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Crossing the Lines: Canadian Club Building Brings Italian Renaissance to Windsor’s Riverfront

For years, Detroiters traveling near the riverfront had a visual landmark in Windsor.  It was the Canadian Club sign that marked a distillery in the neighborhood known as Walkerville.

At the heart of the distillery was the headquarters of Hiram Walker International, known as the Canadian Club. 

The sign was pulled down in 2004 and the company was purchased by an international conglomerate.  But the Canadian Club building, finished in 1892, is still there in all of its splendor.

WDET’s Jerome Vaughn dropped in recently to find out more.  He spoke with Karen Smallwood, the Supervisor of Tour Programs at the Canadian Club.

KS:  The Canadian Club, this building that we’re sitting in today is the executive office building that was built in 1892, built by the esteemed Detroit-based firm of Mason and Rice, headed by Albert Kahn at that time.  And our founder, Hiram Walker, a well-known citizen of Detroit, built his whiskey distillery here on the Canadian side.  We weren’t even Canada at that time.  We were a British colony.

So, he built it here for a number of reasons: very cheap land, great farmland and to avoid the rumblings of the temperance movement and all sorts of changing legislation in Detroit and Michigan about alcohol production. 

Jerome Vaughn

Hiram Walker

So, by making his whiskey in what was technically a British colony, he had lots of benefits: trade routes, taxes and duties would be different, and he avoided any moralistic ideas about alcohol production that was happening in the U.S. because of the temperance movement. 

He never lived here.  He lived in the U.S. in Detroit.  Commuted every day until he died in 1899. 

JV: And so tell me a little bit about this building he built.  This was the headquarters?

KS:  This was his executive building.  He had traveled extensively in Italy in the last few decades of his life and he just loved Italian Renaissance architecture.  In the late 1800’s, there was a huge revival in 16th Century architecture – the Spanish, French, English, Italian variety.  And there was one building in Florence – the Palazzo Pandolfini – and it’s still there.  It’s a historic site now, still owned by the Pandolfini family in some ways.

And he thought, “That’s a perfect shape of what I want.  I want it low on the horizon against the Detroit River.  When I sail my yacht to work or take my horse across the frozen river, that’s the silhouette I want to see.  

Jerome Vaughn

So, Mason and Rice came on board and we created the Pandolfini Palace here with the best materials that could be found.  The exterior stone came from Potsdam, New York.  The wood came from all around the world.  The marble came from everywhere from Mexico to Egypt.  So, he recreated a Renaissance-style building here on the Detroit River in 1892.

JV: Given the splendor of the building, I take it that Hiram Walker was not a shy, retiring, modest kind of guy. 

KS: Not particularly.  He was a man of great taste.  He wasn’t born into a family of means.  They were New Englanders – a farming family – and he was definitely the sort of young man that was going to make his way in the world.  And he headed west like young men did at that time and ended up in Detroit, which in the early around 1830’s, and started as an entrepreneur – little grocery store, kind of where Hart Plaza is today, a few newspapers.  

He remained a passionate farmer and got involved in the breeding of cows and pigs.  And whiskey was just something  he developed to sell in his grocery stores.  And people liked his whiskey.  It was a quality whiskey right from the very beginning.  And slowly, although he loved farming, and running his grocery store and his many, many enterprises, whiskey is something that he wanted to do. 

He acquired a great deal of wealth.  Because of that he was able to acquire beautiful art.  We have a wonderful art collection here.  The house his son built in Walkerville – Willistead Manor – is another beautiful Mason and Rice house.  So they liked nice things.  They traveled the world to collect nice things.

JV: So, once the business here was up and running, how has it changed over the decades?

KS: In terms of Canadian Club whiskey, the recipe is pretty much exactly the same.  We’re still proud of using local grains.  The water still is Detroit River water.  So, we’re very, very proud of that.

This executive office building wasn’t open to the public until 2004.  So, the executive staff used this building exclusively.  And when we acquired new owners in 2004, they decided to say “Hey, let’s let everyone see this architectural gem in the middle of Walkerville.”  And that’s when we opened our doors to the public in 2004.

JV: Who is it that comes through here on a regular basis?

Jerome Vaughn

KS: People passionate about, number one, whiskey, history, architecture.  We see thousands of visitors a year – most from the U.S., actually, a lot from Canada and international travelers.

We have a huge fan base in Japan and Australia and they do their annual pilgrimage here to see the building, taste the product but, most of our visitors do cross the border and come from the U.S.

JV: I was out back earlier, looking at the gardens.  Describe the gardens for folks who are listening.

KS: Well, the building – the front façade is actually facing the water.  Where we come in the building today on the street side, Riverside, which runs parallel to Jefferson Avenue, was more or less the employee service entrance in those days.  So, the front of the building is the façade.  The really elegant façade faces the water and that’s where everyone would come into work.  They’d dock their boats outside and come in that beautiful garden

Jerome Vaughn

View of the Detroit River from the gardens

And it’s designed as a formal Italian Renaissance garden.  That’s the style of the garden.  We host events there year-round and in the winter people will come here and take their wedding pictures.  We have at least two or three weddings here every weekend.  It’s a prime spot for that.  And it’s really unique to see that formal Renaissance garden right here on the Detroit River.  And so we’re very proud of that. 

***

The Canadian Club provides tours for a fee, along with whiskey sampling.  

For more information: http://visitwindsoressex.com/canadian-club-brand-centre-2/

Image credit: Jerome Vaughn

This post is a part of Crossing the Lines.

Crossing the Lines is an exploration of what unites us and divides us as people and as a region.

View archived stories >>

About the Author

Jerome Vaughn

News Director & WDET Host, All Things Considered

Jerome Vaughn joined WDET in 1992 to help chronicle Detroit’s comeback and let people around the world know the truth about his hometown.

jvaughn@wdet.org   Follow @jvdet

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