor-Jacobean style English manor was commissioned by Edward Chandler Walker, Hiram’s second son. Willistead was named to honour Edward’s older brother Willis (a Detroit lawyer who died young).

Across from the Manor is the Coach House, an historical exhibit on its own, where walls of words, fantastic photographs, a vintage dress display and other artifacts tell the Walker family’s story.      

17th century oak staircase trimmed in festive finery.

For more than 40 years the non-profit volunteer organization Friends of Willistead, working in partnership with the Willistead Manor Inc. Board of Directors, raises funds to support preservation, restoration and acquisitions (such as the significant 2018 repatriation of an Edward Chandler Walker portrait original to the Manor, now proudly and permanently displayed in the Great Hall). The Friends also undertake and oversee the holiday regeneration of the Manor each year.

Friends of Willistead President Connie Pitman says, “It takes several long days and 75 volunteers to transform the Manor’s 12 rooms; everyone works together tirelessly, beginning with fluffing the 12-foot trees, then ascending giant ladders to string lights on them and many massive wreaths.”

This labour of love begins well in advance. Each room has its own unique theme and colour scheme, and each year they’re different. At press time, not all the 2022 themes had been finalized, but Connie shared several: “Willistead: The Gem of Walkerville”, “A Dickens Christmas”, “Flower Lovers’ Retreat” and “Ageless Elegance”.  

Connie adds, “We invite those who return each year to be on the lookout for never-before-seen additions: a charming set of carolers, a splendid Old-World Santa, resplendent white peacock and more! During the closing, restoration work, furniture reupholstering and the placement of new acquisitions were completed. Our overarching goals are not only to preserve this cultural and architectural marvel, but to dazzle every visitor.”

Great Room marble fireplace.

Executive Board Members Robert Gauthier (accomplished interior designer and Head of Acquisitions responsible for bringing the Walker portrait home where it belongs), Andalieb Abu-Zahra and Coleen Gaudette (both brilliant interior design professionals), acclaimed local interior designer Louise Brown, St. Clair College Interior Design student volunteers and the Friends collaborate to execute their shared vision of holiday magic.  

Friends stationed throughout the Manor will, on request, share interesting tidbits about design, décor, room use and function, or a compelling tale or two about the Walkers. 

Cultural Development and Willistead Manor Coordinator for the City of Windsor, Christopher Lawrence Menard says, “Over the years, we’ve heard incredible family stories about their traditions of visiting Willistead Manor when it’s all decked out for the holidays. The City and the Friends love to use the holiday season as an opportunity to showcase Willistead in a special way. Edward and Mary Walker hosted ‘At Home’ parties, filling Willistead with folks to celebrate and make memories together. Today, we honour that tradition through our ‘At the Manor’ series of poetry readings, live arts performances, exhibitions and other programming. Willistead Manor always has been and always will be a community gathering place; a backdrop for so many significant life moments. We’re excited to open the doors wide again this December! People can enjoy the Great Hall with its massive trees and wreaths glowing while crackling logs are ablaze in the Elizabethan fireplace. It’s an unforgettable experience.” 

An opulent Louis XV-style baby grand piano is the star of the Drawing Room.

The moment you step into the Great Hall you are transported back in time. Climb the impressive 17th century oak staircase with its intricately hand-carved newel posts trimmed in festive finery; envision a candlelit Christmas dinner in the mahogany-paneled Dining Room, the table set with vintage china, luxurious linens, gleaming silverware, cut crystal and grand centrepieces. 

More enchantment awaits: the Morning Room features warm wood paneling with a Tudor Rose motif; the Library fireplace flanked by finely carved cabinets with walls adorned in verdant green velvet. Yet another spectacular fireplace (surrounded by more intricately carved wood, twinkling lights and glorious greenery) graces the Billiard Room. It’s easy to imagine nattily-attired gentlemen sipping snifters of brandy while racking up stripes, solids and banking shots.  

The white Carrara marble fireplace and blue silk damask wall covering in the Drawing Room are breathtaking.

English Chippendale dining table and chairs upholstered in ruby silk damask.

Throughout the Manor, beveled leaded glass windows add light, lustre and scenic views of the immaculately tended grounds.  

Windsor International Film Festival goers may have caught the premiere of “Walkerville’s Willistead Manor: The Home That Shaped A Community”, a deep dive into Hiram Walker’s businesses, family and legacy, prohibition, rum-running, the formation of Walkerville, the great love story of Edward and Mar y Walker and how Willistead was designed and built. 

Locally produced with the enthusiastic support of the Willistead Manor Inc. Board of Directors, co-writer/director Nicholas Shields and his Suede Productions team interviewed architects, craftspeople, historians and Walker family descendants to examine this 20th century technological and engineering wonder that has been in our community for over a century (and at one point came close to demolition). 

Natural light floods the Conservatory.

If you have never experienced the grandeur and wonder of Willistead, there’s never been a better time to begin a treasured holiday tradition for your family, friends or out-of-town visitors. And even if you’re no stranger to “the crown jewel of Walkerville”, Willistead is happy to welcome you back. 

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