From the Review files -- This Old House
In 2000, when John Black, Artsci'85, and his family moved into the house at 67 Colborne Street, they became a part of Queen’s history.
When John Black accepted a position at the Kingston law firm of Racioppo Zuber Coetzee Dionne in March 2000 he knew he’d be returning to his old academic “stomping grounds.” He just had no idea how close he would be getting to his educational roots.
“When we came to Kingston to look for a house, the broker mentioned that there were some nice older houses available north of Princess,” John recalls. “We liked older houses, so we thought we’d give them a look. When we cruised up to 67 Colborne, I saw the [Heritage Site] plaque and I just remember thinking, ‘Oh, my gosh!’ I’d been an avid walker during my student years, and I recalled seeing the house and knew what it represented.”
Perhaps a little factual interlude is required here.
If you don’t know, the very first Queen’s classes were held in the small wood-frame house at 67 Colborne Street, on March 7, 1842. Queen's College was headquartered in that rented property for just six months, after which it moved to other rented houses in Kingston. Finally, in 1853, the College settled at Summerhill, a large Italianate villa built by Anglican Archdeacon George Okill Stuart.
Mindful of the history behind Queen’s first classroom, John and Amanda Black quickly fell in love with the elegant Georgian home at 67 Colborne Street. “As soon as we walked in the door, the stairway, the stained-glass windows, and a gigantic, five-foot wide fireplace caught our eye,” John recalls. “The more we walked through, the more we went crazy for the place. Then when we saw the fireplace in the master bedroom, we thought the house couldn’t be more perfect.”
The couple purchased the house in 2000 and moved in with their two daughters, Jane, 4, and Emma, 18 months. “Luck was really on our side,” John says. “We intend to live here for quite a while.”
Although the house is old, in many ways, it isn’t old enough for the Blacks. For one thing, when the family moved in, there was no bathtub. With two young daughters, this simply wouldn’t do. John tore out the shower in the master bedroom and found an old claw-foot tub from a demolition exhibit. “I got a great deal on the tub,” John says with a laugh. “Moving it into the house was a bit tough, since we had to lift it vertically up the stairs. Three of my work colleagues and a neighbour, Walter Durante, Arts'83, were kind enough to come help me.”
The house’s two fireplaces bring the Blacks much enjoyment. “Jane is always in favour of a fire; she likes lounging around in front of it,” John says. “The fireplace was originally used for cooking. It had a large crane going across it from which pots could be hung. One Christmas, I found a crane much like the one that would have been used in the 1800s, and I gave it to Mandy. On Christmas morning, the whole family roasted chestnuts on the open fire.”
Toronto-born John, who has a particular interest in historical architecture (“It lends enchantment to your life when you learn about the history of the place you’re living in,” he says), is keen to restore some of the house’s old charm. “Previous owners have done extensive renovations, which gave the house a more modern look,” John explains. “We’re tying to bring back some of the house’s original characteristics.”
So far, John’s restorations have included replicating the original mouldings for the doors and windows and taking the carpet off the stairs and second floor to reveal the original plank floors. John and Mandy would also like to return to the house’s original 24-pane windows, with Heritage Society approval.
Yet John, who studied Classical Studies at Queen’s and received his law degree at Windsor in 1989, is quick to point out that the previous renovations have been beneficial. “One of the former owners excavated the cellar to add height, which one day will allow me to fulfill my ‘Mordecai Richler’ dream: to have a six-by-twelve foot snooker table in the basement,” John says with a smile.
The house also seems to be important for archeological reasons: everything is underground. “We have some really nice gardens in the back, which we’re trying to add to, but it seems that everywhere we dig, we’re picking up shards of pottery, broken glass, square nails. It’s like our own archeological dig,” says John.
“Treasures” aren’t only found outside the house. John notes that there’s a working well in the basement, and throughout the years, he understands that the house was a rental property at times. “The people I bought the house from, Paul Morris and Maureen Yorga, left some old bottles which they found in the well. It may have been used to cool hooch by prior owners,” says John.
Pottery shards and interesting relics aren’t the only thing John and Mandy have in plenty at 67 Colborne. Visitors—often other Queen’s alumni—sometimes find their way to the University’s first location. “Homecoming Weekend is a busy one for us. A lot of alumni knock on the door, take pictures, and tell us that they used to live here in the 1950s or 1960s. It gives us a real sense of being part of the Queen’s heritage,” says John.
“We bought the house because we liked it architecturally, but at the same time, I feel a sense of privilege living in a house that plays such a significant part in Queen’s history. It feels wonderful to be a part of that.”
NOTE: The above article appeared first on the Review's homepage in 2003.