Surrounded by its picket fence, it sits as a time capsule, overlooking Butler’s Barracks and the Commons. The Junior Commissariat Officer’s Quarters has played a role in over 200 years of military and community history.
One of the first buildings constructed as part of the Butler’s Barracks complex just after the War of 1812, the historic residence is currently undergoing a substantial renovation.
Chris Zoetewey, Parks Canada technical officer (project officer) for the National Historic Sites in Southwestern Ontario, says just under 50 per cent of the building is still in its original state.
“There was a fairly substantial renovation done on it,” he says, “which replaced the roof systems, and that was done during the 1980s when Parks Canada was given the property by the town of Niagara-
Budgeted at about $800,000, the current work is part of a series of federal infrastructure investment projects initiated in 2015 at Butler’s Barracks National Historic Site. Zoetewey says that the program has invested a total of over $13 million in Niagara historical sites since that time.
Preserving the historic materials is an important priority for the current project. As much historic fabric as possible will be retained or reinforced throughout the work being done on the chimneys, kitchen walls, floors and foundation, the roofing system, and the siding, windows and shutters. As well, Parks Canada will be replacing the porch, making improvements to the drainage around the building’s exterior, and upgrading utilities.
The Parks Canada website lauds the Junior Commissariat Officer’s Quarters for its aesthetic design, a great example of an early 19th-century Georgian-styled frame cottage. Its balanced, well-proportioned composition with little ornamentation represents a functional, efficient response to the prevailing conditions where local materials were readily used. This can be seen, for example in the extension that joins the originally detached kitchen to the main structure.
Zoetewey, who grew up in Niagara-on-the-Lake, explains that the building was used for administration.
“A commissariat officer was in charge of doing all the purchasing,” says Zoetewey, “sort of a logistics person for the army. He would be buying all the foods, the bedding and everything else. It was his own personal space and office at the same time.”
Acting as receiver and signing for deliveries would have been part of the commissariat officer’s responsibilities. From his central location he would have had a great view of all the other activity on the base.
“When you look at the map of what is now what you see as Butler’s Barracks,” he explains, “there were a number of buildings around there. You see the Junior Commissariat Officer’s Quarters but you also see another building beside it, in the area where the Legion is now. That was the Commissariat Sergeant’s Quarters. Between the two of them, they had their own staff, and they took care of getting everything that the military needed.”
The historic building witnessed the training of thousands of troops throughout the 1800s to the First and Second World Wars. That’s when the open landscape known as the Commons was converted into a “tent city” as part of Camp Niagara. The building became the Officer’s Club and photos show the officers enjoying the grounds of this serene setting. There is even a drink recipe scrawled on the chimney wall next to the former location of their bar.
The historic building also played a huge role in the connection between the military and the local community. From 1882 through the First World War, when Camp Niagara wasn’t being used by the military, the building served as the clubhouse for the Niagara Golf Club, originally located on the site. And some locals have fond memories of dances and other social events there during its time as a community centre for local teens in the 1950s and 1960s. When Parks Canada took over the Junior Commissariat Officer’s Quarters in 1983, it was restored to its 1853 appearance.
This current project presents the unique challenge of rehabilitating the structure, while respecting the heritage character of the iconic building.
In 2010, Parks Canada conducted a structural assessment of the Junior Commissariat Officer’s Quarters to seek options as to how the interior could be finished based on potential uses of the structure and grounds.
Plans to restore the building were slated to begin in 2019. After careful review, it was determined that the original refurbishment plan would result in the loss of too much historic fabric. Parks Canada went back to work with the consultant and, together, developed a revised plan that would ensure the structural integrity of the Junior Commissariat Officer’s Quarters, while preserving as much historic material as possible.
When it was determined that the original wall timbers should be preserved, the solution was to install new “sister” beams to provide additional support ,and ensure the proper stability over the long term.
As well, some contamination was discovered in some of the materials used in previous work on the structure. For structures from this era, it was common to use materials such as asbestos and lead paint, which had to be removed before the current refurbishment work could continue.
Zoetewey promises the restoration work will be sympathetic to the original building materials and techniques. The roof, for instance, will be re-created using traditional methods, with cedar shakes on a batten support system.
Work on the project is expected to last until some time in October.
“There are some pressures on this project,” Zoetewey explains. “We have COVID to look at, we have to abide by those regulations. We’re limited on staff. We’re meeting those challenges. Work is progressing at a pretty steady rate.”
Once everything is complete, the Junior Commissariat Officer’s Quarters will have further potential in connecting visitors and locals to the important role this national historic site played in Canadian history.
“Parks Canada will work with stakeholders and possibly the town and other individuals,” Zoetewey tells The Local, “to sort of look at the building again and see what the future can hold for it, for the town and Parks Canada. It will be similar in interpretation to Fort Mississauga. It might be open for special occasions, when resources and staffing allow.”