100 John West Way, Aurora, Ontario, Canada, L4G 6J1


Hillary House

Ontario Heritage Act Designations
Hillary House     -     15372 Yonge Street


Hillary House - from the southeast (2002)

Prepared for the Local Architectural Conservation Advisory Committee .. Oct. 2001

Historical Background

The historical significance of Hillary House is based on the careers of four prominent physicians who lived there and who served the community of Aurora with distinction. The house derives its name from the last family of physicians, Dr. Robert William Hillary and later his son, Dr. Robert Michael Hillary and their descendents. The Hillarys served their community from 1876 to 1993. Family members preserved their photographs and memorabilia, contributing to the preservation of Aurora's history.

Dr. Walter Bayne Geikie was the first of the four physicians to live in what was then known as The Manor. The deed for the house registers a transfer in 1861 of about four acres of land from Jane Irwin, wife of Robert P. Irwin, to Dr. Walter Bayne Geikie. Dr. Geikie then hired an architect, possibly a local man, Henry Harris, to design his new home and practice. While he was waiting to occupy his new home Dr. Geikie rented a cottage located across the street from The Manor from Charles Doan. It must have been interesting for the doctor to watch his new home taking shape. Construction was completed in 1862 and on November 26th of that year, Dr. Geikie moved into his new residence and practice.

Dr. Geikie was a prominent figure in Aurora. The Edinburgh born Scotsman (b.1830), educated in Toronto and Philadelphia, set up practice in Aurora in 1855. When not developing his large and successful practice, he lectured at the Mechanics' Institute and helped to found the town's Choral Society. He also lectured in medicine at the medical school of Victoria College. In The Doctors of 72 Yonge Street North, Michael Wills writes: "By 1869 his responsibilities in the two chairs of Medicine and Clinical Medicine made commuting so tedious that Dr. Geikie moved to Toronto. Here he became famous as a medical educator, serving as Dean of Trinity Medical College for 32 years until its amalgamation with the University of Toronto Medical School in 1903. He was also a churchman, president of the Toronto City Mission, a member of the Presbyterian Hymnal Committee and for 65 years a member of the Upper Canada Bible Society. He died in January of 1917."

Because The Manor was conveniently adapted to the home and practice of a physician, the departure of Dr. Geikie for Toronto drew another physician to The Manor. Dr. Frederick W. Strange, only 25 at the time, purchased the property and set up his practice in 1869. The Aurora Banner of September 2, 1869 states that Dr. Strange was the coroner for the County of York, a member of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, a member of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario and previous surgeon to the London Surgical Home. He proceeded to establish a successful practice as physician and surgeon in Aurora.

But ambition claimed another doctor of The Manor. Within seven years, Dr. Strange moved to Toronto, where he developed a reputation, according to Toronto, Old and New (The Mail Printing Co., 1891) as "one of the most distinguished physicians of the city - an able pathologist and a clever and successful surgeon." He also sat for North York in the federal Parliament between 1872 and 1882, and during the second Riel rebellion received the Northwest Medal and Clasp for his services to his country as a skilled surgeon on the brigade staff. He served as a member of the faculty of Toronto Medical College and was Deputy Surgeon-General of the Royal Regiment of Canadian Infantry. Dr. Strange died in 1897.

In 1876 when Dr. Strange departed for Toronto, Annie Hillary (wife of Dr. Robert William Hillary), purchased The Manor. Dr. Hillary's arrival in Aurora began a long heritage of medical care and service to the community by the Hillary family. Dr. Hillary's father, Michael Hillary (b.1793 under the name Helery, later to be changed to Hillary) was a native of County Clare, Ireland. He practiced as an Attorney at Law in Dublin. Coming from a family where education was held in high esteem, he established a tradition of ambition that would influence generations to come. Michael Hillary married Ellen Kelly, also from Dublin, in 1832. They had nine children, the oldest of whom was Robert William (b.1832).

Robert William Hillary began the study of medicine in1849 as apprentice to Sir George Owen, M.D. of Dublin. In 1856, he decided to come to Canada as medical officer on the sailing vessel, Woodstock. In 1857 the Medical Board of Ontario licensed him to practice. After practicing in the village of Laskay and later in King City, he settled in Aurora in 1859. In 1861, he married Annie Fry also from a well-known Irish family, and together they had seven children, the oldest son being Robert Michael (b.1863).

Dr. Robert William Hillary was a prominent member of Aurora society. He served on village council, and was a frequent lecturer at the Mechanics Hall, discussing a wide variety of subjects. When Trinity College Medical School opened he took a supplementary degree. His hobbies included painting and sketching. He served as surgeon in the 12th Regional York Rangers, and according to the Saga of the Hillarys, was often referred to as "the little colonel" as he was only 5' tall. His granddaughter, Nora Hillary, was later to say of him, "He kept three horses tired they used to say, " because he covered such a large area. He was a wonderful violinist and helped to form a popular local orchestra. In 1891, now almost 60 and in failing health, he brought into partnership his son Dr. Robert Michael Hillary. After a prosperous and interesting life, Dr. Robert William Hillary died in 1894, and was buried in the Aurora Cemetery. The inscription on his gravestone tells a little about how he was regarded by his community: "This man died leaving his life as an example of noble courage." The younger Dr. Hillary was left to care for his mother Annie, his Aunt Alicia, his sister Nan, brother Lindsay, and a family friend, Mrs. Hall.

Dr. Robert Michael Hillary studied medicine at Trinity College under former owner of The Manor, Dr. Walter Geikie, and as the clinical clerk of Dr. Frederick Strange, the second owner of The Manor. He stood second in his class on graduation in 1890. When his father's health began to deteriorate, he came back to Aurora to assist in his father's practice. In 1895 he married Edith Howard Mussen, daughter of the Rev. E. Horace Mussen, rector of Trinity Anglican Church, Aurora. Between 1896 and 1913 nine children were born to Edith and Robert M. Hillary. The Manor must have been a full and lively house.

When the First World War began, Dr. Hillary, Surgeon Lieutenant Colonel of the 12th York Rangers, volunteered for active service as medical officer of the 127th Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. In 1916, at the age of 53, he was sent to France. The horrors of battle and the death of his eldest son Robert Stuart at Vimy in 1917 destroyed his health. His daughter Nora was later to say, "He couldn't do it anymore…Well, he was worn out." He retired in 1920 and died in 1936.

His widow Edith continued to live in the house until her death in 1961. Their daughter, Edith Nora (known as Nora) also lived in Hillary House, sharing memories of her remarkable family with her community, until just before her death in 1993. According to the Era Banner, February 17 1989, Miss Hillary was made an honorary member of the Queen's York Rangers, based in Aurora. She was also given a certificate of appreciation, and was quoted as saying, "I think it's no honor for me. It's for Dad." She was buried in the Aurora Cemetery in 1993 along with Michael Hillary (d.1867), Ellen Hillary (d.1880). Robert William Hillary (d.1894), Annie Fry Hillary (d.1907) Robert Michael Hillary (d.1936), Alicia Fry - Annie's sister (d.1926), Jane Ann (Nannie) Hillary (d.1944), Lindsay Hall Hillary (d.1945) and Edith Howard Mussen Hillary (d.1961)

In 1981 the Aurora Historical Society purchased Hillary House from the heirs of the estate of Edith Mussen Hillary. These heirs included E. Nora Hillary, who was the only member of the family resident in the house at that time. The House is now used as a museum and a meeting place for the Society's social activities. The Historical Society continues to restore the building. Hillary House was designated as a National Historic Site under the National Historic Sites and Monuments Board in 1973. A plaque commemorating the designation was erected in a ceremony on October 18, 1975. In 1982 the house was designated under the Ontario Heritage Act for its historical and architectural significance.

Architectural Background

Hillary House remains one of the best and most complete examples of Picturesque Gothic known to exist in Ontario. Gothic Revival was an important presence in architecture from the mid to late 19th century. The Gothic style, reminiscent of cathedrals of the Middle Ages, reminded nineteenth century industrialized society of what they perceived as a more spiritual age.

The Manor was designed in 1861. A local architect and builder, Henry Harris, may have been responsible for its design. Harris came to Aurora around 1855 just after the railway brought Aurora's first wave of prosperity and growth. He may have been influenced by a popular book of his time, The Architecture of Country Houses, first published in 1850. The author, Andrew Jackson Downing (1815-1852) described and illustrated buildings that were essentially Georgian, then added Gothic elements such as pointed arches, gables and bargeboard. A design by A.J. Davis, included in the book, shares many of the same features as The Manor. W. John McIntyre in his essay, The Manor: Essay in Gothic Revival feels certain that whoever designed The Manor had seen the designs in this early architectural book and adapted them to the needs of his client, Dr. Walter Bayne Geikie.

The following description is taken from W. John McIntyre's essay, The Manor: Essay in Gothic Revival:

    "The front or main section of The Manor is essentially a two-storey brick rectangle topped by a gable roof. Its façade is dominated by a high, pointed gable at the centre and a wide verandah …which continues along the north and south sides of the house…clustered wooden columns support a bell-curved verandah roof…spring pointed wooden arches recall the stone tracery of Gothic cathedrals. … a wide front door [with] upper panels [are] embellished with Gothic Revival work… Around the door are sidelights and a transom with pointed wooden mullions. Opening off the front verandah are two pairs of glazed French doors flanked by louvered shutters. Above the front door and verandah is a small balcony reached by French doors …The roof line is broken by pierced bargeboard…The second storey windows above, like those on the north side, are of the casement variety, capped by wooden labels.

Hillary House represents a fully developed example of the Gothic Revival style. Among the original elements still present are the patterned brickwork, the intricate bargeboard tracing the line of the roof, the clustered wooden columns, pointed arches and trellises of the verandah, the front door including sidelights, transom and Gothic revival scrollwork.

Over the years, the families who lived there made changes. The billiards room and the ballroom or music room form part of a brick wing believed to have been added by Dr. Strange about 1870. The Hillarys built another wing of timber construction designed by architect David Dick, including a maid's room, a kitchen and a bathroom about 1888. The Hillarys also added two bay windows on the south side of the building shortly after they moved in. The original windows would have been plain and flush with the wall. Stairs leading from the veranda on the north side, similar to those on the south side, were removed at some point in time. A small sunroom over the front balcony was added and later removed by the Hillarys. In the process the original Gothic Revival balcony railing was destroyed. A small conservatory on the southwest corner of the veranda was added, then removed. When the house and veranda roofs were repaired, the original patterns of gutters and eavestroughs were changed.

The National Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, following the design from early photographs, reconstructed the wooden fence in 1975. The fence is owned and maintained by Parks Canada.

The Aurora Historical Society continues to maintain and restore the building. This includes all decorative elements that reflect the Gothic Revival style. The balcony was gradually restored to its original appearance. The balcony railing was reproduced, following the design of early photographs. From 1980 to 1987 the Society restored the chimneys, replaced the cedar shingles on the roof, repaired the south foundation, wall, main floor and roof, reinforced and repaired the verandah floors and exterior steps, and reinforced the barn structure. In 1989, with the financial assistance of an Ontario provincial property grant, conservation and restorative work was completed on the board-and-batten verandah roof and two skylights (reproduced from the originals) on the north side of the house. The flashing and eavestroughs were also renewed.

Future projects include reconstruction of the barn to house curatorial, display and visitor services. Preserving the exterior brick and frame walls will include painting the original simulated Flemish bond pattern on the south wall as well as the original simulated brick that covers the wood siding on the frame wing.

Contextual Background

The Hillary House is of contextual significance in being the residence and place of practice of four prominent Aurora physicians, each of whom made a significant professional and social contribution to his community. The Aurora Historical Society continues to restore the building, ensuring its continued existence in a neighborhood that is slowly changing from its original roots. Situated on the west side of Yonge Street, north of the early business district, the residence evokes the prosperity of late nineteenth century Aurora.

Site Location



Property: Hillary House
15372 Yonge Street
Legal Description: Plan 246, PtLt 12
Owners: Aurora Historical Society
Assessment Roll No: 1946 000 010 06200 0000
Date of Construction: 1862
Style of Architecture: Picturesque Gothic Revival
Type of Structure: Residential
Number of Storeys: 2
Exterior Wall Material: Brick
Special Features: One of the best examples of
Picturesque Gothic Revival in Ontario,
with ornamental bargeboard and the
repeated use of the pointed Gothic Arch
in the verandah, gable window and
first floor window traceries



15372 Yonge Street - Hillary House - South-west Corner (2002)


15372 Yonge Street - Hillary House - North Elevation (2002)


15372 Yonge Street - Hillary House - South Elevation (2002)


15372 Yonge Street - Hillary House - West Elevation (2002)

Sources of Information

(1) Byers, Mary, Jan Kennedy, Margaret McBurney, The Junior League of Toronto. Rural Roots: Pre-Confederation Buildings of the York Region of Ontario. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1976.

(2) McIntyre, W. John. The Manor: Essay in Gothic Revival. Aurora and District Historical Society, 1975.

(3) Wills, Michael. The Doctors of 72 Yonge Street North. Aurora and District Historical Society, 1975.

(4) Family History Files (Hillary), Aurora Historical Society / Hillary House National Historic Site

(5) LACAC Files, Town of Aurora and Aurora Historical Society / Hillary House National Historic Site

(6) Saga of the Hillarys, Family History File (Hillary) Aurora Historical Society / Hillary House National Historic Site

(7) Transcriptions of Gravestone Inscriptions - Aurora Cemetery, The Ontario Genealogical Society, Aurora Historical Society / Hillary House National Historic Site- Hillary

(8) Index to Marriages and Deaths: an Index to Marriage and Death Notices in the Aurora Banner, 1864-1969, The Aurora Museum, 1994. - Hillary

(9) "WW! Surgeon's daughter named honorary Queen's York Ranger," Era Banner, February 17, 1989, P. 2

(10) Current Assessment Roll

(11) Biography Section, North York - Now and Then Section. directed by J. M. Walton, Aurora Banner, March 17, 1939 "Dr. Hillary's Life Recalled" (Robt M. Hillary)

(12) Aurora Banner article, September 2, 1869

(13) Toronto, Old and New, The Mail Printing Co., 1891

(14)The Restoration of Hillary House and Its Development as a Museum: a report for the Aurora and District Historical Society, The Ontario Heritage Foundation and Parks Canada, February 1982.

(15) Research Notes on Aurora 1790's - 1852, Aurora Historical Society / Hillary House National Historic Site

(16) Centennial Homes, an essay, Aurora and District Historical Society, 1967

(17) Hillary House and the Koffler Museum of Medicine: Planning for the Future, Aurora and District Historical Society, 1995

(T-DC, P-DC)

Updated 20/09/04 - BBD

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