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Windsor: Then and Now

The changing face of Windsor is documented over the past 150 years
Author: Matthew St. Amand
Photographer: Ian Virtue
2 months ago
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It sometimes takes a book like Windsor: Then and Now—among the latest offerings published by Biblioasis—to fully appreciate the growth of Windsor, to be reminded that our city is in continuous topographical flux, that it is something akin to an architectural Etch A Sketch.  Like the river flowing beside it, no one steps into the same Windsor twice, from one day to the next.

Documented and compiled by architectural historian, Andrew Foot, and photographed by landscape and commercial photographer, Ian Virtue, Windsor: Then and Now is based upon a simple, yet very affecting, premise: early photographs of Windsor are displayed alongside recent photos of the same areas, often from the same vantage points. 

For residents of a certain age, particularly second or third generation Windsorites, there are place names that come in conversation, time and again, of the venerable places that are now gone or irretrievably altered: St. Mary’s Academy, Kresge department store, the Volcano restaurant, and most recently, Huron Church Road.

Windsor: Then and Now looks at 43 locations around the city, documenting the architectural evolution of Windsor. The time travel begins in Old Sandwich Town, established in 1797. The first photograph in the book is from 1912 showing the Essex County Courthouse, which residents know, today, as Mackenzie Hall. Comparing the new, digital image with the century-old photograph, it’s amazing how little the exterior of the building has changed. One can only guess at the ghosts the building contains.

The same is true of the second set of images: a postcard from 1910 looking southward down Bedford Street (now Sandwich Street) at the Bedford Street Post Office. The building remains, though its use has changed over time. It ceased operations as a post office in 2013 and three years later opened as a short-lived café. Today, it is used as office space.

The historical background offered throughout the book is illuminating, often fascinating, sometimes infuriating. In the book’s foreword, Ian Foot writes: “Working on this book has allowed me to really understand how much we have lost.  Not only physical brick and mortar structures that have been torn down, Windsor faces a loss of identity.”

The demolition that might fall most squarely into this category is that of St. Mary’s Academy, established in 1856 by the Order of the of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary as a private Catholic girls’ school.  In the 1920s, the school was relocated from Park Street and Ouellette Avenue to South Windsor. The “new” building was constructed in the Gothic style and opened its doors in 1929.  It’s demolition in 1977 can be compared to the destruction of Penn Station in New York City, which took place in the 1960s to clear the way for Madison Square Garden and Pennsylvania Plaza. Both demolitions are discussed and lamented to this day.

Although each reader will decide for themselves which “then and now” combinations are the most interesting, this reviewer was struck by the iterations of Windsor City Hall, the complete re-imagining of the old Norwich block at Ouellette Avenue and Riverside Drive, and the Devonshire Race Track, which operated at the current location of the Devonshire Mall.  Some parts of the city just seem to have “always been there,” and the Devonshire Mall is certainly that in the minds of many. Built in 1970, “the Mall”—as it’s known among Windsorites—has been like a microcosm of the city itself, undergoing perpetual change. The most recent and jarring of these being the dissolution of Sears department store.

Andrew Foot was probably constrained in his efforts by the historical photographs available. It was only after the extensive upheaval of Huron Church Road in preparation for the construction of the Gordie Howe International Bridge, that this writer wished there were a dedicated department somewhere in the City whose mission it was the document the city through video and photography, street by street.  Thank goodness for the photographers of decades past who thought to photograph mundane scenes, such as “1000 Drouillard Road” in the 1920s or Walker Road at Ypres one day in 1950, or “Ouellette Avenue October 1950.”  

One theme exuded powerfully in the pages of Windsor: Then and Now, is that change occurred in Windsor fairly even-handedly. Few corners of the city have gone untouched. One of these few is the Ambassador Bridge. Although it has been the site of almost perpetual maintenance work, a photograph of the bridge in recent years is virtually identical to a postcard from 1930. The location of Hiram Walker & Sons Limited, is another rare example of this.

If one set of images can be said to capture the change and evolution, not only of Windsor, but of its neighbour, Detroit, it’s the final set in the book: a photograph of Windsor’s skyline, facing Detroit, taken in 1954. It is contrasted on the following page by a recent photograph taken from the same vantage point. As a great writer or ancient philosopher might remark: only the river is eternal.  The ways in which both cities have changed over the decades is startling.

Windsor: Then and Now succeeds in its mission. Ian Virtue’s efforts to line up contemporary photographs of the city to match the perspective of the historical images wordlessly tells the story. Andrew Foot’s historical analysis and background for the images deepens the experience, identifying old structures, pointing out similarities or aspects of buildings from the past that remain. An example of this is the Maple Leaf Hotel on Howard Avenue, photographed in 1960. It has since been converted into an apartment, though its configuration of entry points remains unchanged.

It’s left to the reader to decide if the changes to Windsor’s cityscape were progress or destruction, if the “new” replacing the “old” were genuine upgrades or simply erasing something that can never be replaced.

Windsor: Then and Now is published by Biblioasis and available at www.biblioasisbookshop.com.

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