By Dave Flaherty/The Oshawa Express
At the foot of Oshawa’s most noted thoroughfare, Simcoe Street, just before the road curves towards the parking of Lakeview Beach East, sits the Robinson House.
It’s an integral piece of the city’s history, built by the Robinson family roughly 160 years ago, and is a majestic reminder of the detail of architecture that seems lost in today’s cookie-cutter townhouses.
According to the book, If This House Could Talk: The Robinson House, published by the museum in 2013, for many years, some thought the house’s history goes back to 1846.
This was because John Robinson had purchased the land that year.
However, further research showed the family built the house some years after that purchase.
The Robinson family had arrived in Canada in 1833 by way of Staindrop, England.
They originally settled in Cobourg before moving to Oshawa, first near King Street and Thornton Road, then laying firm roots at the shore of Lake Ontario.
In 1852, John Robinson and his wife Ruth (nee Tenneck) were living in a single-storey frame house, just west of where Robinson House now sits.
According to museum research, John left for Iowa the next year, while Ruth stayed behind.
Although there are differing opinions on who built the house, it is known that Ruth lived there in 1861 with her daughter Eunice, son-in-law Richard Welch, and their grandson.
After Ruth’s death, the Welch family is believed to have lived in the house for about a decade.
The next owner was Ruth’s second youngest child, Cornelius Robinson.
According to Lisa Terech, community engagement coordinator at the Oshawa Museum, Cornelius was a very well-known resident of the city at the time – an “eccentric” in other words.
According to the 2013 book, Cornelius was a rather iconic figure at the lake, remembered as “a very dark man who wore earrings and lived in a white brick house where the road turns east along the waterfront” by Dr.
D.S. Hoig in his book, Reminisces and Recollections.
After Cornelius’ death in 1921, the house came to be owned by (Ruth) Eunice Maynard, his eldest surviving relative.
While Eunice and her family lived in Toronto, they would use the Robinson House as more of a vacation property. The house was also often rented out.
Tragedy struck in 1926 when Eunice’s husband William slipped while walking by the nearby pier and drowned.
Over the next 30 years, the house was rarely used by the family, remaining in Eunice’s name until she died in 1963.
Jennifer Weymark, the archivist for the Oshawa Museum, said eventually the house fell into a state of disrepair, and the city stepped in and took ownership of the property.
The house became an adventure spot of mystery for local youth, a shelter for the homeless, and also for wildlife.
According to Weymark, there were eventually discussions about possible demolition.
The Oshawa Historical Society, which was in its very early history, approached city council to take on the restoration of Robinson House as a Centennial project.
After several attempts, city council finally agreed to the project in April 1965.
But Weymark notes it was a struggle for the Historical Society to raise the money needed to restore the home.
Canada’s Centennial in 1967 came and went, and work on the house had just begun.
But they remained undeterred.
“They had some enthusiastic Historical Society volunteers who were going to see the project through,” Terech comments.
On Oct. 25, 1969, almost 50 years ago exactly, the restored Robinson House opened to the public, with more than 280 people in attendance.
The house had to be completely redone, having rotted wooden floors, and some of the first floor of the home damaged by fires lit by uninvited guests.
Notably, a lot of the materials used to restore Robinson House were from other historic buildings that were being demolished at the time.
While there were still Robinson family members in the area at the time, Terech and Weymark note there are only a handful of descendants in the area now.
Since the Robinson House became part of the museum, it’s served as the main space for ongoing and permanent exhibits.
For example, the first floor now houses an exhibit on dresses from the Victorian era, while the second floor has an exhibit on local Indigenous history.
Past exhibits have focused on topics ranging from the role of the telephone in Oshawa, amphibians native to the province, historic schoolhouses, the city’s electric railway, and funerals of the Victorian era.
Weymark says while the Henry House is a home showcasing a certain period, the Robinson House “gives us an opportunity to look at different exhibits that don’t fit into a period…”
“Having those rotating exhibits gives people a reason to come back and see something different every time they visit, and helps to show our collection, and how dynamic Oshawa’s history is,” Terech adds.
The third floor of the house is currently used for storage, which isn’t an ideal situation, Weymark admits.
During the historic rain levels of 2017, the house suffered “massive flooding problems,” destroying items in the museum’s collection permanently.
City council recently approved an application to bid for a Canada Infrastructure grant, with one of the three projects being a proposed expansion of the museum.
Weymark says if this plan moves forward, the new building would join onto Robinson House.
“We would shift how it is used. The main floor would turn into more of a visitor’s centre, because we are the ones open year-round, and we get a lot of those tourism questions,” she notes.
While the Robinson family may not get as much attention as the Henrys or the Guys, the Robinson House is an integral part of the city’s history, and the museum itself.
“That’s the one you see [when you are heading down to Lakeview Park]. When the sun is shining behind it, and it’s all lit up, it’s gorgeous,” Weymark says.