Notes from the Nest
On the corner of Ontario Street and Devonshire Road in the Walkerville precinct of Windsor, Ont., sits a 4,800- square-foot home, made of rough-cut stone, almost 100 leaded glass windows, a curved facade and a wavy Cotswold, cottage-style roof that’s meant to mimic a rolling sea. To call it impressive in stature somehow seems inadequate, when describing this one-of-a-kind dwelling, which is also steeped in captivating history and intrigue.
On a recent trip to Windsor to visit our oldest son Curtis and our new daughter-in-law Sarah, Randy and I were lucky enough to be invited to tour this rather remarkable home. As it turns out, the home is now owned by Vern Myslichuk, owner of Better Made Cabinets and Curtis’s current boss. Unfortunately, Vern was away when we visited. His daughter-in-law Jodi and son Eric extended an invitation, offering to show us around and enlighten us, with the homes fascinating history.
Building on the home began in 1927 and was completed in the spring of 1928, by the noted 1920s rumrunner, Harry Low.
Low had the home built kitty corner on the lot, so it would stand out even more from the other elegant homes, in the wealthy neighbourhood. He christened the home Devonshire Lodge.
Low was born and raised in Ottawa, to humble beginnings. Originally trained as a tool-and-die machinist, he and his wife Nellie and their two children moved to Windsor, where he became known as one of the most brassy, enterprising rumrunners during the days of Prohibition. Because of its close proximity, directly across the border from Detroit, Windsor was a hub of the illegal, alcohol trade.
Harry started out running a “blind pig,” which was a gambling and drinking den, out of the back of his pool hall. He worked his way up to buying the old Carling Breweries, along with two others and became the accredited agent in Windsor for a number of distillers and brewers. As his ties to the illegal liquor trade grew, he became associated with “The Purple Gang,” of Detroit, and notorious Chicago gangster Al Capone. Capone was a frequent guest at his home, doing business and sharing drinks, in Low’s basement.
Low built the massive mansion to reflect his more prominent status and increasing income, sparing no expense. The home featured four bedrooms and seven bathrooms, completely unheard of at the time, when many were still using outdoor privies, to answer the call of nature. An extraordinary, circular walnut staircase, wood paneling, parquet flooring, intricate tracery work on the ceilings and a fireplace in the living room made of limestone, from Caen France, are just a few examples of the home’s exceptional characteristics.
Eventually, the law began to catch up with old Harry. Seems he wasn’t paying taxes on all those spirits, elixirs and firewater, he was getting so rich on and there was also some dirty business, involving kidnapping and murder in his sphere. They lost the home in 1934, after defaulting on the mortgage. The home and contents went up for auction. He’d spent $130,000 to build the place, at auction it couldn’t even fetch $20,000.
Over the years the home passed through the hands of several more owners, before being purchased in 1960, by federal, Liberal MP Paul Martin Sr. He and his family owned the home, until the mid-1990s. Prominent guests included sitting prime ministers Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau and, of course, his son, Paul Martin Jr., who was a university student when his parents moved in, but visited frequently.
Several more owners took their turns and, at one point, it sat vacant for almost a decade, proving difficult to manage and to sell. Thankfully in 2012, it was purchased by Myslichuk, who’d been enchanted with it from afar for over a dozen years. He seems to be the perfect match, with his woodworking skills and Cabinetry business.
He spent two years renovating it before moving in, as it had fallen prey to vandals, water damage, time and the elements. Renovations to the garage and coach house and keeping an eye out for rumored secret tunnels and passages, are in his future plans. During our tour we were shown a secret room, in the basement, that had been used to store liquor and other nefarious items.
Vern, smitten with the home’s myriad, marvelous elements, is committed to restoring the home and preserving it, recognizing its extensive, historical value to the city of Windsor. He also believes, it should be a place of fun and enjoys showing it off. It’s now a frequently, sought-after venue, for parties and wedding receptions. It was our good fortune to be invited, to spend an enjoyable afternoon, exploring such a unique and fascinating piece of Canada’s past.