A beautiful historic house on York Road has been deemed the town’s sexiest heritage home by those who voted in a contest organized by the Niagara-on-the-Lake Museum.
Rachael and Martin Werner, the current owners of the property, laughed about the designation, saying they had no idea there was to be such a contest or that their home would be included. Rachael says her mother told her about it after seeing it on Facebook. “We didn’t know anything about it until then.”
They watched it work its way through the contest as the photos came up on social media, and their home remained as others were knocked out. “It’s kind of cool” to live in the sexiest house in Niagara, says Rachael. “It makes us smile.”
Martin adds, “it’s not something you would expect from the NOTL Museum, to do a contest on the sexiest house, but it’s been fun.”
And that’s exactly why they decided to do it, says Shawna Butts, assistant curator and educational programmer at the museum.
“I’d seen something similar on social media, early in the pandemic. It was done somewhere in Britain, and I thought it was hilarious. I told the other staff about it and we chuckled about it, and then we decided we would have some fun. And people did have fun with it,” says Butts. “History and museums can be pigeonholed as stuffy. But we have a young staff, and during the pandemic, we’ve been trying to do some interesting and fun programs online.”
She says they were asked occasionally what would make a building sexy, but the answer, she decided, would be different depending on who you ask.
“There is no definition. We were thinking of the exterior of the house and what it looked like, but we found many people had different associations. They would tell us they’d been in a house, or they may have known people who lived there. They might have had roots there, personal stories to share. For some, it was more about their personal attachment with the building.”
The museum staff originally came up with 60 of their favourite buildings, and narrowed it down to 32. One of their goals was to represent all NOTL communities, to involve more people. “We didn’t want to focus only on the Old Town,” says Butts. “Narrowing it down wasn’t easy.”
Once they had their 32 homes, they used social media sites, including their own Facebook page, to promote the contest and engage the public.
It began with a series of round robins, two buildings going head to head for votes, with one moving on to the next round, ending in quarterfinals, semis and then the final vote, when the Prest House won out over the stately Grand Victorian Inn on the Niagara River Parkway.
The winning home, on the escarpment side of York Road approaching Queenston, was built around 1818, on 20 acres of land which can be traced to the Secord family. The property was sold to William Davis, the son of a United Empire Loyalist, who built the two-storey stone house. It passed through the hands of several owners before the Prest family moved into it in 1862, and retained ownership until 1964.
It’s been renovated over the years, but never as thoroughly restored as under the hands of Willowbank instructor Bob Watson, who sold it to the Werners in early 2017.
He was passionate about staying true to the historic elements of the building, and did an amazing job, says Rachael.
When they bought it, there was some work to be done to modernize it for them and their young family, updating the kitchen and bathrooms to make them more functional, while still respecting the heritage elements of the home.
Watson had worked meticulously to bring it to “the full level of a restoration of a historic home,” says Martin. “He really went all out to keep it to its origins,” but it needed some practical updates. “The key word is functionality.”
“We did a massive renovation in the kitchen,” Rachael says, which had been added to the main house in 1849. It has a beautiful, big open cooking fireplace, with a baking oven beside it, but they added a glass wall with patio doors to open it up to the outside.
But even with some modernization, she says, “everything is still very farmhouse.” The living room has the original fireplace and mantel, the floor is still large pine planks. “We’ve also updated the master bath, but we’re still retaining the historic charm of the house,” with some aspects still looking and feeling like the 1850s, but working for their family. The house has four bedrooms, four bathrooms, a “gorgeous” restored stone basement, heated flooring, and six fireplaces, she says.
“We’ve also added some beautiful outdoor lighting.”
While what they could do outside with the landscaping depended on the Niagara Escarpment Commission, especially in the back of the house, they applied for and were granted permission to plant vineyards to wrap around both sides of the building.
Rachael points out that both she and Martin come from families of grape growers, as were they before they bought the Prest House. The permit to plant their vineyard on York Road allows them to expand their farm, she says.
“It’s very comforting, and natural in that sense,” she says.
With the soil and climate of the area, it’s a perfect place for “sparkling” varietals, she says, which, Martin adds, are harvested early, before the birds and other predators of the escarpment behind them can destroy their crop.
They had their first harvest of pinot noir, chardonnay, aligoté and gamay in 2020, three years after the vineyards were planted.
“I have always been in love with this property, always thought I’d love to live here,” says Rachael.
With their love of the land and their young family, “we’ve brought fresh life to the property, and a fresh perspective.”
And, in this town of beautiful heritage homes, they can say theirs is the sexiest.