Strachan House the quintessential Victorian house
An 1889 promotional section in the Goderich Illustrated Signal-Star called the Strachan House “one of the most elegant and substantial residences in our town.”
Built by local merchant D. C. Strachan, the Strachan House symbolized the wealth and prosperity that the town offered men of ability and enterprise. The Strachan House which graces the northwest corner of Lighthouse and Wellington streets was home to some of the town’s most prominent families. It remains one of the glittering jewels that adorns the port town’s rich architectural landscape.
Donald Colvin Strachan was born in Scotland in 1844. At age 10, he emigrated with his family to London, Ontario before relocating to Goderich. In 1868, he married Mary Shephard and engaged in the mercantile trade. The death of their infant son at seven months in 1871, followed by the death of his wife, Mary, in childbirth the next year, left Strachan bereft with two young daughters.
Although beset by personal tragedy, Strachan’s mercantile business thrived in the 1870s. His grocery and glassware shop located in the Albion block on the Square (beside what is now the Bedford Hotel) was known from Southampton to Sarnia. Strachan also operated a ships’ chandlery and owned a cargo-carrying schooner, the Midland Rover.
As one of the town’s most prominent men of commerce, in Victorian tradition, Strachan wanted to display his social status by erecting a suitably regal home. He purchased the Rattenbury Hotel in 1878. The Rattenbury Hotel was soon demolished and the property cleared to make way for a home for his two daughters and Strachan’s oldest sister, Kate, who looked after the children.
In 1880, Strachan hired famed American architect and Civil War veteran Julius Hess to design his family residence. Hess was then at the peak of his architectural fame. In 1866, he had designed Detroit’s Grand Army of the Republic building, which is now on the US National Register of Historic Places. In 1876, the State of Michigan chose Hess’ building design to represent the state at the Centennial International Exhibition in Philadelphia.
The Strachan House is patterned in the French Renaissance style and was based on one designed for Edward Kanter, a Detroit bank president.
Adam MacVicar, who had built the Goderich lighthouse, was contracted to erect the $8,000 edifice. MacVicar’s masonry skills are evident in the precisely-cut and closely-dressed solid stone foundation upon which Strachan’s house was built. Over 40,000 bricks imported from England were used to triple-brick the walls. Italian marble mantle pieces and intricate woodwork both inside and outside of the house made the Strachan House, undoubtedly, the most expensive residence in Goderich.
In Ralph Greenhill’s Ontario Towns (1974), the Strachan House was described as “decidedly advanced in fashion, with its studied silhouette, composition and ornament, it could vie with the better houses of any Ontario city.” The ‘uncommonly tall’ home with patterned shingles, heavy pronounced window frames topped by a wrought iron crown exudes the elegant charm and confidence of the late Victorian age.
Indeed, Strachan showcased his home to the public on several occasions. In March 1882, the Strachan House salon with its 13-foot ceiling provided the backdrop for a display of artist Harry Clucas’ oil paintings” of the Goderich harbour.
A “Parlor Concert’ in the Strachan House was considered, by the Huron Signal, “one of the most successful entertainments of the season.” In typical Victorian style, the evening’s entertainment, chaired by Knox Presbyterian minister Rev Dr. Ure, consisted of recitals, readings and an instrumental duet performed by his daughters Mary (Minnie) and Nancy (Nina) Strachan.
D.C. Strachan went on to greater business success as a cigar manufacturer, coal merchant and Goderich Knitting Company director before becoming the port’s Customs Officer in 1897. On June 12, 1901, Strachan died suddenly of an angina attack while at the breakfast table.
His wake and funeral was held in the home in which he had built. The Goderich Star reported that “before the casket was closed forever on the well known face, hundreds of friends took a last and sad farewell of D C Strachan.”
The Star lamented that “there could be no grander testimony of esteem towards the departed than the large gathering that surrounded the house” and followed the lone bag piper and hearse to the Maitland Cemetery.
In 1903, the Strachan daughters sold the home to Robert Cockburn Hays, a 50-year-old lawyer born in McKillop Township. Hays had been practicing law in Goderich since 1882 when the Signal described him as “a level headed, upright young man.”
Hays married Hattie Price in 1893. By the turn of the century, the Hays’ purchased the Strachan House to raise their one son, and six daughters.
Hays was known for his substantial library kept in the house. Hays’ son, Robert, was born in 1895 and raised in the Strachan House. In the Great War, Robert Hays Jr. was an infantry officer wounded at Courcelette in 1916 before entering his father’s legal practice in 1921.
When Judge R. C. Hays died on May 2, 1935, after practicing law for 53 years, he was dubbed “the Dean of the Goderich Bar.” His wife, Hattie, died just two months later.
The Strachan House then passed into the hands of James and Violet Johnston in 1938 who operated it as a boarding house. During the Second World War, many of their boarders were instructors at the local airbases.
Just out of the army where he served as a Major with the Royal Canadian Dental Corps, Dr. Raymond Hughes purchased the Strachan House in 1948. Dr. Hughes and his wife Mary not only purchased the property to raise their two children, Nancy and John, but found it an ideal spot for a dental practice. Nancy Hughes, Dr. Hughes’ daughter, can still point out where her father’s dental chair and equipment was located in a room on the north side of the house where he practiced until his retirement in 1973. It was also the room where Judge Hays kept his famous library. The Hughes had a keen interest in Goderich heritage and maintained the home as much as possible in its original state.
In 1999, after the death of Mary Hughes (Dr. Hughes passed in 1982), the Strachan House was inherited by their children, John and Nancy. Nancy and her husband, Ken, moved into the house in 2001 and restored the house to its pristine glory. Among the improvements was the reconstruction of the enclosed solarium. After over 70 years, the Strachan House is still in the possession of the Hughes family. They are only the fourth family to occupy it.
The Strachan House is recognized nation-wide as one of Goderich’s signature estate homes. It has been featured in such magazines such as Canadian Living, and Edifice. As architectural historian Ralph Greenhill states in Ontario Towns, the Strachan House remains an impressive residence because it is “a remarkably unaltered example of late nineteenth-century eclecticism, invention and ostentation.”
It is “the quintessential Victorian House.”