By Ed Staskus
It isn’t hard finding many first-rate inns, hotels, and bed-and-breakfasts in Niagara-on-the-Lake. But, finding one in the heart of Old Town less than a five minute walk from all the Shaw Festival’s theaters, as well as the shopping and restaurant district, is a little harder.
Finding one whose roots are as deep in the town as the Blairpen House on Davy Street, whose innkeeper bakes the bread and makes the yogurt, mixing in seasonal blueberries, for the European-style breakfasts is even harder.
“My father, who was going to become one of the town’s two doctors, bought this building in 1946,” said Tim Rigg of Blairpen House, a cozy and charming six-room inn a block-and-a-half from the Festival Theater.
“He and his brother renovated it and it became their office. The dining room today was their waiting room then. They practiced medicine together.”
Blairpen House, which turns twenty this year, was originally built as Niagara-on-the-Lake’s high school gymnasium in 1909. The high school, built in 1875, stood at the corner of Castlereagh and Davy Streets.
“They closed the high school during World War Two,” said Tim Rigg. “All the men were away and after the war there were very few children in town.”
Tim Rigg’s grandfather was the town doctor until 1939, and his father, Bruce Rigg, practiced medicine in Niagara-on-the-Lake until 1990, when he retired.
Bruce Rigg was a painter as well as doctor. In 2009 the Niagara Historical Society Museum hosted a retrospective of local art in the period 1929 – 1973 titled ‘The Forgotten Years’. Along with works by John Shawe and Mary Jones were exhibited several paintings by Dr. Bruce Rigg.
Two of his paintings depicting the town in the late 1940s hang on the back wall of Blairpen House’s dining room, including one of fishermen hanging their nets to dry. They are windows into a place that doesn’t exist anymore.
After his father’s death Tim Rigg, who had grown up in Niagara-on-the Lake, but was working in real estate in nearby St. Catherine’s, returned and took over the building.
“It was close to the theaters so it made sense to try to convert the building into an inn,“ he said.
The conversion from small town medical center to country inn included adding a second floor, a gable roof, and a suite to the back of the building.
“We updated the mechanical, electrical, hydro, and put in fire-rated drywall,” he said. “The footprint is the same, it’s just that everything is new, brought up to modern building standards.”
The ensuite queen rooms on the ground floor look out onto a brick patio, while the three rooms on the second floor have balconies. There is a guest lounge, a library, wi-fi and computers, as well as private parking. Sofas and chairs front a gas fireplace in the guest lounge, looking through sliding glass doors out onto the deep, backyard garden.
“It’s immaculately clean and yet welcoming,” said Julia Richardson of Toronto. “It’s quiet and literally a short walk to downtown.”
The patio and garden, with its masses of pots, plants, and thick bamboo, look like they might have come from southern France, not the Niagara Escarpment.
Along with the Shaw Festival the region’s more than eighty wineries dotting the landscape attract taste testers as well as cognoscente.
A couple from Scotland commented on their comfortable room, and especially appreciated how their used, by which they meant recently emptied, wine glasses were replaced daily. The guest lounge includes a wine cooler for convenience and an ample supply of stemmed glasses.
Growing up in Niagara-on-the-Lake Tim Rigg attended both grade and high schools in town, and lived two blocks from the Royal George Theater, originally built as a vaudeville house to entertain troops during World War One.
“It was much different then, much quieter,” he said. “There’s always been tourism, but before the Shaw Festival people often came for a few weeks and sometimes an entire month.”
Trains brought summer people up King Street and returned to Toronto and Buffalo loaded with fruit. Large trees lined Queen Street. Their canopies overlapped across the middle of the road.
But, the sleepy summer town began to change in the 1960s with the launch of what was then called ‘Salute to Shaw’. Since the 1970s the town’s many landmarks have been restored and in 2003 the Old Town was designated a National Historic District.
The Shaw Festival is what draws many theatergoers to Niagara-on-the-Lake and the Blairpen House.
“We have people who come here for seven or eight days,” said Tim Rigg. “They like it here because they don’t have to drive anywhere. They try to see everything and then they go to Stratford for Shakespeare.”
In the winter book clubs come for a weekend of getting together, talking, and drinking wine.
“It’s an easy walk to the shops and restaurants,” said a book lover from Toronto.
Occasionally some reading gets done, too.
Although the inn’s great location in the Old Town is a plus, it is old-fashioned service that keeps Blairpen House humming summer and winter.
“The real value of staying with Tim and Sharon [Tim’s partner] is the service,” said Mike Scullen of Alpine, New York. “Like a Continental hotel they provide nothing short of true concierge service.”
From dining establishments to wineries to local outings the innkeepers are a wealth of information. Between them there is little they don’t know about Niagara-on-the-Lake. They even make sure there is hot milk at breakfast for anyone who might need it.
”The inn is fun. I’m up at five in the morning every day,” said Tim Rigg. “We get people from all over the world, Australia, Great Britain, all over. You meet a lot of interesting people.”
Those people include composers of movie music, former premiers of Ontario, and a scientist from the Livermore National Lab in California.
“He would sit on the patio writing poetry. His wife and he would drive up from Cornell and I always wondered how on earth they got here in a car, since they were both such very small people. I resolved to stay off the roads until they left town.”
The inn is closed for several weeks at the tail end of winter while Tim and Sharon recharge in Spain. But, even then, with their laptops and Skype at hand, they are never really closed.
“It works remarkably well.”
When asked what lay in store the next twenty years at Blairpen House, Tim Rigg had an easy answer.
“I don’t think I’ll ever stop doing this. Our guests are on holiday. Everybody’s happy and it doesn’t seem like hard work.”
“They’ll probably have to carry me out,” he concluded, laughing wryly.
Ed Staskus edits Theatre PEI. He posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com.